Saying farewell to Bishop Geoff Robinson as we did when he died on December 29, 2020, is saying goodbye to one of the few Australian Catholic bishops with his integrity and reputation for honesty and championing the defence of the weak and the abused still intact.
He was outstandingly intelligent and compassionate. He lent his considerable knowledge of Church law to ease the burden of those who suffered the effects of failed marriages. He focused on what is essential in Christianity by his very accessible, popular commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels. His commentaries were well appreciated by preachers and believers of all denominational allegiance
While our paths overlapped from time to time, it is what he will be best remembered for most – caring for and promoting the rights of children abused by Catholic officials, including priests – that brought about a very significant intersection of our paths in 1997.
I vividly recall the day I was in Melbourne in 1997 and I got a phone call from Sydney on my recently acquired mobile phone from Geoff. He was then the assistant Catholic bishop of Sydney and champion of justice for victims of clerical sexual abuse.
He was ringing me to get advice on how to settle a score with a journalist and have a record corrected. He was furious with a young reporter from Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian over a report Geoff had presented the previous day on his work with victims of abuse.
It was the first of what became annual reports on what Church authorities were doing to improve management procedures, supervise the processing of complaints and remove pedophiles from its workforce.
But Geoff was responsible for the care of victims and seeing they got some justice from Church authorities, not supervising miscreant clerics, disciplining them or seeing to their removal from the workforce.
His was a report on what he and his team were doing to assist victims. He had nothing to do with abusers. But the reporter persisted, believing Geoff was being deliberately evasive on the number of Catholic clerics guilty of child sex abuse.
Geoff told the reporter that his work was serving victims in different ways and not with those abusing people. That he said was a matter for the police and the reporter would be best advised to press her questions there.
But that didn’t deter the reporter and despite Geoff’s telling her repeatedly that he didn’t know how many clerics had been charged, he appeared on the front page of the paper the next day saying it could be between 50 and 100.
As anyone who’s ever had anything to do with newspapers in particular and news media in general knows, these things happen. Geoff was in high dudgeon and wanted to take the paper and the reporter to the Press Council to get a retraction and a correction.
I told Geoff that move was a waste of time, that the Press Council was a toothless tiger and that there was a better way forward. That better way was to approach the editor in chief of the paper, put the case and then leave it to him and his colleagues to sort out.
It was a high-risk strategy because the editor was well within his rights to just ignore our complaint. But I had known the editor for over a decade then and I believed him to be a good, ethical and intelligent man who would respond well to a reasoned argument.
We made an appointment to meet the editor, David Armstrong. He, of course, told me he stood by his reporter, had examined her notes but would listen to our complaints.
Geoff and I met the day before our appointment to see how we would handle the meeting. I told Geoff that I didn’t think the reporter would be there, that the editor would have some of his colleagues there and that we should be ready for vigorous cross-examination.
Then came the atomic bomb! I asked Geoff if he wanted to lead ”our side” in the presentation or would he prefer me to do that. He replied:
“I should warn you that if I’m met with any level of denial of just how bad the situation of abuse in the church is, I won’t be responsible for my behaviour. This happened at the bishops’ conference when Ted Clancy (then archbishop of Sydney and President of the bishops’ conference) made light of what I was saying and I just exploded.
“I haven’t spoken to Ted since then.”
Geoff had a reputation for losing his block at times. I never understood why he did that and why the issue just pressed his buttons. Now that he’s passed away, the verbatim story can be told:
“When I was a student in Rome in the early 1960s, I got sick and was hospitalized. I was regularly visited by the spiritual director of students at the seminary (Propaganda Fide College) and when he’d come, he’d move his hand under the sheet, up my thigh and start to masturbate me.
“I just froze. And I didn’t start to address the experience till many years later with the help of a therapist.”
Geoff carried this baggage all through his decades’ long tenure as leader of the bishops’ committees – constantly reconfigured and refocused – with responsibility for the care of the abused and making the church accountable.
As the years passed, I came to appreciate more about Geoff that made him an outsider in the Church. But he only discovered that long after he had been appropriated by the clerical system, rewarded and promoted by it, made a bishop very young and on track to be archbishop of Sydney.
Geoff died at the age of 83 on December 29, 2020. I’ve met a lot of bishops in my life. I’m absolutely certain that Geoff is one of the holiest among them I have ever met.
Chris Geraghty. Michael, we are indebted to you for recording your memories of Geoff as a dedicated supporter of the victims of clerical abuse, as a firebrand in their cause and as a painful burr under the episcopal saddles of the nation. I want to thank you and register my admiration for a man who fought so long and hard (usque ad mortem) in a battle in which he was surrounded by wimps and white feather men. He was truly a gift from on high in our time of need. He was loved, admired and reverenced – and he’ll be missed by you and me, by the little people in the pews of the nation, but especially by the many wounded victims of crime. I am hoping he still has something to say to his brother bishops and to the world of clerics. Perhaps there is a manuscript somewhere among his worldly possessions, another little book waiting to be published far and wide, with a message from beyond the grave. One can hope.
I too have a memory of Geoff – aged fourteen in third year of the junior seminary at Springwood. A good tennis player – a gifted student – an angelic male soprano voice – soutane and surplice – learning obedience and custody of the eyes, though in those distant days of 1951 it was inconceivable that the virtue of obedience would lead any of us away from Pius XII’s perfect institution. He left Springwood aged I think about eighteen, to study in Rome, to complete his training for the priesthood where he was exposed to the pastoral care of another weak and needy spiritual director. They seem to have been everywhere. From my experience here in Australia (and given one or two notable exceptions), seminary spiritual directors as a professional class have much to answer for. It has proved to be a very dangerous job. So Geoff had more than one reason for the outbursts of anger from a most gentle, thoughtful man. Good on you, Michael. Let’s hope someone of class is commissioned to speak of our friend at his funeral.