PAT POWER. The Royal Commission and the need for reform.

Despite all the warnings, I don’t know of anyone who has not been shocked by what has emerged from the Royal Commission. For twenty years or more, we have heard accounts of abuse, sometimes very close to home. But somehow the magnitude of it all has been almost beyond comprehension.   

Often when I meet Catholics who are no longer practising their faith, they say to me without bitterness “I have not left the Catholic Church, the Church has left me.” While I have always felt I understood what those friends were saying, it is even more obvious to me now.

As I say sorry to you good parishioners, I also feel very much for my dedicated and faithful brother priests and religious who every day seek to witness to the Good News, bringing the love of God and showing the face of Jesus to their people. A good friend of mine last Friday said to me “I am just waiting to hear in all the discourse someone come out and say ‘Don’t forget all the decent priests and religious who seem to be forgotten in what is going on at the moment.’ I know that you parishioners will be kind, just and appreciative in relation to these servants of God and of you.

But in the face of all of this, let us not forget those most affected by this terrible scourge in the life of the Church, namely the victims/survivors of abuse and their families, along with others closely associated with them. Their lives have been irrevocably damaged by what happened to them as innocent children or young people. So often because of a culture of secrecy or shame they have carried guilt for what have been the gravely sinful and criminal actions of those they should have been able to trust. It is not surprising that a number of those lives have ended in suicide.

In my twenty six years as auxiliary bishop and in the nearly five years since my retirement, I have listened to many heart-wrenching stories of abuse. I never cease to be moved by these personal conversations, trying always to listen from the heart, but knowing that actions speak louder than words. Most of all, I try to a “companion on the journey”, helping the person concerned to find peace and to achieve whatever outcomes they are seeking. I hope through my own integrity and willingness to listen, they will have a very different experience of Church to what they previously negatively encountered. I should add as well, that invariably I have been in great admiration of the courage, goodness and holiness of the people who have shared their often tragic stories with me.

It has taken the adverse publicity of the Royal Commission to make many in the Church leadership to look to those reforms which have been crying out for implementation for many years. Radical changes are needed at all levels.

Seven years ago I wrote the following for The Canberra Times on 18 April 2010

MUCH NEEDED REFORM

The current crisis facing the Catholic Church arising out of sexual abuse is arguably the most serious challenge the Church has faced since the Reformation in the 16th century. The response must in the first instance be clearly focussed on the victims of such abuse, their families and other secondary victims. The untold damage done to innocent people and its life-long consequences in many cases need to be clearly and honestly acknowledged. I am pleased where every effort is being made to see that justice is done for those affected and where all possible measures are being taken to bring about healing and reparation.

In responding to sexual and other forms of abuse within the Church it is not enough to concentrate on the sinfulness and failure of those guilty of abuse. It is not just a question of individual repentance but a total systemic reform of Church structures which is needed. An ecclesiastical environment which allowed such aberrant behaviour can no longer be tolerated. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in his 2007 book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church “came to the unshakeable belief that within the Catholic Church there absolutely must be profound and enduring change”. Hardly a day goes by without me hearing a cry from the heart for such change from people who truly love the Church, young and old, male and female, lay people, priests and religious. During this Year for Priests, many of my colleagues around Australia are crying out for credible leadership from the hierarchy which involves more than mere words. I.

Yet, people often feel that no one is listening to their concerns. Groups calling for reform are regularly dismissed as trouble-makers with little love for the Church when in fact their hearts are breaking for the Church which they see as drifting further away from the message of the Jesus. Maybe it has taken this present crisis to bring us all to our senses.

In 1996, I gave a talk in which I expressed my hopes for the Catholic Church. They were that it would be

  • a more human Church
  • a humbler Church
  • a less clerical Church
  • a more inclusive Church (and therefore more truly catholic)
  • a more open Church
  • a Church which finds unity in diversity
  • a Church which discovers its whole tradition
  • a Church which truly reflects the person and values of Jesus.

I have restated these hopes many times since, including at the Oceania Synod of Bishops in Rome in 1998 in the presence of Pope John Paul II, the future Pope Benedict XVI and my brother bishops. Surely such aspirations are even more pressing today.

The reform needed by the Church today will involve much more than just “tinkering around the edges”. Issues such as the authoritarian nature of the Church, compulsory celibacy for the clergy, the participation of women in the Church, the teaching on sexuality in all aspects cannot be brushed aside. Listening must be a key component of reform and at times that will involve listening to unpalatable truths. It needs to be recognised that all wisdom does not reside exclusively in the present all male leadership of the Church and that the voices of the faithful must be heard.

There may be people who question the views I am espousing, but I wish to re-state that there is a whole body of faithful Catholics who are saying “enough is enough” and that we all need to grasp this opportunity to enable the Church to be its best self in bringing the message of Jesus to its own adherents and to the wider society.

These are extracts from a homily by (Bishop) Pat Power last weekend. He was formerly Bishop Auxiliary in the Diocese of Canberra Goulburn.

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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