PATTY FAWKNER. Calls for change within the Church will be its salvation.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Post have something important to say about ‘the what’ and ‘the how’ of the Church’s mission. 

Two recent award-winning films had something to say to me about the Australian Catholic Church in the wake of the Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The first was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a dramatic black comedy about Mildred Hayes, a woman who rents three billboards to draw attention to her daughter’s unsolved rape and murder.  Mildred receives a pastoral visit from her parish priest who is sympathetic to Mildred’s loss but critical of her justice-seeking methods. He reminds her that she’d have more community sympathy for her cause if she hadn’t stopped attending church.  Mildred turns on the priest and in a tirade accuses him of complicity in sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The scene is powerful and gripping. However, it was the response of the packed theatre that I found most sobering.

Some in the audience didn’t hold back with their comments, murmurings and sneers. The disdain for the Catholic Church was palpable. A friend who saw the movie elsewhere said that he experienced a similar audience response.

The second movie was The Post, a political thriller depicting the true story of The Washington Post’s attempt to publish secret classified documents, the Pentagon Papers, regarding US involvement in the Vietnam War. These documents revealed unreported facts about the escalation of troops and serious setbacks to the US offensive.  The key motivation for concealing this information by four consecutive administrations was that the United States could not be seen to have failed. In the face of this hubris and misinformation, more troops were marshalled and more young American lives were lost. The film follows the Government’s litigation and heavy-handed attempts to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers. In a concluding dramatic scene, the ruling from the Supreme Court is handed down: The Washington Post is vindicated because “the press was to serve the governed, not the governors”.

Both films have something important to say about ‘the what’ and ‘the how’ of the Church’s mission. The Church’s mission is to serve the people of God, not any clerical “commander-in-chief”. It is a church of the baptised not the ordained. It is a church whose focus of care should be those most in need in society. And a church whose priests should be, in Pope Francis’ memorable image, “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep”.

Just as the US continued to send young soldiers to the Vietnam War in a vain attempt to bolster its international dominance, the Church’s concern for the reputation of the institution trumped the care and safety of innocent children.

Irish theologian Dr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, in his evidence to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, stated that “It was as if the Church, wishing to be seen as that beacon of holiness… could not quite face up to the grievous failure” (p. 632). It was as though those in positions of power – all of whom were ordained clerics – could not see the abused children; nor could they, or would they, listen to them. They failed to understand the depth of the pain and the extent of the tragedy of child sexual abuse.

How different from Jesus’ response: “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14). Let the little children be seen; let them be heard and let them be believed. Above all, let them be healed and let them be safe.

The Royal Commission Report notes that there were multiple individual and systemic failures that contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but, quoting from a leading expert, Rev Dr Thomas Doyle OP, “If one had to isolate one single factor that has contributed to the toxic response of Catholic Church leaders to victims of sexual abuse it would be clericalism” (p. 613). The Report defines clericalism as “the idealisation of the Catholic priesthood and, by extension, the idealisation of the Institutional Catholic Church” (p. 613).

Many commentators have said that it just can’t be “business as usual” within the Australian Catholic Church, which is now so distrusted and diminished. Popular culture, as evidenced in the films Three Billboards and The Post, is offering a necessary and timely critique.

It occurred to me that the audience’s response to Three Billboards is positive. It rejects an arrogant, hypocritical, entitled institution. I hear a hidden call for a more humble and transparent institution; a less powerful Church without the status it once demanded and enjoyed. A more wounded Church may have a more compelling message for the very people it is called to serve. The first and ongoing priority of the Church must be the care for the victims and survivors of its own abuse.

Mildred Hayes believes her pastor was complicit in child sexual abuse, merely by being a member of the “clerical club”. But aren’t we all personally complicit when we collude with any system – that of the Church and other organisations to which we belong – which puts some on pedestals? (I include myself as a religious sister and congregational leader.) Where not only children, but also women, are invisible in structures, decision-making, language and ritual? And where a sense of entitlement occurs because of the position one holds?

A culture of clericalism not only damages children, it damages everyone within the system. While not exploring the contentious issue of celibacy here, I concur with the Royal Commission’s finding that certain stressors in the lives of the perpetrators of abuse have had a role to play – stressors such as social isolation, lack of positive adult relationships and low self-esteem (p. 592).

We get a volatile brew when this is mixed with a seminary formation, described as “tridentine” by Rev Dr David Ranson, Vicar General for the Broken Bay Diocese, which promotes “theological literacy but not sexual or emotional literacy” (p. 610) and the curious belief that an ordained minister is somehow “ontologically” different from those to whom he ministers. The ministered to, and the ministers, deserve better.

A holistic initial and ongoing formation program needs to embrace an incarnational theology and spirituality where there is no false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the human. The starting point for any theology is human experience – the actual flesh, blood, sweat and tears of human experience – that of those ministered to and those doing the ministering.

My experience is that many of the laity want to support their priests and want to work with them, not necessarily for them. Lay women and men want to contribute their skills and nurture a culture of mutuality for the sake of the Church’s mission – which is Jesus’ mission.

The calls for change within the Church are currently loud and strident. They will, I believe, be the salvation of the Church, only if we have but ears to hear and a humbled contrite heart committed to respond.

Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality. In September 2017, Patty was elected as Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan at their 26th Chapter Gathering.

First published in Good Oil, February 2018.



This entry was posted in Religion and Faith. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to PATTY FAWKNER. Calls for change within the Church will be its salvation.

  1. Patricia Boylan says:

    Almost five years ago, Australian lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC wrote,
    ‘The Pope is the source of Canon law, which directs that allegations of child molestation be investigated in utter secrecy, by a “trial” loaded in favour of clerics who if found guilty are “punished” for the most part by orders for prayer and penitence. This must be changed, by recognising that child molestation is a serious offence that cannot be dealt with in a secret ecclesiastical procedure. Allegations must be reported to the police. The Vatican pretends that it made this change in 2011 when new “guidelines”‘ were issued reminding Bishops to cooperate with law enforcement authorities, but only when local law requires it (and many countries still do not have laws compelling the reporting of child abuse).
    These “guidelines” are not incorporated into Canon law: bishops are not told to hand evidence over to the police, and priests are not required to inform on brothers whom they know (often through confession) to be molesting children. There is no duty to suspend a suspected priest.
    Even in countries where local bishops have bowed to political pressure and announced that public prosecutors will be told of sex abuse allegations, there is always a qualification: “only if the victim consents”. It is all too easy for young victims and trusting parents to be counselled that the victim’s best interests lie in allowing the church to deal with the matter “in its own way” without involving the police. So criminal priests escape prosecution because officials, in order to protect the reputation of their church, pressure and persuade families to have complaints dealt with in secret under Canon law processes.’
    The hard part now is for the Australian Government to gain the trust of the community and implement the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommendations on all agencies and faith-based institutions to protect children.

  2. Patricia Boylan says:

    David Marr’s essay in the Guardian, ‘Grappling with Rome: lessons from the royal commission’ is worth reading alongside Patty Fawkner’s, ‘Call for change within the Church.’

    Marr notes that Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge cited lots of talks but no “structured discussions”.

    As David Marr writes Commissioner Peter McClellan, debated the issue for hours with canon lawyers. ‘Leo XIII seemed to say something quite promising but in the end, they couldn’t turn up a clear direction from the church to report priestly abusers to the
    McClellan thought the discussion extraordinary. How can church law be so opaque? “Maybe I’m just an ordinary common lawyer, but we normally say things in simple words.”
    The canon lawyers balked.
    McClellan suggested Rome might adopt a plain formula: “Obey civil law.”
    ‘What emerged from the evidence of church lawyers, theologians and a slew of bishops about the workings of Rome in Australia was the blueprint of an organisation perfectly suited to eluding control.’

    I would suggest Archbishop Coleridge and his fellow clerics are ‘acting’ but not in the direction or orientation many Australians and Catholic would hope for or want.

    In 2016-2018, Archbishop Coleridge’s has failed to come out in support of legislation to introduce mandatory reporting for clergy in Queensland.
    In contrast, Archbishop Coleridge has spoken out loudly in opposition to same-sex marriage.
    The Church and its lawyers act in protection mode and undercover these days. Comments on legislation are in private hearings and names are suppressed.

    As Joan Seymour states the ‘feeling of powerlessness can only be defeated by the legitimate exercise of what power communities have.’
    Only the clergy is under a directive to act in support of Vatican’s canon law to conceal clergy abuse, not the people of the church or the Australian community.

  3. Mark Prytz says:

    Kieran Tapsell is right of course, the Vatican and archbishops are doing
    classic political PR.
    Actions tell the truth, not words.
    – The Jesuit Provincial will not ACTIVELY seek out people his organisation has harmed.
    ( he was directly asked to by a friend of mine).

    – The Catholic Archdiocese and the Society of Jesus STILL are as nasty as possible in court,
    they do not and will not behave as a “model litigant”, destroying the plaintiff is still the thrust.
    ( a suit was recently settled after years when the plaintiff’s lawyers ran out of money, SUCCESS!).

    – Signing on to the Commonwealth Redress Scheme is such a blessing, max. $150K (yayyy..!!),
    a shoddy veneer of sincerity, the main intention is to keep all plaintiffs out of court.
    The biggest fear they have is a SUCCESSFUL civil suit.
    $150K is such an insult.
    You are much better off having sex with Barnaby Joyce and landing a $200,000 a year job with super.
    I would estimate my own loss of income at $5-10 million, that’s without other damages.
    $150K is what my peers are earning in 3-6 months.
    “Sorry” is such bullshit. Turnbull has one coming up, who cares, its salad dressing.
    Australia’s largest defamation payout of $4.5 million was awarded to Hollywood actress Rebel Wilson
    after she was defamed by magazine publisher Bauer Media.
    $4.5M because someone said something not nice about her!!!!!
    Sorry to say but in the end, its about the money.
    Archbishop Hart seems to be a wealthy man, owning money must be good!

    Well Sister Patty Fawkner, your heart is in the right place but,
    I haven’t seen a “humbled contrite heart” in Pope Francis, George Pell, Denis Hart or
    any of the other powerful clerics.
    The main message the Catholic Church sells is “we are special”, “you are special”,
    “our priests are REALLY special”,”we are the one true church”.
    All the rituals and majestic buildings etc are to reinforce that message.
    All the abuses by catholic clergy say that its not true.

    That is why they are fighting against it so hard.
    They don’t want the faithful to know that the hierarchy really don’t care about them.
    Its all pretty classic narcissism, sociopath and psychopath stuff.

    In the catholic room, Faith is the plaster applied over the walls of doubt.
    The plaster is cracking in many catholic walls.
    Shown by the people I have contacted (still catholic I assume) who won’t reply or
    say “sorry for your problems, but I don’t want to talk about it, good luck”.
    (from ex-priest, barrister, and magistrate et al.).

    An “holistic initial and ongoing formation program” sounds nice.
    Like the very special spiritual development centre in Sydney where one of the current
    directors used to (many years ago) get boys in his room and give them alcohol and cigarettes
    and attempt to grope their genitals, and do worse things.
    What a great career he has had.

    The catholic church ain’t gonna change, they are playing the long game.

  4. Steve Sinn says:

    A great summary of the issues Patty. I too squirmed when I heard the gasps and jeering at the priest in Three Billboards. One question I would ask is: who is the article addressed to or is it a cry in the wilderness? So also Peter’s response: who are you speaking to Peter? Where is the national leadership in the Catholic Church to undertake such a review? The Bishop’s Conference? It sometimes feels that we are toothless and “other people” are running the show. One starting point for discussion is the decision to import priests from cultures different from our own? This is not to disrespect those men who have come here but what is that decision saying to the laity and their capacity for leadership? What impact is that having on the church? Is the lack of priests more an opportunity and a challenge for the laity to really lead? How has the decision to import priests been made?
    Jennifer, for me, I am first a human being – and last. I read recently that the church of the 21st century will be a church characterised by witness not ordination.

    • Joan Seymour says:

      Maybe the call to us is to stop saying that ‘they should do summat’. Stop trying to convince the clergy to do this or that. Start doing things for ourselves. Start organizing blessing services for gay Catholics who want their faith expressed in their weddings. Don’t ask Father, knowing he really can’t. Just do it. (Only one example, and it’s not for everyone – but that feeling of powerlessness can only be defeated by the legitimate exercise of what power we have).

  5. Mary Tehan says:

    Thank you Sr Patty for your honest article. In response to … “A more wounded Church may have a more compelling message for the very people it is called to serve” … I’m left to ponder … how does an impregnable, wealthy, all-knowing, self-righteous Church institution become wounded, if at all? What are public signs that would recognise this ‘humbling’? What are public responses that would acknowledge it? …

  6. Kieran Tapsell says:

    Pope Francis says some lovely things when he wants to encourage other people to do something about refugees, poverty, inequality and climate change. He also says lovely things when he wants other people to do something about clericalism in the Church (“shepherds living with the smell of the sheep”), but when it comes to his own power to change many of these things with the stroke of his pen, he doesn’t do anything, or worse, refuses when asked. In 2014, he was asked by two United Committees to get rid of the pontifical secret over child sexual abuse and to impose mandatory reporting to the civil authorities under canon law. He refused. In the same year, his own Italian Catholic Bishops Conference announced that it would not be reporting allegations of child sexual abuse to the civil authorities, because Italian law did not require reporting – in other words, they will cover it up – and Francis said not a word in disagreement. If as Primate of Italy, he adopts that policy in his own diocese of Rome, he too will be covering up child sexual abuse. The recommendation of the Royal Commission is that the pontifical secret over child sexual abuse should be abolished. Nothing has happened. He can change canon law that requires vicars general and judicial vicars to be priests, thereby excluding both women and laymen. Nothing has happened. That’s why Marie Collins resigned from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors: Francis’ rhetoric is beautiful, but his actions don’t match his beautiful words.

  7. J Knight says:

    Well, he may have been mindful of the bishop being the fullness of Orders?

    The priest and deacon are the agents/extension of the local bishop in the clerical state. I seriously doubt it occurred, but, the consecrating bishop (and the bishop elect?) should be wearing dalmatics during the ceremony to visually remind people of this. But, the suggestion of this is only adding fuel to the fire I suppose.

    As to the movies cited, no doubt the priest bashing was an essential part of the director’s intent. It doesn’t diminish the current author’s argument, with which I concur, but, at one level it was a cheap shot and the bread for the circus!

  8. Peter Johnstone says:

    All important observations, Patty. Clericalism will however continue until Church leaders learn to be accountable, inclusive and transparent, and that won’t happen until women are appointed equally to top Church decision making positions and the selection of bishops is properly informed by the people they are supposed to lead.
    The defensive reaction to the recent exposure of the Church’s wealth in Australia again showed clericalism rampant. Church leaders are saying in essence, “We have a large wealthy organisation doing good works – trust us!” Those leaders have lost their claim to trust. It has been through misplaced trust in leaders lacking accountability, transparency and inclusiveness, that scandals have erupted.
    Whether we look at individual orders, Australian dioceses, or the universal Church, a culture of unaccountable bad leadership has been exposed.
    Yet Church leaders have to date ignored the Royal Commission’s recommendation to
    “conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women.”

    • J Knight says:

      The layman/women panacea is of some concern too, given I think 43% of the reported abuse in the Catholic Church involved lay people? I suppose it depends on the definition of lay and the gender too, but, that’s what was reported…

      • Joan Seymour says:

        Actually, the proportion of laypersons involved is much, much higher. Nearly all the victims were baptized, lay members of the Church. Unfortunately for them, they were very young members, and unprotected. And nearly all those who resiled from their duty to those vulnerable members of the flock were clerics.

  9. Jennifer Anne Herrick says:

    Patty Faulkner’s insights re clericalism pierce to the heart of the Catholic Hierarchy problems. Which is why it was so telling and so unfortunate that Archbishop Anthony Fisher, in his address in Woolongong, to the incoming about to be ordained Bishop Brian Mascord – that all bishops are first men, then christians and finally clerics! Anyone who knows Brian knows one couldn’t find anyone less clerical, which makes the choice of him for Bishop so refreshing. Why did Anthony Fisher choose the word cleric instead of priest?

Comments are closed.