PAUL COLLINS. The Royal Commission—a mixed blessing

I’m not looking forward to the report of the Royal Commission. As a still-practising Catholic with a minor public profile, I am very ashamed of what the Commission has revealed about my church. But, despite its excellent work, I still think it has been a mixed blessing.

Certainly, it revealed a pervasive element of criminality and cover-up that has utterly disfigured Australian Catholicism. It has also revealed appalling mistreatment of innocent children and their families not only by priest perpetrators, but also by church authorities who attempted to sweep these crimes under the carpet. The results have been horrendous. “What happened to so many of these children,” Moira Rayner said recently in Eureka Street, “…deformed their spirit,” with terrible consequences for their adult life. The truth is there now for all to see.

The result of the Commission for the church has been equally disastrous. Australian Catholicism “is in tatters; its credibility is zero,” Jesuit Michael Kelly says. The bishops own Truth, Justice and Healing Council chair, Francis Sullivan says, “there is now… simmering anger within the community about the church and child sexual abuse…The very fact that the church was on trial…speaks…of a profound loss of direction, integrity, purpose and meaning…A spiritual wasteland …People say the Church needs to get its house back in order, but I say we have to re-build the house.” Sullivan is right: Catholicism needs rebuilding from the bottom-up.

However, no matter how important the sexual abuse scandal is perceived to be, it is a symptom of toxicity, not the root cause of Catholicism’s dysfunction.  While an enormous amount of attention has been focused on abuse, there is a danger that once the long-term consequences of the Commission are played out, there will be an attempt by some in church leadership to return to “business as usual”, while the deep-seated, long-term causes of Catholicism’s dysfunction are side-stepped.

There will be arguments that, “We’re OK now because we’ve got strong child protection measures in place.” This will be an overwhelming temptation for bishops, previously constantly under the hammer, to dig-in, thinking they’ve solved the problem.

So, while the scandal has revealed Catholicism’s dysfunction, the underlying problems of an outdated, sclerotic clerical culture, lack of accountability, inadequate governance, mediocre episcopal leadership and an inability to articulate belief in terms that make contemporary sense, have been brewing for decades, long before the sexual abuse crisis appeared. The danger is that these problems will remain neglected or completely ignored.

Nevertheless, I don’t think the Commission was an unequivocal blessing. While Patrick Parkinson is right when he says that “the levels of abuse in the Catholic Church are strikingly out of proportion with any other church—and…this is an international pattern,” I still feel that the Commission focused unduly on Catholicism and that it can’t be entirely absolved of unconscious elements of anti-Catholicism that has been the default position of Anglo-Australian culture since the 19th century.

There was also a lack of well-informed Catholics on the staff to the extent that sometimes a kind of caricature Catholicism emerged. Besides Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald, former NSW president of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, there were only about two well-informed Catholics on the staff who could give context to the insidious power of the clerical culture and the other complex issues involved.

The Commission also generated a minor tsunami of commentary, not all of it helpful. Some came from Catholics and former Catholics getting issues “off their chests”. Some of the histories of sexual abuse in the church lacked the critical contextual knowledge needed to make sense of issues within their specific cultural framework. One example is the use of statements of the eleventh century monk, Pietro Damiani, a manically sexually repressed man, whose pronouncements on homosexuality and abuse need to be taken with a critical grain of salt.

I also want to say a word about Archbishop Frank Little and Bishop Ron Mulkearns whose reputations took another trashing with the recent release of the Commission’s Melbourne and Ballarat reports as media “teasers” pointing to the final report.

I knew these men. I understand how people, looking at their dreadful mishandling of abuse, see them as ogres, even monsters. I also know that my speaking a few explanatory words about them will cause some to say that I “don’t get it” and lack sympathy for victims.

Like all of us, Little and Mulkearns lived in a specific cultural milieu. The power of this culture goes some way to explaining how these men thought they were doing what Rome and John Paul II required of them. Trained in the Roman clerical system and imbued with an idealised notion of priesthood, they felt their fundamental duty was to the church which blinded them to Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of God belongs to children: “unless you become like children you will never enter the kingdom” (Matthew 19:14).

It’s hard to underestimate the power of the all-male culture of the Catholic clergy. This culture was dominated by an idealized, but profoundly distorted theology of priesthood originating in a reform movement in 17th century France. In this theology priests were “other Christs”; they were thought to have undergone an “ontological change”, a kind of metamorphosis from an ordinary Christian to a superior “super-Christian” on a pedestal.

This is not to say that Little and Mulkearns were consciously thinking this way, but they were captives of this pseudo-theological culture. Psychologically, they lived divorced from children with none of their own. If there had been ordained women with authority present in the system, the whole atmosphere would have been different because women would act to protect children in danger. Perhaps all I can ask for here is a more merciful and understanding judgment of these bishops.

I’ll give Shakespeare the last word. The imagery of disease and rottenness runs right through Hamlet pointing to the secret corruption at the core of the state: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” the guard Marcellus says (act 1, scene 4). That is certainly true of Australian Catholicism.

Historian and broadcaster Paul Collins next book is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (New York: Public Affairs, March 2018).

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Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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