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So, while the scandal has revealed Catholicism’s dysfunction, the underlying problems of an outdated, sclerotic clerical culture, lack of accountability, inadequate governance, mediocre episcopal leadership and an inability to articulate belief in terms that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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13 Responses to PAUL COLLINS. The Royal Commission—a mixed blessing

  1. Mike the priest says:

    It’s not so much the cultural milieu of previous decades that was and remains the most serious issue which must be faced by the institutional church, but also the incalculable damage done to the faith of so many ordinary decent people by the election of the most authoritarian pope of the 20th century. I refer to Wojtyla who instituted a culture of fear and dictated what he saw in his scriptural and theological ignorance to be the only path to glory (sic). One day some good investigative journalists will eventually reveal just how Wojtyla, followed by the weak and ineffective Ratzinger, were both far more responsible for the culture of cover up and sweeping things under the carpet than any of the “branch managers” we call bishops such as Little, Mulkearns et al.

  2. Aengus Kavanagh says:

    As usual, Paul names reality well. The Royal Commission
    is a blessing in the life of the church, putting the spotlight
    as it does on a deep and dark feature of the church’s story.
    Let us now humbly accept the fall-out from disclosure of the
    devastating impact on the lives of so many and of the cold
    negligence of the authorities of the time.
    Paul, and ensuing comments, allude to the ‘cultural milieu’.
    In the interest of balance, this concept could do with some
    unpacking. Frank Little and Ron Mulkearns might well submit
    that : ‘If we knew then, what is now commonly known, we would have acted
    differently’ Many of the historical abuse cases took place in a social climate very different from the present….within decades of the granting of voting rights to
    Aborigenes, at a time when asbestos was commonly used in the building of schools
    and hospitals, decades (1983) before homosexual acts were decriminalised in NSW,
    and corporal punishment was legal in Australian schools. The media frequently cites
    non-reporting to police as a grave offence. Mandatory reporting to police was not a requirement at the time of most of the historical sex offences. As a matter of fact, mandatory reporting of sexual abuse to police is still not mandatory in most European countries as well as in the UK.
    The listing of these scenarios is in no way intended as an excuse for the grave immorality and soul destroying impact of sexual abuse on the young. It is a plea however that the ‘cultural millieu’ of the 1960s and 1970s especially be not forgotten
    in the tendency to make sacrificial offerings of some past church authorities, especially the deceased. AJK

    • There seems to be a serious attempt by Church leaders in Australia to consign “the ‘cultural millieu’ of the 1960s and 1970s” to that era in the hope that no-one notices that that same culture of clericalism, that enabled the clerical child sexual abuse, today continues to drive the Church’s dysfunctional governance of unaccountability, secrecy and exclusion that was central to the scandal and which continues to alienate people from the Church. A focus on “making sacrificial offerings of some past church authorities, especially the deceased” is a very effective distraction from the continuing failings.

  3. Bill Burke says:

    You are not alone in wishing to offord Ron Mulkearns and Frank Little some respect and regard when speaking of their lives and legacies. And, there would be a good number of their episcopal and presbyteral conferes quietly relieved their reputations took the public thrashing that could easily have been spread more widely. A Case Study in every diocese could have spread the ignominy of inaction to many more.
    However, “business as usual” is not a realistic option. The funeral announcements in each local paper reveals a stunning, but well established trend. A working average of half the Catholic population of funerals are choosing non religious ceremonies of farewell. At the other end of life, infant baptism has become an optional extra for many millenial Catholics parents. An increasing number of enrolments in Catholic schools are based on the baptismal status of one of the parents. Parishes continue to be aligned in ever larger clusters as a response to ever shrinking local congregations.
    No. Business as usual is not an option. A quiet procession into obscurity and historical footnotes remains the most likely outcome. Pace, an unanticipated intiative of the Holy Spirit.

  4. Kieran Tapsell says:

    Peter Damian may well have been a “maniacally sexual repressed man”, but his importance in the history of the Church’s attitude the abuse of children is twofold: he confirmed similar condemnations of the sexual abuse of children by respected individuals, going back to the fourth century, like St. Basil of Caesarea, Bede the Venerable, Burchard of Worms and Ivo of Chartres; the second is the reaction of Pope Leo IX who insisted on the need for forgiveness. The significance of this history must be apparent to anyone who listened to the Royal Commission’s amazement that senior Church officials did not regard the sexual abuse of children as a “crime”, but as a “moral failure” that needed no more than forgiveness. Since the time of the first Code of Canon Law in 1917, and incipiently a few centuries beforehand, Leo IX’s attitude gradually won and Damian’s lost. I agree that everything should be looked at in its cultural context, but saying that Damian’ condemnation of homosexuality should be taken with a grain of salt only has validity by looking at it through the cultural spectacles of the last 50 years. I also assume that you do not think that Damian’s condemnation of sexual activities with children should also be taken with a “grain of salt.” I agree with what you say about Mulkearns and Little, where the evidence points to a blind loyalty to Rome, and its insistence during their times as bishops that clerical sexual abuse should not be reported to the police.

  5. A mixed blessing? I guess so but my take is somewhat different. The Royal Commission’s findings have exposed failings that most Catholics could hardly believe, behaviour of our institutional leaders that offended against the most fundamental of Christian teachings. There’s no sugar-coating those findings nor should there be. And if the Royal Commission has given a free kick to the Church’s critics, it’s self-inflicted and the least of our problems. Catholics now have a responsibility to reform our Church and to look beyond the need to judge bishops Little and Mulkearns to ensuring that our present leaders throughout the world recognise the past and continuing need for accountability, transparency and inclusiveness. Little and Mulkearns certainly “lived in a specific cultural milieu”, but let’s face the fact that that culture continues today and must be reformed. If the Royal Commission’s findings wake us all up to the need for radical change, which will take a good dose of humility, we will not need to view its findings as other than an unadulterated blessing. Pope Francis has observed that there can be no true humility without humiliation – we’re copping the humiliation, let’s try some truly humble reform along the lines Paul has suggested.

  6. Kim Wingerei says:

    Thanks Paul, it is good to see a practising Catholic as yourself write with obvious insight that I, as an atheist, do not have, and never will. As an atheist I also have no issue with the faith of others, we all believe in something. The real issue so deeply rooted in our history and culture is the failure to draw the distinction between faith and religious institutions. It is the latter that are fundamentally dysfunctional, and among them the Catholic Church, the longest lasting bastion of immense power in history, responsible for unspeakable atrocities for centuries. It is an institution rotten to the core and most likely beyond reform, it needs to be dismantled from the top, weeding out also what’s beneath the tip of the iceberg our Royal Commission (and many others) have revealed. No doubt there will still be many priests left to do the good work their God meant for them to do, without the shackles of the Church.

  7. Michael,

    I didn’t see Paul excusing Frank or Ron of anything at all. It’s plain that in any organization that has a stuff up of the monumental scale and proportions this is that the ultimate authority – Little and Mulkearns – have to take the wrap.

    Paul was doing something else: he was giving an account of how otherwise good men did bad things.

    But the Church doesn’t have “insider trading” to itself and the focus exclusively on those bishops and the others you name is less than explanatory of this mess. They are mostly weak and not very smart men who acted on advice from lawyers, accountants, insurers and their own internal diocesan executives.

    Again, acting on that advice doesn’t exonerate them. They did the deeds. And if Spotlight showed anything about what happened in a parallel instance in Boston, it wasn’t just the egregious Bernard Law who was to blame. It was the police, the courts, other clerics, the families of the abused, social workers, “worthy” Catholic lay people and administrative officials propping up the appalling B Law.

    The same is true in Melbourne, Sydney and Ballarat and just about anywhere you want to look in Australia.

    That the Royal Commission has not gone more deeply into the layers (I wonder why a Judge didn’t call barristers to explain who gave them their instructions and why?) that contributed to this schmozzle just leads to scapegoating a couple of very dumb and weak and, conveniently, now dead bishops when in fact the blame should be shared much more widely.

    Paul was trying to explain the context, not excuse the malfeasants.

    Michael Kelly

  8. Thanks Paul for our attempt to soften the blow of he RC on Holy Mother Church. It is undeserved.
    I cannot stand by and hear that Frank Little and Ron Mulkearns’s only botch was their failure to brief every one of his consultants. I judge Ron also harshly for his treatment of Laurie Halloran and Nick Serzants and for retaining Leo Fiscalini as his Vicar General as written in John Molony’s By Wendouree page 219 and in Kevin Peoples “Trapped in a closed world” Page 228
    Frank and Ron are not scapegoats.  They are not alone in their failure to share information with all their consultants. Their omission to share this information is a flaw shared with Philip Wilson, Leo Clarke, Dennis Hart etc.
    To ask me to accept that any Bishop did not see that anal and viginal rape of pubescent children was a sin deserving a millstone is beyond my comprehension. These silencers have led to dozens of suicides and hundreds of wrecked lives. Sorry Paul, I cannot stand by and remain silent when excuses are made for silences by bishops and popes.  Was there not a Thomas Moore among any of them?
    Loe and Force

  9. Gsrry Evetett says:

    The heart of the matter in Collins article is the abuse of power by proest’paedophiles and by priestly supervisors. That abuse of power continues today. It is not uncommon to hear ,stories of psrish priests acting like dictators usong a facade of parish councils or other such structures to validate unlilateral decision making. Combined with a lack of transparency and accountability, the abuse of power continues.
    Whilst the culture remains toxic we will continue to witness different manifestations of its patholog

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