PETER JOHNSTONE. The Catholic Church is ‘Circling the Wagons’

Sep 13, 2017

“This is no time to circle the wagons in some supposedly self-protective manoeuvre.”  (Archbishop Coleridge, Chair Bishops Commission for the 2020 Plenary Council)

 Archbishop Coleridge, in his role as Chair of the Bishops Commission for the 2020 Plenary Council, has recently reinforced his wagon-circling metaphor above saying, “This is no time for the Church to be putting up signs that say ‘business as usual’”, and in referring to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has said, “If we needed any proof, then the Royal Commission has shown that. We need to face the facts, and in the light of the facts, which aren’t always friendly, we have to make big decisions about the future.

These messages are far from the current signals from Church leaders such as the rhetoric of Professor Greg Craven of the Australian Catholic University in a prominent article in The Weekend Australian of 19-20 August 2017, (Besieged Catholic Church is wounded, but will not fall)

When I read the title of Greg Craven’s piece, I expected to read a considered assessment of the lessons learnt by the Church following the devastating revelations of clerical child sexual abuse and its cover-up and protection of paedophiles by bishops throughout the world. As a Catholic observer who has been involved in submissions to the Royal Commission and given public evidence to the Commission, I expected that the conscientious and dedicated work of the Commissioners and their staff would at least have been respectfully acknowledged.

Craven eventually gives some reluctant recognition to the importance of the Commission’s work, but only after the most defensive assertion of the unfairness with which the Catholic Church has been treated, accompanied by general condemnation of the Royal Commission including a wild assertion that it has been “one of the most indifferently conducted royal commissions in recent history.” The main thrust of the piece – supported by many inaccuracies, misrepresentations and exaggerations – is that the Catholic Church is under attack from its “inveterate” enemies, being “journalists, activists and downright bigots”, along with “hobby atheists”, “‘progressive’ Catholics”, and “even deeply traditional Catholics who take a gloomy pleasure in the ‘end days’.” The article brazenly portrays the institutional Church as victim, and displays a prominent Catholic layman’s hypersensitivity to criticism, seemingly on behalf of the institutional Church.

Professor Craven, as Vice-Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, may feel that the “wounded” Church requires this extreme form of defence. A more considered view would recognise the grave failings that have been exposed and explore how those failings can and must be addressed. This is a time for humility and reform not for ‘circling the wagons’, and certainly the Church should not fail its values yet again by refusing to accept the legitimacy of the condemnations that have flowed from the exposures of the Royal Commission.

It is truly remarkable that Professor Craven failed even to consider how the Catholic Church, in Australia and throughout the world, actually protected and covered-up for paedophiles, thus causing further abuse of children and effectively defying the specific teachings of Jesus regarding the preciousness of children. The Church’s failure to protect children by so many bishops throughout the world is a massive failing of governance – a lack of accountability, transparency and inclusion of the faithful – on which the Royal Commission will no doubt report. However, Professor Craven does not address the Church’s governance failings, and even questions the importance of clericalism which Pope Francis has described as “an evil in the Church” and one of the strongest challenges faced by the Church.

Craven seems to suggest throughout the article that the established guilt of the Catholic Church in its unchristian and indeed criminal response to clerical child sexual abuse throughout the world is mitigated by pointing to other institutions who share the Catholic Church’s guilt. They will all be dealt with by the commission. The responsibility of Catholics is to face our own failings. Any response should be reasoned and respectful; the recent response by the Church’s officials to the very considered recommendation of the Royal Commission affecting the seal of confession was dogmatic, dismissive, and inconsistent with evidence given to the commission by Church officials.

Craven’s approach is consistent with a seeming denialist attitude displayed recently by some Australian bishops as they consider what he rightly describes as a “horrendous” four years of exposure of “failures of bishops and processes.” Craven chooses to join those bishops in an apparent decision to ‘circle the wagons’ and repel all the arrows of criticism.

The metaphor ends there, as those criticisms perceived as an attack are in fact based on grave evidenced failings of the Church that can only be addressed by resorting to the strongest of Christian values. That will involve painful honesty, humility, repentance and, most importantly, renewal as so many Catholics continue to desert the institution. Responsible Catholics are demanding reform to prevent the Church ‘falling’. Craven’s defensive attitude will encourage a ‘business as usual’ approach by the institutional Church which will certainly lead to the further decimation of the Church and further failures due to continuing poor governance.

Renewal will also require accountability, a notion foreign to the governance of the Catholic Church, plus transparency and inclusion of all the people of God especially women in the business of the Church. Finally, it will require the ability to listen carefully and humbly to the arguments and conclusions of the Royal Commission, an approach attracting ambiguous support at best from Professor Craven.

It seems that Archbishop Coleridge will need to reinforce his commitment to avoid “circling the wagons”.

(A copy of Professor Craven’s article with detailed annotations beyond the matters raised above can be found at the Catholics for Renewal website– doc.75)


Professor Craven’s article with detailed annotations response to GCraven article – Beseiged Catholic Church – 20170912.pdf

Submission from Catholics for Renewal Inc to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Issues Paper 11: Catholic Church Final Hearing

Peter Johnstone is President of Catholics for Renewal.


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4 thoughts on “PETER JOHNSTONE. The Catholic Church is ‘Circling the Wagons’

  1. Did Professor Greg Craven write this article as a senior Church employee sanctioned by church leaders?
    Or did he write the article, (‘Besieged Catholic Church is wounded, but will not fail’), as an individual?
    Was his article approved by Sydney Archbishop, Anthony Fisher and the Chair of the Bishops Commission for the 2020 Plenary Council, Archbishop Mark Coleridge prior to its publication in the Weekend Australian?

    As Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor and Board member of the Truth Justice and Healing Council (TJHC), Professor Craven attacked people’s credibility, motives, and competence, creating an artificial smokescreen indicating the church was under attack from enemies and atheists.

    His manufacture of animosity, isolation, stripping of creditability and humiliation to portray the church as a victim is a sophisticated, well-honed and powerful tactical skill of Catholic Church leaders.

    As a senior Catholic academic and as a long-term board member of the TJHC, many Catholic’s would have expected Professor Craven’s article to have taken a well-educated and informed approach.

    Professor Craven’s article lacked suggestions or discussion of positive changes and actions happening within the Australian Catholic Church.

    There was no suggestion of the possible creation or development of a ‘Global Coalition of Bishops to campaign the Vatican for changes to canon law’, no discussion on improvements to the church’s lack of accountability, transparency, governance or inclusion of women.

    Professor Craven’s contested review of clergy abuse, the omission of negative material and derogatory approach, demonstrated an ongoing division within the Australian Catholic Church. His article followed an interview by the TJHC Vice Chair, Elizabeth Proust.

    Sadly, as a senior church employee, Professor Craven’s article recorded and mirrored the unchanged actions of many senior Catholic employees within the Church.
    Between the lines, Professor Craven’s article showed that after four long years of a Royal Commission, little has changed ‘inside’ for senior employees.
    It seems Catholic Church employees still understand the ‘hidden requirements for secrecy, silencing, denial, mental reservation, miscommunication, sanitising of scandal, displacement of responsibility,’ disregard of consequences and dehumanising the victims and witnesses as requirements for a promotion and job security within many Catholic organisations.

  2. Greg Craven does not seem to appreciate that while many other institutions, religious and otherwise, covered up child sexual abuse, the Catholic Church is unique in writing the cover up into its own internal rules, canon law. It is still there, in Art 30 of Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela. Pope Francis has refused to agree to the requests of two United Nations Committees to get rid of the pontifical secret over clergy sexual abuse of children, and to require mandatory reporting under canon law in all cases. Even if every State and Territory of Australia passes comprehensive reporting laws so as to create a canonical obligation to report, that won’t happen in many other parts of the world which have inadequate reporting laws. It is indeed surprising that the Church would hide behind inadequate civil reporting laws to protect its clergy who had been sexually abusing children, particularly when its founder spoke about millstones around necks for those who harm children.

  3. Thank you Peter for your trenchant reply to Professor Craven’s article which, at the time I read it, seemed to me to leave out a number of things – including, as you say: “…how the Catholic Church, in Australia and throughout the world, actually protected and covered-up for paedophiles…”.

    Perhaps Professor Craven considered it part of his job description to “defend the Church” in the manner in which he did, and if there exists a similar “defence” of the criminal behaviour of certain Church officials, then no doubt the good professor will advise in due course.

    Despite my being a long time member of what Bishop JS Spong calls “the Church alumni”, I wish you well in your endeavours.

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