Bishop Geoffrey Robinson died on 29 December 2020 aged 83. In this subdued time of Christmas and New Year celebrations, the sombre news of his passing seems quite apposite. He was a talented, sensitive man who cherished his priestly vocation.
Despite his academic achievements and scholarly output, he was humble, often understated and reluctant to occupy the limelight. As an internationally regarded canonist and trailblazer for the just treatment of victims of clerical sexual abuse, he regularly found himself at the frontier of church/state relations. A place populated by power brokers and vested interests. His quiet, polite demeanour and formidable intellect usually paved the way for a collegial approach to problem-solving. It was this strength of character along with a capacity to negotiate the multitude of stakeholders that comprise the Catholic Church, that led the bishops and religious leaders to turn to Robinson to lead a new approach in the handling of child sexual abuse.
Public revelations of the scandal were more commonplace by the 1980s and the bishops and religious leaders seemed clueless, even incompetent, in handling the moral and legal aspects of the abuse cases. Criminal accusations were dealt with behind closed doors, victims were disbelieved almost by default, allegations were fiercely defended and Church authorities instinctively took the side of perpetrators lest the image of the Church be put at risk. When settlements were made, they were usually paltry and the details were kept secret. In short, the Church authorities were driven by risk management, not moral leadership. The interests of the institution, both reputational and financial, were paramount and the aversion to involving the police was universal.
Robinson’s appointment in the early 1990s to chair a committee to review and recommend on the handling of sex abuse matters was the turning point for the Church. It was a shrewd appointment. For too long the rubrics of canon law had been ignored by the bishops. So too their ethical obligations to victims. Robinson was exquisitely qualified to not only rectify but to reform the situation.
He spearheaded a far-reaching and effective change to the protocols for complaints handling and the violations of professional standards. This was all the more impressive for the fact that very entrenched and powerful interest groups wanted nothing to do with a more transparent and accountable approach. He was adamant that the needs of the victim, not the interests of the institution, should shape a pastoral as opposed to a legalistic protocol. He actively engaged with victims, something which up to that point was alien to Church policymaking.
He consulted widely with Church bodies, civil authorities and community stakeholders. This broke new ground for a Church more comfortable with its separatist stance. In 1997, the new national policy, Towards Healing, was adopted across the country by dioceses and religious orders. It was lauded for its capacity to craft restorative measures for victims according to their circumstances. It introduced the requirement that victims receive a formal apology and a reparation package. It encouraged the reporting of suspected perpetrators to the police. In addition, it called for compliance with professional standards in Church workplaces and for safety guidelines and measures wherever children were involved with Church agencies.
The protocol was expanded to include any vulnerable person involved in Church activities. Robinson had effectively overseen a paradigm shift that placed the victim as the priority and insisted on a contemporary best practice approach to child safety. The fact that only the Archdiocese of Melbourne did not take up the protocol was a testament to his leadership and credibility. Towards Healing was a world first in the handling of sex abuse cases and was replicated in other Western countries.
Robinson was a serious man, introspective and considered. He gave the impression that the labours of life wore a heavy toll on his spirit. Yet his experience with the sex abuse scandal changed him. In an odd way, it liberated him. He was a prophet. A reluctant and shy one at that, but never timid to speak his mind. He was every bit a bishop of the Second Vatican Council. The notion that somehow the Church should act as a bulwark against modernity was alien to his thinking and vocation. After his days in episcopal office, he used his expansive intellect and writing skills to explore avenues through which the Church could more effectively engage with modern Australian life. He was particularly perturbed by the growing disinterest of Catholics with their Church and the schism between its teachings on sexuality and the lived experience of ordinary Catholics.
He was convinced that the Church needed a Third Vatican Council. The abuse scandal had laid bare the corruption and complicity within the Church’s culture. It had revealed the fragility of the institution’s integrity. Moreover, the abuse revelations only further fuelled the growing discontent amongst Catholics as the Church struggled to keep pace with advances in the social and biological sciences. Unless an open and honest dialogue was undertaken, Robinson feared the relevancy of the Church in the West was at severe risk.
His writings ranged from the abuse of power and authority in the Church to matters of sexuality, gender and marriage. He strove to find a pathway for Catholics who felt at odds with their Church through no fault of their own. His instinct was pastoral and his imagination was creative and refreshing. He was not always popular with the reactionary elements within the Church, nor with bishops who bristled at his suggestions for reform. His persistence was a testament to his deep commitment to the Gospel and to the naming of inconvenient truths. That he gave time to study, reflect, write, pray and publish speaks of a desire to make a difference and to effect change for those who were the subject of discriminatory and naïve attitudes. It seemed that his time with victims of sexual abuse awakened in him a sensitivity to the plight of anyone struggling to be heard and respected. He was one that did listen. And he has been respected widely for his openness and honesty.
In his final years, he was once again embroiled in the sex abuse scandal. This time as an expert witness for the Royal Commission. His expertise and experience were invaluable as the Commission came to terms with the history of the Church’s response to the crisis. His testimony was frank and compelling. As it happens it now stands as his last commentary on what has been the most destructive influence on the credibility of the Church he so faithfully served.
His was a voice that echoed the spirit of the Gospel – a siren for truth and justice. His legacy will sit comfortably with the style of missionary Church Pope Francis proclaims. He was a loyal and obedient servant, a courageous and dedicated disciple.