“We begin to die the day we don’t act on things that matter.”
– Dr Martin Luther King Jnr
As of 10 December 2020, 297 days remain before the Opening of the 1st Session of the Australian Plenary Council on 3 October 2021. This gathering of the 36 particular churches (dioceses) in this nation will be a rare opportunity to synodically address many of the most pressing issues that challenge our Church in our times. A long Advent is before us as we wait in hope for much-needed renewal.
Though never stated officially, a principal reason for convoking the Plenary Council was the outcome of two major government inquiries: the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations (2012-13), and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2012-17).
The Victorian Parliament’s report, Betrayal of Trust found that:
· a culture existed in religious organisations that allowed for the occurrence of systemic criminal child abuse (Finding 7.3);
· the response to criminal child abuse adopted by the Catholic Church in Victoria and in Australia [was] to conceal rather than expose criminal child abuse (Finding 7.4);
· the betrayal of trust perpetrated at a number of levels of the Church hierarchy is so completely contrary to the stated values of their religion that many parishioners find the betrayal almost impossible to acknowledge (Vol. 1, p.9);
· [an] important consequence of the Catholic Church’s longstanding approach of denial and concealment exposed other young people to abuse, with tragic consequences (Vol. 1, p. 70);
· senior members of the Catholic Church hierarchy knew, over many decades, of reports of conduct that constituted gross departures from the normal standards of human decency, let alone the standards that might reasonably be expected of a religious institution [and that these] reports, which involved not only offences against morality but also serious breaches of the criminal law, appear to have been largely disregarded (Vol. 1, p. 71); and
· a sliding morality developed, emphasis[ing] the interests of the perpetrator and the Church over those of victims, diminishing in significance the criminal and destructive character of the conduct, [and] compartmentalis[ing] the issues to avoid the obvious moral conflicts (Vol. 1, p.73).
The Royal Commission’s Final Reportfound that:
· senior officials of Catholic Church authorities knew about allegations of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions and were aware of the problem well before , but failed to take effective action (p. 61);
· there were catastrophic failures of leadership of Catholic Church authorities over many decades, particularly before the 1990s, [and] those failures led to the suffering of a great number of children, their families and wider communities, [and] irreparable harm could have been avoided had Catholic Church authorities acted in the interests of children rather than in their own (p. 61);
· clericalism nurtured ideas that the Catholic Church was autonomous and self-sufficient (p. 68);
· the powers of governance held by individual diocesan bishops and provincials are not subject to adequate checks and balances (p. 69);
· the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church created a culture of deferential obedience in which poor responses to child sexual abuse went unchallenged (p. 69); and
· the leadership of the Catholic Church failed the people of the Catholic Church in Australia, in particular its children, [and] the results of that failure have been catastrophic (p.70).
On 23 February 2017, giving evidence to the Royal Commission, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB admitted that there had been “a catastrophic failure of leadership”. Archbishop Wilson said, “people were all at sea and really unaware of what they needed to do”. Archbishop Hart said the response was “totally, totally inadequate … totally wrong.” Archbishop Coleridge said it “was … a colossal failure of culture that led to the colossal failure of leadership.” And Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP stated: “It was a kind of criminal negligence to deal with some of the problems that were staring us in the face. [T]here were people that were just like rabbits in the headlights. They just had no idea what to do, and their performance was appalling.”
These findings and admissions led to one of the most significant recommendations of the Royal Commission:
“The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should 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. This review should draw from the approaches to governance of Catholic health, community services and education agencies” (Recommendation 16.7).
That review was completed earlier this year and published as The Light from the Southern Cross: Promoting Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia. It was discussed in depth at the Bishops’ plenary meeting 2 weeks ago.
While there are some recommendations in that document which will require legislation by the Plenary Council, many others – such as establishing diocesan pastoral councils, publishing annual diocesan reports, and convening more frequent diocesan synods and/or assemblies – can and must be acted upon immediately by diocesan bishops.
In their written statements to the Royal Commission all the archbishops referred to a range of policies, procedures and reforms that they had undertaken in relation to their archdioceses. Archbishop Costelloe also made this commitment: “Because the Catholic Church, as an institution, has been responsible for many shocking incidents … the Church has an obligation to now be a significant part of the solution.”
Catholics for Renewal would remind the archbishops of this commitment to “be a significant part of the solution” and to now act on it urgently, for as Dr King counselled:
“We begin to die the day we don’t act on things that matter.”
A brief ‘video summary’ of this Editorial (4’30”) is available HERE
The Editorial with its video link was published 10 December 2020 in the Catholics for Renewal regular Newsletter.