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An eye for those who fall between the cracks

Bishop Pat Power |  25 October 2007

It was the earthiness of Pope John XXIII which appealed to so many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Is there a danger in today's climate with so many demands of compliance from government and even church that we become so "professional" that we lose sight of the human persons involved? Does a whole variety of services guarantee that many people will not "fall between the cracks"? Do those of us in positions of leadership and authority remain close to people at the "grass-roots", ready to listen to their stories of pain, abuse and neglect?

One leader who has listened and remained in touch with his people is Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, the retired auxiliary bishop of Sydney. Having entered the seminary at the tender age of 12, he was later sent to Propaganda Fide College in Rome for the completion of his seminary studies and ordained to the priesthood in 1960. Although he has degrees in Philosophy and Theology and a great love for and knowledge of Scripture, it is his Doctorate in Canon Law which gave direction to much of his priestly life where he made an immense contribution to the life of the Australian Church on the matrimonial tribunal. Here he listened to heart-rending stories of people seeking annulments of their marriage; stories which not only related to a broken marriage but very often were life-long sagas of misfortune and deprivation. In his tribunal work he did much to promote the Church's ideal of justice tempered with mercy and compassion.

Ordained bishop in 1984, his advice and guidance was sought by his brother bishops on a whole range of issues. He was chosen to represent them at two world-wide Synods of bishops and a number of other international forums. But his major contribution came in the late 1980s when the Church first began to be aware of the horror of sexual abuse within its ranks. By the mid-1990s it was becoming obvious that immense damage had been done to a significant number of people at the hands of church personnel. Often it was Centacare and other church agencies who first received the complaints from victims and their families. Geoffrey Robinson exercised a brave leadership role in helping the bishops and the leaders of religious orders to address the issues. Towards Healing, the procedures for responding to complaints of abuse and Integrity in Ministry, a code of conduct for clergy and religious were the principal documents produced as part of the Catholic church's response to the terrible chapter in its history. I do not have to tell you how far reaching have been the consequences of abuse within the Church and indeed in other parts of society.

Bishop Robinson's newly published book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church is a brave exposition of what the author judges to be some of the root causes of abuse. He sees this crisis as an opportunity for the whole Church to "read the signs of the times" in thoroughly re-examining whole areas of its life which are in need of reform. He pleads for open and honest discussion, painful though it might be. Ultimately, he recognises that it is the truth which sets us free. In no area of Church life should we back away from the hard questions. At this point in the history of Catholic Social Services Australia we are at a "kairos" moment, a time of challenge and risk but also of great hope and opportunity. Bishop Robinson would be telling his old colleagues to face up to this moment with courage and confidence and in a spirit of dialogue and mutual trust.

"The UN Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000, aim at implementation by 2015. They offer a way to peace, security, development, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all peoples. They seek to

* Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

* Achieve universal primary education
* Promote gender equality and empower women
* Reduce child mortality
* Improve mental health
* Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
* Ensure environmental sustainability
* Develop a global partnership for development"

There are no "quick fixes" for the world's problems but I take heart in the adage "Think globally; act locally". I must say that I very much admired Catholic Social Services Australia CEO Frank Quinlan's enunciation of the organisation's response to the Government's measures to tackle the problems of child abuse in aboriginal communities. Such an approach recognises fundamental human rights, the human dignity of every person and community and the need to address the complexities of so many such issues. It is, moreover, a measured voice when so many elements such as the tabloid press are trotting out simplistic remedies.

- An excerpt from the McCosker Oration, delivered on 11 September 2007, in Coffs Harbour NSW, at the annual conference of Catholic Social Services Australia.


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