Best of 2017: Bishop Long at the Royal Commission

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The final sessions of the Catholic 'wrap up' at the Royal Commission have been dedicated to summarising and testing what has been said in previous sessions. The numbers of complaints, abusers and cases presented have been horrifying.

Bishop Vincent LongNothing should be allowed to minimise the evil represented in them. The panels of people interviewed offer some evidence, nonetheless, that children will now be safer when under Catholic care.

The most thought provoking testimony given was that by Vincent Long, Bishop of Parramatta. It was notable for its directness, honesty and the awareness it displayed of the importance of church culture. Bishop Long grew up in the Vietnamese Catholic Church and was afterwards chosen to lead the Australian Church. In his responses he focused particularly on clericalism and its role in giving license and cover to clerical abuse.

He worked out of a fairly simple distinction between two images of the church. One sees the church as a kingdom in which the subordination of the people to the king and to the hierarchical grades of officials is fixed and sacralised. The other is of the church as community with an ordered network of relationships that enable the nourishing of people by the spreading of the Gospel.

He associated clericalism with the first image, commended by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The communal vision was identified with the Vatican II and Pope Francis.

This distinction is often made. Bishop Long's contribution to it lay in his sensitivity to the way in which particular cultures mould themselves to metaphor to affect practice. In the Vietnamese church he saw a culture with a high acceptance of hierarchy. When this was married to a church with its own hierarchical vision, the result was a church where bishops and priests could act tyrannically and with impunity.

Reflection on the Vietnamese church sharpened his observation of the Australian Catholic Church and his identification of the practices that are an index of clericalism.

 

"Bishop Long's account of clerical sexual abuse and its relationship to clericalism is persuasive. In the directness of his language and his refusal to allow disputed questions about the signs of clericalism to remain fudged, he presented a clear way forward."

 

He was forthright and unambiguous in calling out the effects of using formal titles in communication with — and between — priests and bishops, of distinctive robes as the ordinary dress of the clergy, and particularly seminarians, of the lack of respect involved in processes such as that involved in the pursuit of Bishop Morris, and of the lack of involvement of women in church leadership.

Such practices encourage an abuse of power that lies at the heart of the sexual abuse of children, and assures the perpetrators that they will not be held accountable for it.

Bishop Long's vision of the church was embodied in the style of his testimony. He answered questions simply without defensiveness or circuitousness, in language accessible to the commission members. He also introduced his personal experience when asked. He spoke of his familiarity with the Vietnamese church, of his observation of the way the Melbourne Model had led to the alienation to some victims of sexual abuse, and of the effect that long conversations with nine victims in the Parramatta Diocese had on him.

In the final words of his testimony he mentioned that he himself had suffered clerical abuse as a young refugee in Australia. The authority of his words came not from his position as bishop but from his experience and the way it had shaped his life.

Bishop Long's account of clerical sexual abuse and its relationship to clericalism is persuasive. In the directness of his language and his refusal to allow disputed questions about the signs of clericalism to remain fudged, Bishop Long presented a clear way forward. It is to be hoped that it will be taken resolutely.

My only cavil is that I believe he oversimplified when he ascribed the 'kingdom' image of the church and its resultant encouragement of clericalism to Popes John Paul II and Benedict. Both popes in fact followed Vatican II in commending, often very inspiringly, the image of a communal church free from abuses of power. The opening to clericalism, perhaps attributable primarily to Joseph Ratzinger as adviser to Pope John Paul II and later as Pope himself, lay in their fear that the distinctive quality of priesthood was being undermined and in their consequent exaltation of it. This opened the way to the clerical construction of life and a priest and of the relationship between clergy and people that Bishop Long rightly deplores.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Read Bishop Long's testimony in full here.

This article was originally published on 21 February 2017

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Vincent Long, Royal Commission, clergy sexual abuse

 

 

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Existing comments

As always, an excellent logical article Andrew Hamilton SJ
Terri Marley | 08 January 2018


Father Andrew: your statement “The opening to clericalism, perhaps attributable primarily to Joseph Ratzinger as adviser to Pope John Paul II and later as Pope himself, lay in their fear that the distinctive quality of priesthood was being undermined and in their consequent exaltation of it. This opened the way to the clerical construction of life and a priest and of the relationship between clergy and people that Bishop Long rightly deplores.” is very misguided. It implies clericalism began with John Paul II and Benedict XVI. On the contrary, has not clericalism been an entrenched feature of historical Roman Catholicism from after the very earliest days?
smk | 08 January 2018


Thanks. The bishop's words give some grounds for hope.
Anonymous | 08 January 2018


Bishop Long would be an excellent choice for the new Archbishop of Melbourne for which position the Papal Nuncio is seeking nominations from the bishops to send onto Rome. He has a profound sense of social justice and an awareness of human rights based on his own experience as a refugee. His pastoral letter to the Diocese of Parramatta on the same sex marriage plebiscite was exemplary in its honesty , telling his readers that it was a question of civil law not church law, that previous changes to civil marriage laws had not affected church law, and advised his flock to follow their own conscience. He has already had experience as a suffragan bishop and would provide badly need leadership to the ACBC as Archbishop of Melbourne. I urge concerned Catholics to write to the Nuncio and ask for Bishop's Long's name to be on the top of the three name list to be sent to Rome.Also for the list to be made public.
John Challis | 09 January 2018


John Challis. As a Melbourne Catholic I too would be very happy if Bishop Long were to be appointed to Melbourne, and be elected to the ACBC. However, it doesn’t work that way. The Archbishop of Melbourne whomever he may be is not automatically the President of the ACBC. They are elected and can any of the bishops. Also, Bishop Long may be perfectly happy with Parramatta for the time being given the great work he appears to be doing there in terms of restructure etc. And I’m sure the people of the diocese would hate to lose him.
Thomas Amory | 11 January 2018


I welcome Bishop Long’s testimony. While not minimising the issue of abuse within the church, we should remember that society itself was, and arguably still is, obsessed with privilege and power and this abuse was endemic. I have been saddened by the slow response of the Church, but rejoice in our movement to remedy this at last. The Vatican 2 documents were truly inspired, yet change is difficult. I rejoice in the journey Pope Francis is walking with us.
Mary Morrissey | 12 January 2018


Bishop Long may have become a sort of ‘People’s Choice’ but I doubt that his testimony to the Royal Commission would be seen as career-enhancing in Vatican circles. Bishops are really branch managers; their role is to implement head-office policy, not to question it. Recent history would suggest that bishops should keep their heads down and their revolutionary thoughts to themselves.
Ginger Meggs | 12 January 2018


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