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Dysfunctional Church stares into the abuse abyss


Black hole

Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities begins: 'It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.' If we take St Paul seriously, the worst of times can be the best of times for Christians. In his biblical account of faith, he sees adversity, trial, rejection and hardship as the nodal points for growth. 'We have no other boast but the Cross.' 

This time in the Church in Australia is tragic. The intervention by Cardinal Pell in mid-November highlighted an all too familiar pattern of defensiveness that generated plenty of heat, lots of 'I told you so' observations from his critics and no advance in understanding that this is a time of unmatched shame for the Church.

Fortunately, other voices among the bishops — and not just retired ones  — have weighed in with appropriate contrition and compassion.

While countless Catholics, me among them, feel nothing but shame and sorrow at both the abuse of victims and its insensitive and selfish handling by authorities in dioceses and religious congregations, it is far from clear how best an ordinary Catholic could and should respond to this spectacle of culpability.

Many I have talked to in recent weeks are dismayed, questioning why they should ever again bother to identify as Catholics. Kristina Keneally posed the dilemma that faces informed Catholics seeking to raise children in the faith. Many employed by the Church find it hard to imagine the next step to take.

May I make three suggestions.

First, from adolescence I have been guided by the advice of an old Jesuit who responded to my description of the pettiness, fear and cowardliness of some members of the Jesuit community I was in at the time. 'You're a strange sort of Christian if you are overwhelmed by the scandalous deeds of others,' he told me.

That brought me up short. He wasn't denying the dilapidated humanity, absence of faith and hope, and outright lovelessness in what I had told him. He just fronted me with the brutal reality everyone has to face at such a time. In a succinct way he was asking me: After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

That leads to the second response I would propose. The only reason Christians can look on human depravity and not succumb before it is that their faith is in a crucified Lord. Without it, we would be well advised to agree that nihilism is the only adequate way of thinking about and responding to our own and others' evil.

From the first page of the Old Testament, God is proclaimed as one who makes something out of nothing. And the black hole that is the horror of sex abuse is a 'nothing', an abyss of darkness into which we stare, undermining any confidence we might have had in anyone's good intentions.

The evidence of depravity in the Church should only surprise the naïve. But whether we are naïve, jaundiced or just bewildered, each of us has to reckon with our experience, absorb the pain and pray in our powerlessness for the transforming power of God to do what we can't do ourselves.

But there's something else that needs to happen beyond our personal search for meaning in this mess. Catholics are part of something social — the community of faith. Admirable and desired as a personal change of heart may be, it remains incomplete unless it extends to how ordinary Catholics live where we live — in the Church.

You don't have to be a business consultant to know that the Church internationally and locally leads a confused life with an incoherent sense of identity and purpose, poorly led and frequently mismanaged. Rome is regularly told by the rank and file across the Western world that it is out of touch with the membership, and local bishops are seen and often behave as branch managers of a poorly administered, centralised multinational corporation.

Just look at the most outstanding instance of 'disconnect' in Church governance in the last year — the sacking of Bill Morris as bishop of Toowoomba. Morris was sacked on evidence that amounted, in the Opinion of a retired Queensland Supreme Court Judge, to 'hearsay and gossip'. The Australian bishops promised to engage robustly with the relevant Vatican officials about the matter, but found that the officials weren't open to discussion.

Such parlour games are seen for what they are, and show that incoherence, mismanagement and incompetence are right through the organisation. There won't be healing of the community of faith until there is systemic change that fixes the culture in which mismanagement thrives and transparency is lacking.

It is about time for the Australian Church's own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As sure as the sun rises in the east, it will bring as much of 'the Cross' as the Royal Commission will. But then, as St Paul told us, that is the way we grow in faith.

Michael KellyFr Michael Kelly SJ, founding publisher of Eureka Street, is the Bangkok based executive director of UCA News and was, in the 1980s, executive director of the Jesuits' Asian Bureau Australia. 

Topic tags: Michael Kelly, Royal Commission, clergy sex abuse, Vatican II



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Existing comments

Fr Michael, this is a great article and honest. I agree with everything you write. My only worry is that our church will fail to look at it self honestly. The sexual abuse in the church is not only physical pain and absolute issue of mistrust and abuse (in every sense of the word) but a theological one. It is now time as a faith community to let go of the cross. The cross is considered the central tenet of Christianity, I think this only part of the story.The Universal story teaches us that life, death and resurrection is the cosmic story,we as Catholics that this story does not belong exclusively to Christianity but to all of creation. If the church were to view the world from this paradigm, its ideas of Holiness, sexuality, human life, power and authority and sacrament and its understanding of the Good News would change for the better.

Paul Donnelly | 26 November 2012  

Child sexual abuse was badly handled by ALL institutions, state or church, around 30-40 years ago because the advice of secular psychologists was followed - ie therapy will 'fix' it. ONce the psychologists realised that therapy for the most part does NOT fix pedophiles, the damage had been done. However, things started to change. Those employed by the church now are well aware in general of the need to be alert to signs of abuse. Pedophiles have been apprehended in state schools, scouting movements, youth groups, surfi The incidence of abuse of adults has had a lonng groups, child minding centres, various ethnic communities and among some Indigenous groups. Everyone in our society has had to learn more about the tragic horrendous existence of child abuse, especially those in families among whom, statistically most child sexual abuse occurs. Incest is the rarely spoken of and sadly a significant proportion of all abuse, if not the greater part. It is a society wide problem. It is important to hear the voice of the survivors of abuse. It is also important to recognise that people of good will in the church and other institutions have come a long way in understanding it. Rather than continual destructive comments about the church, it is important to acknowledge the pervasive nature of the problem and the good that has already been done.

Skye | 26 November 2012  

How refreshing to see a member of the clergy be prepared to be so open, honest and constructive. Thank you.........

Wayne Brabin | 26 November 2012  

That's a sharp and honest piece. Every time I get close to utter despair about the greed, cruelty, violence, lies, and cowardice in my church I try to remember that (a) the church is a human construct and so liable to idiocy; (b) 'Christ liveth in me,' as old prickly Saint Paul noted; and (c) of all the times to quit, this isn't the time -- the good people who leave will leave the glorious shaggy wreckage of the church in the hands of liars and powerhungry fools. It's our church, and no one owns it or commands it except all of us.

Brian Doyle | 26 November 2012  

Honest, courageous and accurate. Michael, you have nailed it.What is required is systemic change in the Church, but is the current leadrship capable of delivering it? OProbably not! The main reason is that among the bishops in this country and in the Vatican, I doubt if rhere is anyone, let alone several, who have the training , skills and insights necessary to identify, develop, and sustain the kind of change that is needed. The hierarchy needs to call on the help of respected academics and practitioners from the apprporiate disciplines to help them understand that they are dealing with a church culture that is dysfunctional; that the change process must be built on scientific and scriptural principles; and that transparency and accountability are required from beginning to end. For any of this to happen, the hierarchy will have to confess that they need help from outside their clerical ranks. Here lies the beginnning of wisdom.

Garry | 26 November 2012  

Michael - I share with you the horror of what's happening here in the local church. But, quite apart from dealing fully with the juridical issues involved, there has to be a new story emanating from people of religion. That new story? Nothing less than the eco-crisis of the Planet and the role in morality/values/spirituality building that must come from a religious perspective that by-passes the anthropocentric orientation of current thinking. This is not just one issue - 'environmental problems' - among many to be faced, to be addresed by the occasional article on eg.,climate change. It goes to the future of humanity and the planet, now very much in peril. Unless it emerges as the new story of the church (here in Australia it has virtually no public profile) then the quagmire that the contemporary church story has fallen into will continue to be stirred around and around - and more than anything else, the energy of the young will find little to inspire them from religion.

len puglisi | 26 November 2012  

One of the reasons why this pedophile abuse has been allowed to go on, I think, is because the call to priesthood is a lifetime commitment. Lifetime commitment to the example of Christ has to be a hard and good thing. The problem is that priesthood is also “just a job”, which means it is a job from which you cannot be sacked. All your supervisors, the bishops or provincials, can do is move you around the traps. The unwritten code of allegiance to your own kind means that priests have not reported offenders because they would be betraying the good name of the caste. People in high places in the Church are there because they didn’t blow whistles or report abuse offences of a grave nature directly to the police. Instead, they applied counselling, moved the criminals out of harm’s way into another setting, and kept them in a job. Meanwhile, if a celibate priest comes out with their partner, of either gender, then it is all over straight off, end of job, end of prospects. But from my own experience it is these kinds of priests who are often the most Christian individuals you could meet in a month of Sundays. When I look at this scene I know that something doesn’t add up.

REMARKABLE REMARKS | 26 November 2012  

Thankyou Fr Michael Kelly. Your dissemination of the current confusion and chaos is redemptive. Spot on. These two Anglicans agree that we need to hear it too.

P&G Bouma | 26 November 2012  

The systemic aetiology of abuse in the church must be addressed according to Kevin Egan in his seminal recent book Remaining a Catholic after the Murphy Report 2011; a comment on the Church's abuse in Dublin. He makes the point that the Church's default is to blame the BAD APPLE thus denying any responsibility on the church itself. It commits itself to heal the victims, identify and punish perpetrators. The Church itself does not have to change- he refers to the institutionalised immaturity of seminary life leading to psycho sexual arrested development; clericalism (abuse of power relationships), addictive (denial) and narcissitic ( self absorbed/important) nature of the Church in organisational terms. Let us hope the Royal Commission looks into those dimensions otherwise nothing will change.

Bryan Dunn | 26 November 2012  

Last night I watched the leader of the Patrician Brothers interviewed on Lateline. From his explanations of how his Order handled sex offenders, labeled as a 'treasure' in a very recent newsletter, it became clearer to me how such a 'turn the other cheek, and a Nelson eye' attitude to sexual abuse can be so deeply entrenched within the Vatican warriors. This sort of view, "You're a strange sort of Christian if you are overwhelmed by the scandalous deeds of others," is itself a scandalous view, in line with the Patricians leader, who seems to think that the best way forward is to simply absorb sex offenders in the group and carry on as if nothing had happened! The root of the problem seems to be a distorted interpretation of 'forgiving sin'. Now, when we dump prisoners out into the community after serving time in our revolting prisons, it is true that we fail to care for them sufficiently that most of them have no need to revert to past behaviours, so that approach clearly fails us all, but the other extreme seems to be what happens in the Catholic Church, and we see the failed results all around us.

janice wallace | 26 November 2012  

Michael, thank you. A fine article; I could not agree more. You are right: we have to face the the structural and governance issues that confront us as Catholics.

Paul Collins | 26 November 2012  

As christians we are identified with the death AND resurrection of Jesus the Christ. It looks like the Church as we know and live it is facing a death of its own in its current format. I don't doubt it will have its own resurrection however there is a fair bit of dying to be done first. No doubt it will be a painful process and may take time but the joy of a Spirit filled resurrection looms. I can't wait. Thanks Michael, your writing has inspired me to contribute here.

John Southwell | 26 November 2012  

Michael, an interesting article, but I am disappointed in another article which focuses solely on sexual abuse within the church. The 'hidden' abuse of the many facets of psychological and emotional abuse are again not mentioned. The devastating effects of this abuse are just as damaging as sexual abuse and need to be addressed. When will this be done? Is anyone interested?

Judy Lawson | 26 November 2012  

Thank you Fr. Michael for a fine article with a message which if unheeded, will spell the Church's demise. What then? That will depend upon the seeds of wisdom which are sown today. Thank you for using your voice - it gives us hope that maybe one day there will be a new harvest.

P. Giles | 26 November 2012  

Many thanks Michael. An additional comment. After a lifetime of dependence on (and too frequently confidence in!) church authority, we now find ourselves party to a deeply flawed institution. While the new inquiries will blow fresh air through stale corridors, the problems cut much deeper. Until we rediscover or recreate that wondrous sense of mystery and wonder, from the mysteries of the Big Bang to the mind boggling emergence of human consciousness from mud, the mysteries of a world made sacred by divine intervention, until these realities are embraced and proclaimed from our pulpits, the flaws in the institution will remain to disaffect us.

Jim Bowler | 26 November 2012  

"From the first page of the Old Testament, God is proclaimed as one who makes something out of nothing. And the black hole that is the horror of sex abuse is a 'nothing', an abyss of darkness into which we stare, undermining any confidence we might have had in anyone's good intentions". Sorry but your words are especially hollow to me as a victim of one of your own society. My life and that of my family, has become and becomes every day even more, "a black hole" in which we have lost almost everything including any faith in a God because one thing I have learned is that there can be no 'divine intervention' without human intervention in the assistance of abuse victims to fully recover, and that intervention is constantly refused by your order, archbishops, previous Catholic employers and most who call themselves Catholic. I have been treated worse than a paedophile, worse than my own abuser who will be cared for for the rest of his life. Black hole alright with no end in sight. Words, words, words are usually nothing but cop out, cop out cop out, and from your very own corridors of glory and power.

Stef | 26 November 2012  

I agree with much of what FR Michael Kelly has written. As an ex public relations man might I suggest the following. We Catholics, the Catholic church has a very positive side -- the millions of faithful who work in parishes around the world helping the needy, the lonely and the sick, as Christ commanded us to do. We recognise that where people are involved there will not be perfection. We need to actively promote our work as overshadowing the scandals that arise and will always arise. Letters to the editor and all media seeking fair recognition of our work needs to be done by ordinary Catholics like me. one would think the Salvation Army is the only do good Christian organisation operating in Australia.

John Morris | 26 November 2012  

What a wonderful essay! Congratulations on Fr. Kelly's boldness in calling us to Gospel Values while not being blind to our need to call for correction in our Church! It is refreshing. Thanks much.

Jeffrey L. Calligan | 26 November 2012  

Now is the time for us to be united as Catholics - let the commission take its course - pray for the victims - keep our faith in Jesus and don't give up on the Church - we can be stronger and better after this scandal - there are so many good priests and so many good people in our church, we cannot let them down by deserting it now.

pat | 26 November 2012  

I agree with JOHN SOUTHWELL but I would go a step further and suggest that sum effects of all child abuse cases, coupled with the church's response or lack thereof, where signs that a cancer had already been eating up the church for many years. So it's not the royal commission that will bring about any further decline/damage - it will cast a light over the abuses and expose the wounds once and for all. Whether exposing the wounds will lead to further decline, or to healing, depends on the response/actions/reforms from everyone in the church - leaders and laity, including the abuse victims.

AURELIUS | 26 November 2012  

While the emphasis remains on sin and redemption and not on crime and punishment, the church will never get it right. It will remain fixated with the wrong issue: the restoration of the offender as opposed to the needs of the victim.

Frank Golding | 26 November 2012  

Hi Stef! How can I console you? If I tell you I know what it is like to go through what you went through, and continue to go through, I would be lying. However, I think I might have some idea of what it is like "to see the wicked prosper". The resentment I felt against a work colleague (XYZ) who blighted my career (or so I believed)corroded my soul and spirit, until I was told to pray for him. I didn't pray for revenge. I prayed that he would have a happy and productive life. I kept up that prayer for some time, and through gritted teeth. Eventually I just stopped praying for him. And then I retired. A few years into my retirment I received a phone call from another former workmate. "You remember your bete noir, XYZ?" he said. "He sank all his super into a farm, and he's gone bust. I thought you'd be happy to know." I wasn't happy. I was disappointed my friend thought that I would rejoice in the misfortune of another. I felt sorry for XYZ. Somehow or another I had let go of a resentment that could have blighted my life.

Uncle Pat | 26 November 2012  

Michael, Your suggestion for an Australian Church Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a good one but a notion well beyond the comprehension or capacity of the Australian Bishops Conference. It has taken them all their time simply to appoint a spokesperson to convey their view on the Royal Commission. They are more like sheep without a shepherd rather than leaders of a modern, robust, independent Australian church.

John Edwards | 26 November 2012  

Every day of my working life I encounter men and women who have survived institutional childhood abuse. Many are victims of clergy and religious. I walk alongside those who carry deep scars of pain and alienation. I work for an NGO which was founded in the heart of Catholic spirituality and a sense of biblical justice as the work of God. The organisation is now independent of religious affiliation and many of its staff are women who also carry the scars of the pain of betrayal of an institution that nurtured a childhood belief in the grace of love and beauty but is seen now as a patriarchal relic of a bygone era. I come from a family where Catholicism was our culture and now look at a younger generation where this culture has little attraction or meaning. I spent some years in a religious community of men and have been privy to the ambiguities of those who crave power and status from their clerical collars.I grieve the loss of so much promise I was offered by the era of the Second Vatican Council. I sit uneasily in the back pew now watching the passing circus of relics and WYD parades that do not speak to my soul.The cross of lost dreams and betrayal weighs heavily on my almost 60 year old shoulders.I do not wish to join the chorus of the bitter and the angry that flood cyberspace from the left and the right. The back pew is close to the door where I can still hear the joys and hopes the grief and anguish of humanity. It seems that their cries are calling me rather than the "spiritual" language of the sanctuary. Quo Vadis?

Tony Robertson | 26 November 2012  

I support Fr. Michael Kelly and most, close to all the comments. But we all intellectualise. The important comment is by Stef and it should be the highlight not F. Kelly's essay. And as well Judy Lawson makes a vital observation.

Brian Poidevin | 26 November 2012  

Thank you Michael for your clarity and courage and encouraging a focus on what in this myriad of concerns about inept institutional responses, we as small catholics in parishes might do to influence for the good. And yes forgiveness and contrition are key

Carey McIver | 26 November 2012  

Dear Stef, you have spoken the ONLY ABSOLUTE TRUTH .I am so angry. Disgusted and ashamed to be Catholic.To follow official church example we are now ALL hypocrites. There is an institutional culture of SEIGE MENTALITY.There is an ongoing history of accusing victims of clerical abuse of being the cause,when they ask for JUSTICE.Accused of degrading,defaming the 'good' name and of sacrilege if criticisms are voiced against the Divine Right the church proclaims.The church is CRIPPLED with SECRECY and INACTION.Officially entrenched DENIAL, or worse still MASKING the TRUTH and blatantly passing the guilt and SIN onto any who dares speak about it.It is a medieval war and structures have been cemented so that it survives.The millions of faithful are separated, kept outside these walls, as if 'unclean' and the powerful inside deified,PARADING their holiness.The official church should expect to be brought to its knees and be toppled and outcast. Christ 's greatest anger was most evident with those who used the temple for power and greed. What is Christian about the official church? "When ever you this to the least of my brothers you do this to me"

Catherine | 26 November 2012  

Yes, the important comment is by Stef.

Bernstein | 26 November 2012  

Re. John Morris' "We need to actively promote our work as overshadowing the scandals that arise and will always arise." From where I stand, that is precisely what we must not do if we have any decency, any respect for the many whom our church has betrayed. Good and evil aren't susceptible to measurement by us - and decidedly not by surreptitious comparison, as implied here.

Fred Green | 26 November 2012  

A good article Michael, so far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. Beyond the shame and the guilt and the hand-wringing and the prayer, what are you ALL going to actually DO to effect the 'systemic change that is needed to fix the culture in which mismanagement thrives and transparency is lacking'? Don't expect it start from Rome - it's the centre of the problem and you're all small fry in its eyes anyway. Your bishops are hardly self-starters - 'like sheep without a shepherd' according to John Edwards - and those that do stand up are chopped off at the knees while their colleagues and the rest of you stand meekly by. Your priests are told what and what not to do and say and those that would like to say something know that if they step out of line the temple police will report them. Your laity have been treated like mushrooms for so long that most of them believe that they are powerless and therefore keep looking for some sort of messiah to sweep in and fix it all. So who is going to stand up and be counted?

Ginger Meggs | 26 November 2012  

Many years ago as part of my MBA we studied the organisational structure of the Catholic Church. Our conclusion was that it was an elected monarchy arranged in a typical structure but with significant disconnect between top and bottom. It would seem nothing has changed. Among the parish clergy and local bishops there are practical thinkers and with their grounded attitude they are respected by the laity as they offer wise advice and counseling (two examples instantly spring to mind, Father Mark Reynolds from Mitcham and Father Kevin Dillon from Geelong). Among the laity we find many grounded wise thinkers who are prepared to discuss controversial issues without judging as we seek to find a solution. It would seem from press reports that the higher up the tree the more rigid the thinking, which I can sort of understand, but the less connection there is with the world as it exists and not as some would want it to be; in particular the power of media commentary is not understood. I acknowledge that I an over thinker of issues, I thank you for your article which is most timely for me as I struggle to arrive at conclusions.

Michael Howard | 26 November 2012  

John Morris mentions "the millions of faithful who work in parishes around the world helping the needy, the lonely and the sick" True, there are millions. But my impression is that the proportion of people who do such service is much lower in our church than in many others. There are many people in this town who have no transport and who would go to Mass if someone would pick them up. But there are very few who do this. Just to mention one not very onerous service.

Gavan | 26 November 2012  

I share the thoughts of Jim Bowler, and can not express them better than he has already done.

John Whitehead | 26 November 2012  

Michael Kelly has it in one in suggesting that: "There won't be healing of the community of faith until there is systemic change that fixes the culture in which mismanagement thrives and transparency is lacking". Add to that the much needed reviews of Theology, Christology, the place of Women in ordained ministry, sexuality etc, all in light of contemporary biblical, psychological, philosophical and scientific scholarship etc. The Church must, to borrow from St. Paul: "Put away childish things".

Christopher McElhinney | 26 November 2012  

Fine words thanks Michael, St. Paul braved adversity and took the opportunity to transform his mindset. In a similar manner Mark’s Gospel tells us that metanoia is the way forward in suffering and adversity, this Greek word means: to change one’s mindset. In the context of biblical language it seems to me that the Church is split between religious authorities (insiders) and ordinary Catholics (outsiders); or is it the other way around? The Vatican heavyweights think they own the keys to God’s kingdom but this really defines them as outsiders because God is dynamic by nature and cannot be contained. The rest of us are the powerless faithful servants of God and I believe this makes us insiders. The tables are being turned! You suggested forgiveness as the first priority, yes but from the cross Jesus asked his Father to forgive his executioners (they were blind to the truth), perhaps Jesus suffering overwhelmed his own ability to forgive. The Vatican hierarchy seem to be blinded by their own sense of identity. Michael at your suggestion prayer is indeed the way out of adversity and powerlessness but the local bishops can do much more. They can govern the ordinary Catholics with an open heart and mind to the humanity that makes up God’s kingdom since the men at the top have hardened their hearts against change. Our bishops can embrace the victims as brothers and sisters, listen to them and give them the dignity that they have always been denied. Bishops can throw away their silly hats and gloves and become real people in the sight of God, be servants who really care for their flock.

Trish Martin | 26 November 2012  

Well said Michael. I have a dream that all this litigation and restitution may end up forcing the church to sell some of its billions of dollars of real estate and returning to be a church of and for the poor. Why should the church run university colleges for the sons and daughters of the rich who disgrace themselves and the church with their behaviour when they could be turned over to become accommodation for the homeless?

jim macken | 27 November 2012  

Thank you everyone for your insights. We need to hear from all those who have a voice. Stef, I especially thank you. There is light at the end of the tunnel.After reading Chrissie Foster's story I warned my children to think about the schools they choose for my grandchildren. The older ones have had a Catholic education. My daughter responded that her children will have a Catholic education for she believes the church of the future will be one we will all embrace with confidence. Hope is essential to our belief system.

Trish Taylor | 27 November 2012  

Michael thank you for your insightful comments. At this time of our Church's Shame I go back to Ezechiel chapter 36. There is a parallel between Israel as portrayed by Ezechiel and the way our Church governance has behaved in response to the sexual abuse crisis. Despite the shame, and the pain i feel I have hope that the same God who promised to act in renewing Israel will also act in renewing the Church.

Joe Cauchi | 27 November 2012  

A fine and incisive article, Michael. I am reminded of the saying "ecclesia semper reformanda". Some day, possibly after all the Royal Commissions and inquiries have finished, someone in power within the Church is going to have to have a long, cold, extremely hard look at what has happened in the light of the Gospels and Christ's example in them and start a real process of change. It will be a truly staggering task. Without it the Church will become a marginalised entity on the fringe of society. That would indeed be tragic. I am reminded of the words of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, probably one of the most prophetic clerics of the last century, that Christ's intention was not to found an institution but to change the world. To do that the Church needs to change radically. In my opinion it will require considerable Grace to do so. To receive that Grace will require Humility and Penitence. It is a daunting task. The Church has a long Via Dolorosa ahead of it. There are no shortcuts. It owes a tremendous debt to all those victims of child abuse. Financial compensation is the merest part of that. Genuine apologies and asking forgiveness of the blameless victims is a part. Bringing perpetrators to justice and not sheltering them is another. Because of the sheer immensity and transcontinental nature of the abuse a single Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as occured in post-apartheid South Africa, may be too unwieldy. Perhaps every country with a Catholic population will need one and it will need to be independent of and not answerable to the often highly compromised local hierarchies. It is sad some prelates like Cardinal Pell appear unable to "get it" and to take the necessary steps to prevent recurrence. Other prelates: Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna; Cardinal Martin in Dublin and the English and Welsh Catholic hierarchy got it long ago and took proactive steps to change things. The future lies with them. The Church must move forward or stagnate. There can be no returning to the bad old days.

Edward F | 27 November 2012  

So many of us who entered Sheol at the time of the forced resignation of Bishop Wiliam Morris, still await the resurrection. Maybe, just maybe, the Australian Royal Commission, together with judicial investigations in other countries, will lead us out of the valley of despair, once our church has been re-formed. If that re-formation takes place voluntarily and from within, all the better. If it takes external pressure for this to occur, so be it.

Peter R Kenny- Toowoomba | 27 November 2012  

Skye, I would agree that child abuse is not only a church problem, but a national problem. The problem with the church is that the church is very quick to point out the evils of secular society, but it is very slow to see its own weaknesses and frailties and when it does it is quick to blame outside influences. I believe the Church needs healing, but healing can only come about if we are open to the hurt, and acknowledge the harm done. The institutional church needs to experience something like the "the dark night of the soul". Then the church will come to experience wholeness, freedom and love, like those of us who have been fortunate to have worked through this experience and are able to grow to be mature adults.

Paul Donnelly | 27 November 2012  

I think my position has been re public relations has been misunderstood. All I am saying is that only a small percentage of Catholics have been found guilty of sexual abuse compared to the vast number who are just ordinary sinners,who do good work and are ignored by the media.

John Morris | 27 November 2012  

The Church is not dysfunctional. The vast maority of our priests (including Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinal, of all nationalities in Australia)are dedicated to serve Our Lord Jesus Christ, and deserve our respect, admiration, thanks and our prayers. Sadly religious who have abused children, got involved in de-facto relationship, or deserted their vocations have brought shame to our beloved Catholic Church. Our Church is not dysfunctional, loyal Catholics are proud of their Catholicity.

Ron Cini | 27 November 2012  

Say sorry

Say sorry | 27 November 2012  

Michael while I appreciate your comments,and Catholic faith, your hopes of reform of this thoroughly corrupt organisation are useless. I too thought like you 40 years ago. But this institution is so opposed to the teaching of Yeshua, that it warrants the label of a group that repeatedly rejects the good news. Yeshua advised his disciples to wipe the dust off their feet and move on to others.

Brian Pitts | 27 November 2012  

With all the doom and gloom and negativity about the state of the church - let's not forget that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit remain constant. The significance of direct awareness of God's presence is all the more important when the church's role as mediator breaks down.

AURELIUS | 27 November 2012  

Fr M your global generalisations re thousands of bishoprics and 1 billion rcs are at best gratuitous and unsubstantiated,and lacking a posteriori scientific global survey. Your obiter dictum on + Morris is again uncalled for [his advent letter made Luther's 95 theses look comparatively orthodox].

father john george | 27 November 2012  

Edward F, I hope you're not holding your breath! Those of us who were in school during Vatican II were actually encouraged by some of our teachers (in my case, MSC priests) to look forward to the great changes for the better as the outcome of that Council. Much of Eureka Street commentary and many published articles grieve for the loss of those great changes, wrest from the Church by the traditionalists. The one positive outcome is that those Catholics who chose to live the more liberal interpretation of Catholicism which they felt as the spirit of Vatican II were not excommunicated en masse. However, feeling unsure, perhaps feeling guilty following the uncompromising re-assertion of the traditional Catechism, many chose to withdraw from regular participation in the Mass and the Sacraments. It is crucial that liberal-minded Catholics continue participation in these central activities of the Catholic faith. If we all leave simply by no longer participating, then the Church will continue down the path of increasing irrelevance in the modern world. If we stay, there will continue to be some Bishops and priests who recognise the modern world as a time and place for spiritual growth rather than as an evil to be feared and despised. If we lose those Bishops and priests, what hope remains for the Church?

Ian Fraser | 27 November 2012  

After reading many of the comments the one glaring omission is still glaringly missing. Where are the professional programs and support systems for the survivors? Where is the research into how they should be assisted? Where are the respite centres for the victims? Where is the public appeal or fund raising to help restore some semblance of dignity in their lives? Has the system of referring all instances and references to those abused by Catholic clergy back to the dysfunctional bishops been bypassed? Not yet it seems. Just as the church has learned over recent years that the police are the appropriate authority to go to in instances of abuse so there is a need for it to learn that the health and well being of survivors cannot be entrusted to church run systems. Let me know when some of these things are in place and supported by the members as there are long lists of victims still crying out for sound qualified medical and psychological forms of assistance as well as assistance to help them get back on their feet. Seems this aspect which should have been the first matter addressed will be the last aspect that is addressed.

John A Brown | 27 November 2012  

I should explain my anger at the official church stems from personal experience.My parish has had 2 priests criminally prosecuted pedophiles.(for offences committed in 1990-94 and2007-8) This was while my children were baptised, received the Eucharist and Confirmation. I considered one to be a friend .My parents as friends too supported these priests.There was no truth,but sudden resignation cited for reasons of "bad health", when the "game was up". A school principal and vice principal resigned, feeling absolutely betrayed and also "responsible for sending children to help with altar service..My son's friend was one of several abused.There was support: one unannounced meeting from Catholic Education Representative after one of these teachers requested it. After not being able to continue teaching one has devoted her life to getting justice for these victims. Victims don't immediately speak about this abuse, so it is a continual wounding and rewounding.How can we measure the cost? One priest was a mature age entrant, who,the court was told had previously abused his 6 and 9 year old nephews and their mother had told church superiors soon after her sons disclosed this. He was then transferred to my parish.The other was a young former teacher. I am lacking forgiveness and sickened and angry at church denial and collusion. I also feel it is unnatural for anyone to live alone in a presbytery, and have the role of spiritual leader and parish administrator to any large and diverse social group.Now is the time for anger.Then there may be action.

Catherine | 27 November 2012  

The Church is not dysfunctional? For those who suggest it is not, allow just one prime example. In 2010 we in the English speaking Church received a new Roman Missal which, by and large, has been considered unacceptable by most Laity, Clergy and Bishops for various reasons, not least on theological and linguistic grounds. Despite the complaints, especially at the time of its implementation, neither the Bishops nor Clergy (diocesan or religious) as a body or group, nor even recognised liturgists involved with its implementation here in Australia, have made a clear and public statement to this effect, to say: ‘This is not good enough’ and have simply yielded to its imposition from on high. We laity can protest all we like, but to no avail. So it seems we are stuck with it, as no one seems to have the drive, guts or know how to go about fixing it. Yet, this is our ‘Prayer Book’ that is meant to speak clearly to us today in expressing our faith, and to bring us together in our prayer, day by day, week by week and year by year through our corporate worship, and we can’t even get that right. This suggests dysfunction to me.

Christopher McElhinney | 27 November 2012  

A dear friend of mine who was a prostitute, committed suicide as a result of her being psychologically and emotionally abused by a parish priest who's church we regualary attended. She had confided in me about how scared she was of this priest.I am the only one left at that church, who knows this truth.When I confronted the priest in regards to his harass treatment towards her, after her death and funeral, saying all she needed was understanding and love. He's only answer was, "I could not show her love". I hope he reads this comment and remembers her in his prayers tonight.

Victoria | 27 November 2012  

Thanks, Michael, for saying what many have hesitated to say: "that incoherence, mismanagement and incompetence are right through the (Catholic Church) organisation. There won't be healing of the community of faith until there is systemic change that fixes the culture in which mismanagement thrives and transparency is lacking". The governance of the Church is clearly dysfunctional, founded on an unChristlike system of blind obedience which fails to engage the people of the Church and disempowers even the bishops. We Catholics can no longer just do as we're told. We must accept responsibility for the state of our Church. That means recognising the obvious dysfunctional nature of the Church's governance, accepted by the hierarchy as a monarchical system based ultimately on obedience to the Pope. That is not the Church envisaged by Christ or sought by Vatican II. It is time or the people of God to be heard in the governance of the Church. Catholics for Renewal catholicsforrenewal.org.au has called on the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to plan for a plenary synod of the Australian Church to mark the 50th anniversary of the closure of Vatican II - Vatican II and every Pope since the Council has stressed the importance of synods to engage the people of the Church.

Peter Johnstone | 27 November 2012  

Might I suggest, Fr. John George, that there is more 'a posteriori' evidence for what you call Michael Kelly's 'generalisations' than there is for the virgin birth?

Ginger Meggs | 28 November 2012  

To John A Brown, Thank you, thank you, thank you. That's exactly what I'm talking about. "Where are the professional programs and support systems for the survivors? Where is the research into how they should be assisted? Where are the respite centres for the victims? Where is the public appeal or fund raising to help restore some semblance of dignity in their lives?" We so, so need this support because when all is said and done (signed and legally crossed off - some call it 'go away money') we are still left trying to cope and I for one am not coping and nor is my family. We are going down financially and may soon lose our home because I cannot get work in the career in which I spent many years of study and work to achieve. The ripple effect is horrid if only everyone could know. I also want to thank everyone else who has supported my initial comment. Thank you. It has meant a great deal to me. Peace.

Stef | 28 November 2012  

It was a horrible sin and one that was of others. I am responsible for my own sins, and while I feel sorrow for theirs, I can only feel contrition for my own. It is time we stop blaming those sins for everything that might be wrong in the church. This sounds harsh, but I say "get overr it". Let's get over ourselves and do what we can to straighten out any problems we see in the church and in our own lives as well.

Emily L. Armstrong | 28 November 2012  

Just to clarify: I had a big breakdown because I had never dealt with my abuse and it started really affecting me 7 years ago. I needed to take time off to heal and my Catholic employer said a few years later that it was all taking too long and legally forced me to resign. I didn't want to: I just needed more time but they wouldn't see my point of view. So I resigned (under a state of deep anxiety and confusion and not really appreciating what I was doing) with a small 'compensation' payout (either that or be pushed with no payout). Now I am ready to work again and I appealed my position to my employer and then even to the bishop and he and they said no, knowing I had no legal leg to stand on. The come back was that they had done everything they should have and the position I now “found myself in” (nice choice of words) was due to my problems. Now, I have to explain my 5 year absence to any prospective employer, and at my age also, resulting in the fact that I just cannot get a job which means that I have lost my career, years of wages, my ability to provide for my family and any ability to have a future into retirement. See, folks, this is the reality of the fallout and long term effects of abuse and how our followers of Christ are handling us and this latter reality is what has broken and damaged me even more. Most people in the church just never see this and certainly never do anything about it. So, when it could have been relatively easy for it to be otherwise had the church reps had the will and compassion, we are instead literally up the proverbial creek and no one in my once beloved church gives a damn in a way that matters. So when I hear the wonderful speeches from bishops and orders so supposedly motivated by justice, the latest one being from the last bishops conference - see below - it means diddly squat to me and my family, and they condemn themselves by their own words and condemn us to a life of deep anxiety and little hope for our future while they have their every need catered for and more. And they want to re-evangelise the world. Huh. What a joke, when they can’t even, won’t even look after their own once they have done what is required, legally. "On behalf of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, I present the 2012–2013 Social Justice Statement, The Gift of Family in Difficult Times: The social and economic challenges facing families today. In this Statement, Australia’s Catholic bishops urge us to consider the essential role that families play in our society – to think how we can strengthen and support them. We are called to give special consideration to those families in our midst that face particular difficulties in their efforts to stay together and nurture each other". Again, words, words, words.

Stef | 28 November 2012  

I am not holding my breath nor Waiting for Godot, Ian Fraser. What has happened with child abuse in the Catholic Church is to me part of the modern malaise. There seems to be the need for a real spiritual revolution both within Catholicism and humanity itself. The Catholic Church in Australia, with all its faults, to me seems to be the most authentic representor of genuine Western Christianity in this country. Its emaciation would be a tragedy.

Edward F | 28 November 2012  

Well said, Michael. However, how can the desired systemic change be brought about? The people with the power, particularly in the Vatican, appear to see no reason for change.

Noel Gregory | 28 November 2012  

Yes, EDWARD F, I agree with you that what has happened with child abuse in the Catholic Church is part of the modern malaise. The current trend is to never admit fault - like politicians holding onto power, you just try to rephrase or spin things to manipulate popular opinion. When that fails, you do a really dramatic publicity stunt, like last night on the news a Catholic nun announced - shock horror! that a team of lay people would speak for the church.

AURELIUS | 28 November 2012  

Stef my heart goes out to you, and my admiration for your courage to speak up. I can identify with so much of what you say: the ‘black hole’ syndrome; the breakdown, the recovery time, the inability to be focused sufficiently for paid work; it has taken me 10 years of therapy. Jesus said: “there are many rooms in my Father’s house.” I expect that you Stef will be in the Royal Suite in heaven and the bishops and cardinals will be in the basement! As a child I would go to the church and meditate, I prayed to God to make me acceptable because everything around me said I wasn’t acceptable. Now I meditate very day and this has been such a blessing because I feel the love God has for me. Nothing the church can do will ever match this. If you feel inclined look at the World Community for Christian Meditation: www.wccm.org

Trish Martin | 28 November 2012  

Dear Catherine and Stef, what can anyone say? I pray that the Royal Commission will finally wrest justice from our church for you both and for all who have been abused and their families. Yes, now is the time for anger; there can be no peace without justice. We all need to persevere in demanding justice from the hierarchy here and at the Vatican, until they relent. We have been given the precedent from the Gospel of Luke 18:1-8, wherein Jesus told the parable of the unjust judge (the persistent widow) to encourage us to struggle against injustice. Let’s e-mail them daily: archbishop[at]cam[dot]org[dot]au and nuntius[at]nunciature[dot]com[dot]au (replace dot with . and [at] with @, so they are not spammed). And support Catholics for Renewal. From Catholics for Renewal: "Christ's faithful have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the church." (Canon 212, par 3)

Frank S | 29 November 2012  

How can the necessary systemic change begin to happen? For a start, don't give the institutional church any more money. Vote with your wallet, not your feet!

Jonah | 29 November 2012  

Thank you so much Frank S and God Bless you!!!.I will begin emailing.I have received reply from Fr Brian Lucas on my first letter to bishops conference (not sure if it is a generated reply) I am sure my experience is shared by many others,in parishes where the 'unspeakable' has happened.We feel so horrified and paralysed when this abuse occurs.It is so much worse when those in authority defend and protect (collude with) criminals and deny,ignore,dismiss and demoralise those who dare speak up.It is an 'unbelievable' crime because clericalism is untouchable and of divine status, a deified position entrusted with the care what we name sacred. Clerical sexual abuse is therefore even worse than other sexual abuse.For faithful catholics clerics hold our spiritual( moral), psychological,emotional,lives in their hands.Yes, the struggle for justice is long and painful.And Yes, WE have a duty to continue supporting victims and changing the culture of silence and blindness.There is a window of opportunity, perhaps.. now.Frank,thank you so much too for your referral to canon 212 par. 3 .YES !Vatican II needs to be truly revisited. I am with Catholics for Renewal and In Good Faith and Associates.

Catherine | 29 November 2012  

Frank, I will be stating in my letters 'it' (clerical sexual abuse and hierarchal abuse of power) is likened to domestic violence. We are one body,one family. Perhaps that is why it is so hard for others to accept. I have not been attending mass as much as I used to, and have also been attending Buddhist mediation, (to deal with my anger, no doubt, and find a renewal of faith in myself and LOVING GOD of all... no doubt there have been cases of abuse here too, and it IS everywhere whenever there is a power imbalance and abuse of that power) We can rebuild ( renew) this catholic universal church, but it needs reconstruction at the foundation.

Catherine | 29 November 2012  

Skye,as my mother would have told me if every one jumped of the Sydney Harbour bridge would you? What really offends most Christians is the cover up by the Church of these abuses. The Church was/is more worried by its image than the walfare of the young.

Chris P | 02 December 2012  

At yesterday's Mass we were urged to prepare for Christmas by going to confession, sooner rather than later. My first reaction was one of anger, then I thought, good idea. Let's confess that, at an institutional level, we've sinned. Let's not immediately follow our confession with disclaimers and excuses, let's do penance. Publically. For a prolonged period. I'm happy to go first.

Ruth Morgan | 02 December 2012  

"Just look at the most outstanding instance of 'disconnect' in Church governance in the last year — the sacking of Bill Morris as bishop of Toowoomba. Morris was sacked on evidence that amounted, in the Opinion of a retired Queensland Supreme Court Judge, to 'hearsay and gossip'." writes Fr Michael Kelly. He is omitting important facts. At the time he was ordained bishop, Bishop Morris took the prescribed oath of fidelity, promising to uphold the teaching of The Church and to obey the pope. Yet he was ordered repeatedly to resign and he refused each time. The pope himself ordered Morris to resign. He refused. So much for his oath! In a pastoral letter to his diocese he suggested that, to ease the shortage of priests, Anglican. Lutheran, and Uniting Church ministers be employed to say Mass for Catholics -ministers, who for the most part, do not believe in the Mass as defined by the Church.

FRANK MOBBS | 02 December 2012  

The article was a little muddled. Bishop Morris was fired for disobeying orders. Better that you stuck to the sexual abuse crisis rather than bring up the issue of Bishop Bill who tinkered with the sacraments and had some questionable theological opinions.

Bob Burke | 02 December 2012  

At last we know, thanks to Bob and frank, why Bill Morris was sacked. It's more than Bill was ever told and I think the conviction Bob and frank show just vindicates my point: in the absence of a transparent process, everyone becomes judge and jury whether they've heard the evidence or not. Thanks for confirming just what's wrong with process, Bob and frank.

Michael Kelly | 03 December 2012  

Yea Wayne Brabin, and with no personal or political agenda. And for me, no hair rising on the back of the neck, at the sight of the "insignia".

L Newington | 03 December 2012  

While the Church has survived periods of scandal and significant threat, there is no guarantee that the church in the West will survive in its present form. Could it be that the institution, as described above, is collapsing because the values it currently espouses (episcopal arrogance, defensiveness rather than honesty and humility, discrimination, preoccupation with power and control, refusal to allow open debate and participation by the laity) are dramatically weakening support for the hierarchy? Where are courageous and charismatic leaders in the Oz church who, I know would have dealt far more decisively with the pedophiles rather than shunting them around? The church in Oz is badly in need of reform by any criteria and it is a mainly human bureaucracy which should be subject to rational audit and change in the non essentials. Still, you keep appointing safe yes men, the Spirit may well allow the process of decay to proceed far more rapidly... Gases from the decomposition increasing the ecclesiastical warming...

Graham | 03 December 2012  

MM No legal system in the world would jettison a day in court rather than the uninterrupted pandering for years re L'affaire Morris[Such scrupulosity for justice and fairness are beyond comparison-most judicial systems would have dealt with Morris in a month not years on end with dummy spit refusals to turn up[a statute of limitation would run out in the judicial time needed to deal fairly[a la vatican with Morris. nb The little-known documentation, of the longest most scrupulously fair saga in common law history: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/new-document-reveals-years-of-vatican-efforts-before-ousting-toowoomba-bishop/

father john george | 03 December 2012  

Michael, the sharpness of your assessment. One of the paradoxes of our church is this.
There once was a wise Monsignor who delighted in stating, and often, that the mitre made the head maggoty. Like others in the Church prepared to swim against the tide of unprincipled principles this Monsignor was saved from ever wearing that headpiece. Others leave the service.
Many believe the bishops in our land have been, on the whole, appointed because of their ‘pastoral’ personality. However, as unskilled shepherds are left to lead 'their' flock (often in new pastures outside the experience of the new sheperd) as they see fit. They come to the task with little knowledge of what it means to be a steward of a flock no longer prepared to blindly follow. They are quick to employ a heavier hand on their staff as a way to homogenise diversity and inquiring minds. Empathy gives to fear. Fear of not towing a line set in a far away land – a land where rules setting takes place within a culture of wilful rule breaking.

Couple this survival strategy with the long tradition of church leaders relying upon people, almost exclusively men, who are quaintly described as “good Catholics” for advice on how to run a multimillion dollar operation. These ‘men’ protect the kingdom from all intruders. Lawyers are the very worst offenders for proffering their textbook advice. After the lack of humanity and compassion from our generations of bishops (with a few very notable exceptions), lawyers are the reason why Catholics have every right to feel dismayed by the poor governance, the poor decision making and the avarice that has accompanied the church’s response to instances of sexual abuse committed by it religious employees. Many victims simply wanted the leader to say "Sorry". Now they want and will get more thanks to the leagl advisors.

This tragedy says lots about the culture many lay people have been trying to get the ‘boys’ to address over many decades. Perhaps the shame to shoulder might bring a small residual of pastoral care back to our leaders?

In the corporate world, an Australian board of directors would be fired by the local shareholders and a new team brought in with well defined and community benchmarked KPIs. Hmmm….

Toby oConnor | 04 December 2012  

I once suggested that the Catholic church displayed some characteristics of a cult, but I think you are right, Father Kelly. It is really a franchise--poorly and distantly managed. I still own in public to being a Catholic , though with some sense of bravado!

Lenore Crocker | 05 December 2012  

Thanks, Michael, for an excellent and thoughtful article. Seeking to engage the "Universal Church" in a renewal and reform process is a continuing struggle for all of us. When I responded to the recent ES survey, I commented that this subject should have been included in the survey ...

Michael Kennedy, 25 Diamond Street Eltham | 09 December 2012  

A]Must say I am absolutely delighted at the choice of Supreme Court Judge Barry O'Keefe QC as the chairman of the Truth, Justice and Healing Commission.

B] Justice Barry O'Keefe QC has broad and rich experiences, and skills appropriate for this formidable task.

1] Objectivity and non partisan justice is ironclad set in concrete with windfall aptitudes in Barry O'Keefe:

2] A commissioner of the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption,.

3] Former chief judge of the NSW Supreme Court,

4] chairman of Interpol’s International Group of Experts on Corruption

5]and chairman of the International Anti-corruption Conference.
[surely any one of the above would meet the requirements let alone ALL!!]

C] A Supreme Court Judge, by minutely honed professional experience, rejects a 'barrister-client partisan optic' in favour of a holistic scrupulously just impartiality. Such professionals are not steam rolled into any "party lines"[media generated, or other 'interests']

father john george | 18 December 2012  

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