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Looking for light amid Royal Commission's Catholic wrap-up



Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Church of Sts Peter and Paul, Garran, ACT, 5 February 2017.

The response to today's psalm is 'A Light Rises in the Darkness for the Upright'. Listening to the media and our church leaders in recent days, we know that there is plenty of darkness ahead for our Church in the weeks ahead with the Royal Commission's so-called 'Catholic wrap-up'. We're told that the statistics will be terrible and we expect that some of our church leaders will appear, looking stunned and helpless. This morning, I think we need to reflect on these stark realities in the light of the scriptures. And this can be done only by holding the victims clearly in focus, not as statistics or as hard cases, but as individuals, erstwhile vulnerable members of our church community, citizens able to walk tall again because they have been heard, believed and affirmed.

Jesus assures us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. But here we are with the world's light shining on us, and with the tang and zest of our joyful and merciful proclamation of the Good News muted by our shame and confusion. Salt without taste is good for nothing. 'It can only be thrown out to be trampled underfoot by men.' It's only by welcoming that spotlight (even with the usual sporadic Aussie doses of anti-Catholicism) that we will once again be able to be a light and a help for those who are searching in the dark and for those who are vulnerable.

In the weeks ahead, as we hear the statistics and see the faces of our church leaders, let's be ever mindful of the faces, the voices, and the pleas of the victims. Let me recall the story of two of those victims who have made a deep impression on me through their testimony at the royal commission.

Julie Stewart was a victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest. She was already a most vulnerable child when she first entered the confessional of the weird and depraved Fr Searson as a grade 3 student in the local parish school at Doveton in the Melbourne Archdiocese. She had been regularly abused by a family member for over three years between the ages of five and eight. As she told the royal commission, 'One day, when I was about eight, my mother asked me 'Is anyone hurting you?' I told my mother I had been abused by the family member. She told me she would speak to my father about it. Later that evening my father asked me if I had been abused by the family member. I told him I had. He said to me 'You should have known better'. I said 'Yes, Dad. Sorry.'' Imagine then presenting with the rest of the class in confession with a priest who had already displayed affection to her in the playground. Over the next couple of years when attending confession with her class mates, Fr Searson became increasingly abusive towards her. Like many paedophiles, Searson had an eye for the vulnerable child, at a time when the institution did not. Ultimately Julie ran from the confessional and the principal Mr Graeme Sleeman did all he could to get rid of Fr Searson. It was Mr Sleeman, not Fr Searson who lost his job.

Julie Stewart concluded her opening statement to the commission with these words:

'I still cry for the little girl I once was. The little girl that never got to be a normal little girl, doing all the things that little girls should do. The little girl who always just wanted to fit in, but always felt like a weirdo, like a problem. Nothing can ever give that back to me. It is a life sentence, and every day I make a choice to keep going.

'It is important to me to tell my story now, because I want peace for myself. I want peace for Mr Sleeman [the school principal who fought to have the dreadful abuser Fr Searson dismissed]. I've got kids and I want to be a voice. I want people to know that this happened. I'm not ashamed anymore, and I no longer blame myself. I will no longer be a victim. My name is Julie Stewart.'

We need to express our gratitude as well as our sorrow to those like Julie Stewart who have courageously come forward helping us all to understand, and reminding us what we truly profess in the name of Christ. In the words of Isaiah, the Lord tells us:


Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
your vindication shall go before you.


Back then, Julie Stewart and Graeme Sleeman counted themselves as members of our Church. They were 'our own'. Julie acknowledged that there were a number of fine teachers in the Church community who did not turn their backs, who comforted and supported her. But the culture and structures of our Church and the prevailing public ethos resulted in Julie and Graeme experiencing a turning of the back, a quenching of the light and a vapid loss of taste in the salt.

I also think of Peter Blenkiron who appeared before the royal commission at the Ballarat hearing. He was abused at 11. It took 26 years for the damage in his life to boil over and for him to tell others and to seek help. But then he looked out for his mates expending so much energy in helping other victims in need. He was instrumental in setting up a support group for the victims of child sexual abuse in Ballarat. He told the commission, 'We normally met in a cafe. We didn't talk about the abuse, but I feel that we started to normalise it — the effects of the abuse. Over time, this group got bigger.' I was privileged a while ago to go to Ballarat and to meet with Peter and one of his colleagues at that café where his art is now on display and where the community support is palpable. He told the commission:

'To hear from people that have been through it and have recovered is a massive gift, to know that somebody can get through those darkest of darkest times, because it gets worse before it gets better. I hope that, in telling my story, other people might be assisted, although I am by no means healed. It's not from lack of trying. I think that the key points are not to be isolated, but to have available professional counseling assistance and community support. I was at my worst when I was alone in my own private hell. I believe I was most at risk of suicide when I was isolated rather than connected and unable to understand what was going on by myself. I hope that, by telling my story, others might reach out for help, even if they are okay for the moment, just on the off-chance it may help to prevent disaster in the future.'

Up the street from the café is the Ballarat Cathedral with thousands of ribbons tied to the church fence as a reminder of all that has gone on. How might the colour of those ribbons be celebrated again inside our Church? How might the warmth and support of that café be replicated within our Church? Once again Isaiah put it well with the Lord proclaiming:


If you remove from your midst
oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;
if you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted,
your light will rise in the darkness,
and your shadows become like noon.


We need to be more like Paul in today's second reading from 2 Corinthians:

'I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.'

May the spirit and power of God be with us in the darkness in these days ahead so that once again our light will rise in the darkness and our shadows become like noon. We remember that Julie Stewart and Peter Blenkiron both experienced the darkest of nights contemplating suicide. They have now shone a light for others. They have shone a light for us who remain members of a broken Church which has no other boast than the Lord who offers justice, love and mercy. God help us all in the weeks ahead.


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. The Royal Commission has invited him to participate in a panel discussion on Thursday because he has 'published in the area of the Sacrament of Reconciliation'. The panel will discuss: 'To what extent has the operation of the Sacrament of Reconciliation contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions or affected the institutional response to this abuse?'

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, seal of confession, Royal Commission, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

There may be improved vetting of candidates for priesthood and religious life. To what extent do these examinations explore their own experience of abuse? There is rarely mention of abuse in the home among family members, though we know it to be rife. The Church must surely address this issue very actively if the abused are not to become abusers, whether in their own families or in professional capacities and relationships, or the cycle may repeat in another generation.

Marjorie | 06 February 2017  

Frank, I am surprised that you refer to "the usual sporadic Aussie doses of anti-Catholicism" in the context of the attention on the church due to the unmitigated scandal of clerical child sexual abuse. I hope you don't mean to suggest that that attention on the Church is due in any degree to inherent anti-Catholicism rather than a proper response to the scandal. You rightly refer to 'dreadful' and 'depraved' abusers but you don't mention the terrible scandal of the institutional Church itself covering up for so many abusers, protecting and moving them to new parishes, and thus facilitating further abuse. When we're caught out in terrible behaviour, it's not very relevant to claim that some people don't like us. In fact, in my many decades in many jobs, locations and social groups in this country, I've never experienced any prejudice that could be described as "the usual sporadic Aussie doses of anti-Catholicism." As Catholics, we have done very well as part of Australian society, a situation put at risk by our Church's exposure of children to paedophiles and ephebophiles.

Peter Johnstone | 06 February 2017  

I think it would help if the Church admitted it has failed, especially in recent decades, to uphold the eternal verities in this area: Heaven. Hell. Choice. Eternity. When was the last time you heard a priest or bishop preach the catechism on these topics? Sexual abuse, like any violation of the sixth commandment (including adultery of course), is a mortal sin and, unrepented, merits eternal damnation. So does the deliberate covering up of sexual abuse. Moreover, secular law should reflect the degree of this evil. Sadly, it's not so reflected in prisons in the "enlightened" West where, the convicted live a lifestyle so salubrious that many people in underdeveloped countries would enthusiastically choose it over their current lot. As I have noted before, we have diaries of tourists noting that in Catholic baroque Venice, sexual abusers were regularly garroted in St Mark's Square. That may be a step too far for some these days, but it's a lot closer to the authentic Catholic perception of the evil of these deeds and may indicate why their commission engenders an inclination to suicide in the victims, as Fr Brennan notes.

HH | 06 February 2017  

These survivors need more than the help of God and the quoting of scriptures. They need proper compensation and they need it now. No ifs, no buts. Do not wait for the recommendations of the Royal Commission & “perhaps” a National redress scheme. No hiding behind lawyers & the disgraceful Ellis defence.

Tim | 06 February 2017  

Some great comments here. Peter, your opinion of Frank's anti-Catholic remark is spot-on. It is completely inappropriate in this context. Tim, your observation about compensation is also on the ball. Sell the churches, sell the schools, sell the land, whatever. It's time for the Catholic Church to do the right thing. Actually, the time has long passed, but better late than never. Abused folks never heal, but they can have better lives, and cash can lubricate that process.

David Healy | 06 February 2017  

We now know that at least 7% of Australian Catholic priests have complaints of child abuse made against them in the last 35 years, and from 20% to 40% of religious brothers have similarly been accused. The real figure may be higher. Our Church won't address the child abuse issue adequately unless it abandons compulsory celibacy and also stops being sexist. We wouldn't have anything like the extent of the current crisis if we had famale priests, as well as married priests. Bishops, remove the blinkers so many of you are wearing and start listening to lay people. Also listen to what progressive Bishops like Geoffrey Robinson, Pat Power and Bill Morris have said. They have advocated for a Vatican Council to address this one critical issue - child abuse in our Church - and they want the laity well represented at this Vatican Council. I suggests that readers email their Bishop with a similar request. All that it needs for the triumph of evil over good is that good people do nothing! The evil of child abuse in our Church has caused a crisis that won't be solved by our clergy alone. We need a special, lay-represented Vatican Council.

Grant Allen | 06 February 2017  

Thank you Father Frank for this very thoughtful homily. Although one instance of sexual abuse is appalling and to be decried, I'd like to put in a word for all of those religious orders, priests and sisters who upheld their vows and did their best to honour our shared faith. Yes, seven per cent of priests abusing children and teenagers is appalling. So is the fact that between 20 and 40 per cent of religious orders abused those entrusted to their care. But no one is speaking up for the 93 per cent of priests who upheld their vows and did nothing more than say 'hello' to families and children at Mass and at school. They and the 50 to 80 per cent of religious orders who taught and respected the children and teenagers entrusted to their care are the majority. Let us weep and pray for those who were abused, their abusers, those who have done nothing wrong, all of the people working so hard at the Royal Commission and all of us regular Catholics going to Mass and receiving the sacraments who are defending our faith. Oremus pro invicem. Kind regards and God bless.

Louise M Oliver | 07 February 2017  

I am a survivor of sexual abuse which effected me badly. One day I went to Boys Town in Western Australia which was run by the Benedictine monks near New Norcia. While there I was told that a lot of the boys orphaned there became Priests and Brothers. Many of those boys would have experienced sexual abuse and become perpetrators themselves. This issue is a lot more complicated than many will acknowledge. We need to find healing, peace and understanding. We need to stop the shaming, as shame makes people not want to talk about it. While I very much want to be compensated for the life I was forced to live, I more than anything want society to learn and understand what makes people do these types of things, and how as a society can we support people not to commit these types of crimes. Father Frank I thank you because being a catholic at the moment is hard, because of what people in the church did. I want us to be a light able to take away the darkness. I also want to honour the words of Jesus who gave his life fighting for justice, peace and prosperity for all people.

Michael | 08 February 2017  

Good to read Michael's comments. Never hear of any support being offered to abusers who may be in a lonely place trying to cease their actions. These people need pastoral care. Many of us know of exemplary Catholics who are perpetrators within their families. A cousin of mine was repeatedly raped by her father over many years from childhood. She was one of nine children in a model Catholic family, very involved in parish life. When one of her sisters went to the Parish Priest in her anguish he merely said "Forgive and forget"!! In Ireland it was even considered a normal rite of passage. Justification does not help the victim who is left feeling betrayed, confused and hurt beyond repair, and in danger of repeating what has been done to them. Amidst the devastating shame we are sharing at the present time, what are the plans for pastoral care to support family life in this particular area of very great concern?

Marjorie | 08 February 2017  

While each and every case of child abuse is to be deplored, we must maintain some balance. The 4,444 cases reported by Francis Sullivan include unsubstantiated claims of abuse of varying degrees. During this terrible period of abuse, millions of Australians have been educated, nursed and cared for by devoted priests, nuns and brothers. Their lives have been enriched and enhanced by this care and devotion. For many their Christian faith as nurtured by devout priests, nuns, and brothers will always be a central part of their daily lives.

Mary | 08 February 2017  

Accusations have been made against 40% of the members of some religious orders. And the other 60% saw nothing? That beggars belief. Why then did they feel no obligation to report their suspicions to the police? If the behaviour one walks by is the behaviour one condones, then we are not looking at a few bad apples here but a whole case of them.

Ginger Meggs | 09 February 2017  

"we expect that some of our church leaders will appear, looking stunned and helpless" I do not doubt the majority of us pray for those directly affected. I pray also that true leaders of the Church will be upright and help the light rise. Those past leaders who have failed so many must not feign innocent ignorance. They should stand up and share grief, regret and sorrow. Regardless, their inaction was not good enough and they must move on. Allow our Church to renew...

Matthew | 09 February 2017  

Thank you Frank for that Homily. I fully endorse Tim's comments regarding compensation. And, for goodness sake get rid of that honorific "Father". Language says it all and it turns us all into children.

Bernadette | 09 February 2017  

On Thursday I was summoned to give evidence before the royal commission on the seal of the confessional. You can read the transcript of evidence commencing at page 25101 of the transcript for 9 February available at http://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/case-study/261be84b-bec0-4440-b294-57d3e7de1234/case-study-50,-february-2017,-sydney

Frank Brennan SJ | 09 February 2017  

I am sick and tired of hearing about devout nuns and priests. This is a discussion about the sexual abuse of children and the cover up that is still going on. There is something fundamentally wrong when these devout priests did nothing to either stop the abuse or demand proper compensation. Their moral framework placed the vow of obedience ahead of the rape of a child.

Tim | 13 February 2017  

Like Tim, I too am sick of the litany of penitential hand-wringing by bishops and senior clerics. Jack Waterford's article in today's Age is well worth reading. He points out that if this had happened in any other organisation public or private there would have been 'regime change' - either via mass resignations or mass sackings. Bronwyn Bishop and Sussan Ley each lost their jobs for the inappropriate use of a few thousand dollars. Australian bishops seem to get away with anything so long as it's not heresy. For Waterford's article see < http://www.theage.com.au/comment/we-need-a-catholic-yom-kippur-and-a-serious-sacrifice-20170224-guko5e.html >

Ginger Meggs | 24 February 2017  

The church supposedly represent the work of Jesus Christ the Saviour. Jesus travelled from one side of the lake to the other, encountering the crowds of needy. The church has lost too many bricks to be sound and needs to face that it is ready to crumble unless it seeks visible healing from Jesus. I would like to see the leaders of the Catholic Church do as little as the Pharisees at least and go down to the lake and speak to Christ. Truly I would like to see them go there over and over and say Lord We have failed your little ones, we have failed you. God was not absent as this was happening. Each representative of the church needs to confront their own sin as to why they failed to hear and respond. The church has a 3 year cycle so this would be the recommended time for this. Each person representing the church needs to front up outwardly to Jesus as the Gentiles did and not hide in a cubicle and perform a checklist. Lord Jesus have Mercy on us, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

desla | 25 February 2017  

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