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Bishop Robinson confrontation leaves unfinished business


'Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church', by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, in which he explores what he sees as the roots of abuse in the Church, continues to raise controversy.

In May this year the Australian Bishops issued a statement in which they praised Bishop Robinson's commitment to the victims of abuse, but raised issues of doctrine that concerned them in his book. In reply, Bishop Robinson expressed disappointment that they left untreated the central challenge made by his book.

Acting on the request of Roman authorities, many United States Bishops have recently said he would not be welcome to speak in their churches.

It may be helpful to put this controversy into context. When Geoffrey Robinson was assistant Bishop in Sydney, he helped coordinate the response of the Catholic Church to victims of abuse within Catholic institutions. In the course of his work he spoke with many victims of sexual abuse. These experiences inform the central arguments in Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church.

So what is Bishop Robinson's argument, and why did the Australian Bishops criticise his book?

In his book Bishop Robinson argues that the causes of sexual abuse are to be sought in the psychological state of the abusers, in their ideas about power and sex, and in the environment that shapes them. He claims that these factors are woven together in a church culture that needs to be changed if the roots of sexual abuse are to be excised. He explores broadly how this church culture developed and how it could be changed.

In the Catholic Church it is each Bishop's responsibility to teach the received faith. The Bishop of Rome, the Pope, has an overall responsibility to preserve the unity of faith and life in the local churches. He intervenes when local Bishops cannot deal effectively with issues that arise. In their decision to criticise Bishop Robinson's book, the Australian Bishops' Conference judged that matters of faith were at stake.

In their statement, they praised Bishop Robinson's contribution to the life of the church. 'We are deeply indebted to him for his years of effort to bring help and healing to those who have suffered sexual abuse, and for what he has done to establish protocols of professional standards for Church personnel in this area.'

They then claim that the book questions the authority of the Church to teach definitively. It also questions the knowledge and authority of Christ that ground the authority of the Church to teach. In detail, they claim that the book questions Catholic teaching on tradition, scriptural inspiration, the infallibility of Councils and Pope, the nature of priesthood, and elements of the Church's moral teaching. They conclude by conceding that the authority entrusted by Christ to the Church can be badly exercised.

The criticisms are sweeping. But their scope is not altogether clear. The Bishops find fault with Bishop Robinson's questioning. There are two forms of questioning: one explores, the other denies. We can question faith by exploring its grounding and its boundaries. Other questioning can be tantamount to denial. We may assume that received positions are untrue unless we are given reasons that immediately convince us, or we may simply propose an alternative position inconsistent with a received position that we do not even take into account.

In the case of this book, Bishop Robinson certainly questions the authority of the church and other matters in the first sense. He must do so if he is to explore the groundings of a church culture. But if the book is read in a way that assumes the author's good intentions, it is not evident that his questioning amounts to denial.

But the Bishops may have been concerned that the book would be widely read in this way. Indeed this risk is inherent in the shape of its argument. To discuss the pathologies of a culture is like reflecting on the factors within an organism that are conducive to cancer. The sources of cancer are also the sources of the life of the organism. If we focus only on eradicating cancer without asking what makes for a healthy organism, we may kill the organism in eradicating the cancer.

In Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church Bishop Robinson focuses on pathological ideas. His arguing partners are those who make excessive claims for the scope of Church teaching, demand too much deference to Church officials, have too narrowly negative a view of human sexuality, and who put compulsory clerical celibacy beyond discussion.

In covering so many areas so broadly, Bishop Robinson cannot give a rounded and solidly grounded view of Catholic faith and life. He cannot do full justice to the Church as a living organism. In Catholic faith, this life is identified with the presence of the Holy Spirit within the development of the Church. If the book is not read in the light of an organic view of the Catholic Church, could be read as a negatively analytical and piecemeal account.

The Bishops then may have thought it necessary to warn against this possible reading of the book, particularly for readers who assume that it has added authority because it was written by a Bishop.

Bishop Robinson has accepted the Bishops' right to respond. But he was disappointed that they did not address the crucial issues which he raised. These are the extent to which the Catholic culture, including the institutions of clerical celibacy and of the exercise of authority, shapes attitudes to sex and power. And the extent to which these attitudes damage people, making abuse and its concealment more likely.

These questions remain. They have not been answered by the criticisms made of Bishop Robinson's book, however justified they may be. Precisely because the sources of pathology lie so close to the sources of life in the Catholic Church, as in other organisms, it will require a great deal of research and self-reflection to address these questions. But the pain of the victims of sexual abuse cries out that they should be addressed seriously.

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (John Garratt Publishing)

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church



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Existing comments

Thanks for this comment. It is helpful to me as I have wanted to read Bishop Robinson's book, since I was involved in establishing our UCA procedures for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse against clergy. It is always instructive to consider the cultures that lead to abuses of power, sexual abuse being one form.

But what equally interests me is how quick our churches are to either pounce on issues of sexuality as sins of morality through an inadequate theology of sexuality and life and how they fail to give greater energy to the social and church systems that are unjust and create the imbalances of power: e.g. empire, war and poverty. These are also named sins for which whole nations were and are judged. ES has always stood out for me in this way.

Judi Fisher | 29 May 2008  

A very enlightening article by Andrew Hamilton - rational and clear - thank you.

Helen Owens | 29 May 2008  

Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson writes a courtesy letter to some United States bishops and they have the chutzpah to disinvite him?

'Both Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and San Diego Bishop Robert Brom have asked Robinson not to speak in their jurisdictions.'

Who asked them? What nerve.

Bishop Geoffrey, gentleman that he is, doesn’t need Mahony’s, Brom’s or any other bishop’s permission to speak. He already has it. It belongs to everyone and we call it a human right, freedom of expression. In the USA it is protected by the Constitution.

I just hope all this publicity points up the importance of reading and talking about what is in his book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. I have read it and suggest everyone do the same.

I also suggest Cardinal Mahony and Bishop Brom should write letters of apology.

Sister Maureen Paul Turlish
Victims' Advocate
New Castle, Delaware, USA

SMPTURLISH | 29 May 2008  

A young Aboriginal girl spoke about reconciliation on More than Enough Rope last Monday. She wisely said the bad things that have happened must be revealed so we can all deal with them and healing can begin. The same applies to scandals within the Church.

We need the wisdom and love to balance the needs of both victims and perpetrators. The hurt runs very deep in the Church family because each member has responsibility to care for all other members.

The Church (all God’s people) has a responsibility to care for both victims and perpetrators and to prevent as far as possible such things from happening again. Jesus warned us that following him would not be easy.

Margaret McDonald | 29 May 2008  

Thank you for this brave, rational, lucid, insightful article on Bishop Robinson's recent publication. If only our leaders could look at the big picture, how much richer we all would be.

Mary Trainor rsm | 29 May 2008  

It is very interesting that the Bishops seem to be of the opinion that we the Church cannot think for ourselves. This is one of Bishop Robinson's points: that the way the Church is now is a product of too much dictatorial doctrine without exploring its origins.

Christ himself founded the Church and Bishop Robinson spends quite a deal of time in his writing exploring the origins of our tradition. It is a pity some of the elders of the Church haven't spent a similar amount of time in researching the foundation of our great and wonderful faith.

Rosemary Keenan | 29 May 2008  

Well done, Andrew. You manage to be clearly orthodox and respectful to authorities yet to highlight issues central to needed reforms. People with your charity and clarity are, alas, as rare as they are greatly needed.

john fox | 29 May 2008  

The image of the priesthood has been irreparably damaged in the eyes of the students I teach because of the pedophile scandal although, it would be true to say, without evidence from a significant research project, the scandals have been used to confirm non-attendance and non-involvement with the parish Church for a variety of other reasons.

However, it does not help the healing of Church when prelates seek to excuse the inexcusable by trying to blame the pornography industry and a culture of lax sexual morals. Many of the offences at my college took place before pornography became prevalent.

For a prelate to condemn Robinson without reading his book seems to flow from the same mindset which Robinson is questioning.

Graeme | 29 May 2008  

Thank you Andrew for that lucid explanation of the Catholic Bishop's response to Geoffrey Robinson's book. I have read the book and can find nothing in it that challenges my faith but which surely challenges the church's attitude to confronting the culture of abuse which Bishop Geoff raises in the book.

In their response the Bishops have neatly side-stepped the critical issues raised in the book and only addressed the issues of church authority.

I agree with you Andrew that the more important issues are the questions which Geoff Robinson raises which I don't believe question the churches' teaching authority at all.

I hope that the book will be made available to all Catholics so that all can read it and form their own opinions.

For me, where there has been so clearly a breach of trust by some of our clergy and there is an overwhelming need to open up every aspect of our church because of the possibility that such behaviour could have been condoned.

Let us pray that the church will now examine its collective conscience and face squarely the questions raised by Bishop Geoff. As John 23 said; 'Let's Open the windows of our church and let in some fresh air'.

Paul Rummery | 29 May 2008  

Both Bishop Robinson and Father Hamilton fail to locate the problem of clerical child sexual abuse in its wider context, where it properly belongs. We are dealing here, not just with the peripheral dark side of Catholic clerical culture, but with society generally where pedophile imaging has emerged in corporate business, advertising, glossy magazines, fashion, art etc.

Sexual maltreatment of children is concentrated in families where the chief perpetrators are fathers and other male relatives. Recent sociological studies in the United States suggest that, of the caring professions, the Catholic clergy are one of the least likely groups to offend in this way. Clerical formation and celibacy do not cause child abuse.

Theologically, Robinson and Hamilton also have a narrow take on the Petrine and episcopal offices. These ministries are not just about management but also have a uniquely important doctrinal role.

The Australian bishops do not find fault with questioning as such. After all, that is how theology makes progress. What they find fault with is questioning by Catholics which strays beyond Catholic dogmatic parameters. The bishops are merely doing what they are paid to do. They are to be congratulated on their balanced and sensitive statement.

Sylvester | 29 May 2008  

I have taught RE in secondary Catholic schools for 40 years. I have a B Theol as well as a Grad Cert RE, although I do not claim to be in any sense a theologian.

It has been of late my experience with senior students that they are more than keen to hear the Gospel message. They are most troubled by the recent history of abuse by so many in the catholic ministry.

I find the unresolved status of this issue in Australia a huge impediment to the authentic proclamation of the good news to our needy youth.

Geoffrey Robinson was for so many of us out there ‘at the chalkface’; a prophet; at last a bishop who could speak out. I am deeply saddened by the harassment of this good man.

Bernard P Ryan | 29 May 2008  

It was inevitable that the Catholic Bishops would respond in a negative way to Bishop Robinson’s book.

It is disappointing that they didn’t comment on the central theme in the book, which deals with an entrenched Catholic culture of denial, but concentrate instead on authority. Rather than engaging in the essential issues central to the book the Bishops attempt to dismiss it completely by quoting scripture as if that’s the end of the matter.

They do not engage in a reasoned debate, but rather they attempt to dismiss Bishop Robinson himself, and consequently his book, because of their ‘uncertainty about (Bishop Robinson’s) knowledge and authority of Christ himself’ on the grounds that it does not agree with their interpretation of scripture.

It is patronising, and disappointing, that the Bishops are not prepared to countenance a discussion on issues other than what they think is suitable. They appear not to understand that thinking Catholics cannot, and will not, be so manipulated by such feudal behavior.

Jeff Kevin | 29 May 2008  

Congratulations. It's very disappointing that the bishops did not tackle this central issue. More power to your pen (computer typing fingers).

Alan Gill | 29 May 2008  

Having already set a precedent on his recent visit to the US, Pope Benedict would be wise to not only apologise to the victims of clerical sexual abuse in Australia but should also seize the occaion of World Youth Day to issue a global apology for these crimes.

Otherwise, the so-called "unfinished business" will simply drag on. And where does that leave the church's reputation in regard to both justice and compassion.

The great paradox with our church is that although trusted to communicate the Word, it's simply unable to communicate. Deceit, obfuscation, and reluctance are not acceptable alternatives.

If the Pope neglects the opportunity that he'll have in Sydney, then his visit will disappoint millions around the world, and a growing number of priests and bishops like Bishop Robinson who simply can't be just fobbed off. One has also to remember that when the Bishops Conference isues a statement as it did in regard to Bishop Robinson, it does not carry the endorsement of the Australian laity.

Rather, it accentuates the deepening divide between the hierarchy and the laity

Brian Haill | 29 May 2008  

Bernard: What do you mean by abuse by "so many" in Catholic ministry? One reliable estimate has the approximate per centage of US Catholic priests who have been the subject of accusations - note, accusations, not convictions - at 2-3%. Obviously, one is too many but we need to get this issue into perspective and realise that the underlying cause of this problem is not "clerical culture" but personal pathological orientations. We need to be wary, too, of ideological bias in the mass media. The overwhelmingly vast majority of seminary-trained, celibate priests has not offended in this way.

A couple of extra points: Nobody is calling Robinson's goodness into question. Were there no major impeding pedagogical factors in the evangelisation of Catholic youth before the child abuse crisis?

Kevin: Far from being trapped in "an entrenched culture of denial", the Australian Catholic Church has, after a shaky start, been exemplary in addressing this scandal and is way ahead of other social institutionals with the same problem. Far from dismissing Robinson, the bishops praised and thanked him for his work in this area. Far from opposing discussion on this issue, the bishops' statement promotes it.

Sylvester | 29 May 2008  

I am reminded of the recent testimony by the nephew of a (now deceased) South African Cardinal. The boy was less than six years old, and his father caught a man dressed as a Catholic cleric raping him in the toilets at a party. The child was taken home and thrashed. When his mother later confronted the Cardinal, she was threatened with excommunication!

It is abundantly clear that there are deep-seated institutional problems in the Church, revolving around the issues of power and sex. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson has shown enormous courage in fleshing out some of the issues which require debate. In the book he claims the right to be wrong: it is the Magisterium which paradoxically claims the right not to be wrong! If only there could be a little humility.

Vincent | 30 May 2008  

I am a 55 year old American grandfather. I was physically/sexually abused by nuns as a child. Abuse is not Catholic. No matter who does it.

Thomas Michael Barnes | 30 May 2008  

Having read Bishop Robinson's book I cannot accept the criticism of the Bishops.

To a layman like myself the theological criticism of the Bishops has no relevance to the case of abuse of power put by Bishop Robinson. The fact is that my faith in the Church becomes more steadfast because the criticism points to a need for the Church to be organic and to grow. The Bishops of Australia must recognise that there is a need for them to change - to change their attitude towards the laity. They must realise that the Holy Spirit does not only work through their
exclusive "brotherhood" but reveals herself to the laity and will work through the laity.

The bishops must recognise that there has been an abuse of power by the clergy and that abuse has been a cause of distress and sadness to many.

nick agocs | 30 May 2008  

Andrew a well formed response. When I received the fax copy of the Bishop's statement I wondered why it was unsigned.

Anthony K. Toms | 30 May 2008  

Most of the contributors to this discussion are conflating and confusing two issues (1) sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy and (2) Catholic ecclesiological doctrine. These are related but distinct issues. In writing a book about the former Robinson appears to have taken up some ambiguous theological positions regarding the latter. The fact that the bishops have issued a caution about Robinson's ecclesiology does not mean that are indifferent to the pain and damage caused by child abuse. They must deal with the abuse issue, and have, in fact, done so. As teachers of the faith, they must also safeguard the truth of how the Church understands itself.

Sylvester | 30 May 2008  

Thanks Andrew. While we continue to have bishops appointed for political Roman reasons rather than gospel based ecclesial ones I suppose the Spirit will remain patient

des welladsen | 30 May 2008  

Sylvester: I’m not unaware of how the Church has responded to clerical abuse and I agree that it has gone a long way to rectify the situation in most cases but not all.

You have missed the point. I challenge the view that the Bishops addressed this issue in their statement, when they clearly have not. And as for their praise of Bishop Robinson, an obvious tactic is that before criticism is leveled you praise the person first.

Deep-rooted denial exists within the hierarchy of the Church in many ways, in particular when it forbids discussion on issues other than what it considers appropriate. Take, for example, the ban on a discussion on woman priests. Don’t you find it insulting that they (the hierarchy) think that can silence debate for no logical reason?

Over half the Catholic population is woman and to not allow them full participation within the church is a denial of an issue that must be debated.

The Bishops statement was solely about its authority and how to maintain its control, firstly of Bishop Robinson himself and secondly by denying discussion of the issues he raised.

jeff Kevin | 30 May 2008  

Thank you Andrew for your appraisal. It stimulates greater understanding.

There is encouragement in the final paragraph of the ACBs’ response. As you say they concede that authority can be poorly exercised. Perhaps the next concession will be that authority is oppressively exercised. For that is the reality.

The bishops state that poor exercise of authority does not invalidate authority. It follows that neither would bad nor oppressive exercise invalidate it.

It is likely these responses together are a first authoritative statement from the ACBs that a problem wider than sexual abuse exists within the realm of its authority. Seemingly the bishops recognise that a more general problem exists from which particular abuses arise.

Considering past responses from individual bishops and ACB, the current response is welcomed.

Hopefully the ACB will keep advancing, perhaps to the stage in which that collective body will acknowledge from factual bases that the people of God are denied their rights to their dignity and freedoms as a chosen people.

As to the people of God, we should support the ACB and individual bishops with our understanding of the enormous difficulties they face in many areas.

George Wyer | 31 May 2008  

Jeff: You have too bleak and pessimistic a view of the intentions of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference. It is not fair to call into question their appreciation of the enormous contribution that Bishop Robinson has made to helping the Church to come to terms honestly, professionally and compassionately with the damage caused by clerical abuse.

Again, I think you are confusing the issues. This particular statement of the bishops is not primarily about abuse but about the theological understanding of the nature and authority of the Catholic Church that emerges from Robinson's book. The bishops as the first teachers of the faith cannot ignore this issue. Their responses to the child abuse issue are found elsewhere. It is unhelpful to load too much on to the statement about Robinson.

As to the issue of women, full participation in the life of the Church surely is not conditional on receiving the sacrament of ordination. Lay people are not lesser members of the Church because they are not priests.

Sylvester | 01 June 2008  

I am disappointed at the bitterness directed to the Australian bishops in some of the responses. If we can be sensitive to Bishop Robinson's feelings, cannot we be the same toward his episcopal brothers? What they had to do could not have been easy. I think they accomplished it with compassion.

I am not convinced by Bishop Robinson's contention that because sex abuse is about sex and power it is likely that attitudes to sex and power in the church have contributed to it. Statistics do not support his claim. The percentage of those who have abused children among Catholic clerics and religious is about the same as in other denominations, religions and secular professions. The particulars of the Catholic culture, sexual morality, governance or clerical celibacy do not seem to have contributed to a higher percentage.

I wish the Bishop had written a serious work on the sexual abuse of children so we could all have benefited his experience. He could then have challenged church teaching and government elsewhere if he so wished. Mixing the two has not helped.

Statistics suggest that in Australia one in five girls and one in 12 boys are sexually abused in some way before the age of 15; and that over 70 per cent of all reported cases happen in families. This means by implication that by far the majority of cases of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church happen not in presbyteries but in Catholic homes.

Has there been a massive cover up among the laity of the Church about this? Will no one face this awful problem or are we content just to bash the bishops?

And if we are to ask the Pope to make an apology, why not the Premier for the abuse in State institutions, and the Minister for Education for the abuse in public schools?

Fr Ronan Kilgannon | 01 June 2008  

If I may add to my comments of yesterday, I recommend to all concerned about abusive exercise of power and authority the recently released book written by George R. Wilson SJ entitled Clericalism - The Death of Priesthood. Primarily Fr Wilson deals with the common priesthood and the ordained priesthood as integral to the commission of abuses and to their eradication.

A learned reviewer writes,"Jesuit George Wilson has the eyes and heart of a good pastor ... Learned in history, theology and organisational theory, Father Wilson provides just the right book at just the right time. Everybody who wonders what can be done to help the church and its priests in the next generation should read this book."

Experience over a long period in confronting abusers of fundamental freedoms and human rights, at all levels of government and society throughout Australia enables me to endorse those remarks enthusiastically. And to add, what Fr Wilson proposes can overcome all systems and types of abuse.

One difficulty not posed is, how can the people of God in the parishes get the ordained priests, bishops and the ACB to the table of their concern with the love which Fr Wilson promotes?

Perpetrators and facilitators of abusive exercise of authority inevitably require coercion to enter into meaningful dialogue and conciliation. Since people do not have coersive powers, they can only rely, and defiantly so, on the power in who they are as children of God and ever hopefully, on the goodwill of priests, bishops and the ACB. At the present time the latter is grossly deficient.

George Wyer | 01 June 2008  

Andrew, than kyou for your clarity. I have read and appreciated Bishop Robinson's book - his courage gives me hope.

Fr Kilgannon - It would be a wonderful step in the direction of a healing process for the Pope to apologise as he has recently done in America - so too Premiers and Ministers of Institutions where abuse has occurred.

The recent outpouring of grief and gratitude following the Prime minister's 13 February apology is surely testament to the value of 'I am sorry'.

Anne Foale | 05 June 2008  

I am a 63 year Australian Catholic woman who is thoroughly committed to the reforms of Vatican 2. I am part of the Aquinas Academy's initiative Catalyst for Renewal. I am committed to the our groups dedication to an ongoing dialogue on the serious and compelling issues that face the life of the Catholic Church in Australia.
Thank you for outlining the arguments related to questioning. I like what you had to say and I post what I am now considering in my own mind from what you said.
"There are two forms of questioning: one explores, the other denies. We can question faith by exploring its grounding and its boundaries. Other questioning can be tantamount to denial. We may assume that received positions are untrue unless we are given reasons that immediately convince us, or we may simply propose an alternative position "
I belive as well that Bishop Robinson's motives are good and that is also the key to his questioning. Loyal dissent seems misunderstood to me.
Thanks for Eureka Street. Best wishes for all concerned.

Jane Walton | 07 June 2008  

I think the bishops statement is patronising and misses the bus. Surely the bishops don't expect people these days to ask questions especially about something so obvious as the link between child abuse and a "Yes Father whatever you say Father" church culture.

The bishops seem to be going one better than Pope Benedict who says in the foreword to his recent book 'It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search "for the face of the Lord". Everyone then is free to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.'

Ray Ham | 11 June 2008  

Thank you, it is really helpful to read sincere, unbiased views of this difficult and painful subject.

My comment is that when people like Bishop Robinson are doing their courageous best to
confront these awful wrongs in the church, others seem more interested in criticising the author's efforts, and thereby distracting from the real issues.

My family and friends who are not Catholics are appalled (as am I) that these matters have not been addressed with more courage and vigour and openness, and are horrified that I am still a committed Catholic.

It appears to me that those who have the "power" to take positive action, are perhaps more fearful of the damage the issue of years of cover up would have. They could take courage if they truly believed in a loving and compassionate God. I pray that they will.

Patricia | 05 April 2010  

I watched Bishop Robinson being interview on TV re sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and I felt at last SOMEONE is saying it as it is. He indicated many areas that the church has to come to grips with in a meaningful way. Having just read the Bishop's response to his book I am disgusted and greatly dissapointed that they dismiss it so easily. I feel like walking away from a religion that can be so blinkered and hypocritical. We catholics deserve so much better than this.

Kay Scobie | 21 June 2013  

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