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It's time to put past victims and present and future children first



Homily, Holy Trinity Church, Curtin, Transfiguration Parish, North Woden, Canberra, 26 February 2017

Jesus has told his disciples: 'No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.'

We have just emerged from what the media calls 'the Catholic wrap up' at the Royal Commission. This three-week hearing culminated in the joint appearance of the five most senior bishops in our Australian Church. They apologised not just for the sins of those church personnel who violated children, the most vulnerable members of our church community. They apologised and acknowledged also the gross failures of their predecessors and other church authorities who failed to act resolutely and compassionately in relation to the perpetrators and the victims, labelling their responses as 'scandalously insufficient, hopelessly inadequate, scandalously inefficient', as 'a kind of criminal negligence', 'totally, totally inadequate. Just totally wrong'. Some 'were just like rabbits in the headlights. They just had no idea what to do, and their performance was appalling.'

Here were our most senior church leaders admitting that in the past there were church authorities seeking to serve two masters, and failing completely. No doubt those past church authorities were professing their faith in, commitment to and discipleship with Jesus who said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them! For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.' (Mt 19:4) But in the past, these spiritual leaders were also professing their commitment to an institution which commanded their hierarchical obedience and clerical acquiescence in protecting the institution's public reputation and its coffers. We are now left in no doubt: 'No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.'

It's time to put past victims and present and future children first. And make no mistake, our church leaders are not yet out of the blaze of the headlights. They don't have all the answers, not even in relation to matters peculiarly within their jurisdiction. Despite being put on notice, our most senior bishops could not even agree on the limits of the seal of the confessional and on what a priest should do if abuse were reported in the confessional by a child. It's not just our past leaders who needed help. Our present leaders also do, and that help must come from you the competent laity who as the parents of children know in the core of your being how dreadful and unacceptable is anything that might put children at risk.

Paul tells the Corinthians: 'My brothers and sisters: Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.' Addressing that breakdown of trust and the clericalist mind-set which has separated the leaders from the people, Bishop Vincent Long, the Bishop of Parramatta who came to Australia as a Vietnamese refugee, told the commission:


It's no secret that we have been operating, at least under the two previous pontificates, from what I'd describe as a perfect society model where there is a neat, almost divinely inspired, pecking order, and that pecking order is heavily tilted towards the ordained. So, you have the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, religious, consecrated men and women, and the laity right at the bottom of the pyramid. I think we need to dismantle that model of Church. If I could use the biblical image of wineskins, it's old wineskins that are no longer relevant, no longer able to contain the new wine, if you like. I think we really need to examine seriously that kind of model of Church where it promotes the superiority of the ordained and it facilitates that power imbalance between the ordained and the non-ordained, which in turn facilitates that attitude of clericalism.


We should not be tempted to despair. No doubt we have good cause to be feeling like Zion in times past, lamenting, 'The Lord has abandoned me, the Lord has forgotten me'. But Isaiah asks, 'Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb?' We know that we live in a very broken world and in a shattered church when all too often those in positions of trust have forgotten the children and failed to cherish them. Yahweh's promise holds good in this our time of trial: 'Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you.'

Jesus invites us to set our hearts on his kingdom first, and his righteousness. If we do this, all other things will be given to us as well. With worldly wisdom Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow. It will take care of itself. 'Each day has enough trouble of its own.' God knows that's true!

As we worry about how we as Church will maintain our mission, our institutions, and our public standing, we should reaffirm: 'In God alone is my soul at rest; my help comes from him. He alone is my rock, my stronghold, my fortress, I stand firm.' We think of the birds of the air and the flowers growing in the fields. Now if that is how God clothes the grass in the field which is there today and thrown in the furnace tomorrow, will not the Lord much more look after us who are people of little, though some, faith? But will he not also insist that some of our past ways be thrown into the furnace?

Bishop Long told the royal commission:


I think we are all products of our life experiences and being a refugee provides me with that particular vantage point through which I form relationships with people, I evaluate their individuality, their personal stories, their dignity. I was also a victim of sexual abuse by clergy when I first came to Australia, even though I was an adult, so that had a powerful impact on me and how I want to, you know, walk in the shoes of other victims and really endeavour to attain justice and dignity for them.


At the end of last Friday's hearing, Archbishop Denis Hart issued a statement as president of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference saying:


What we have learnt from our involvement in the Royal Commission case studies and our own work in coming to a better understanding of the many different issues that have contributed to child sexual abuse in the Church will inform our future policies and practices. The work of the Commission staff and the Commissioners themselves has no doubt been gruelling and challenging and, along with the rest of the Australian community, we owe them a debt of gratitude for their years of service.


There are some things the royal commission will be able to recommend to government and to our parliaments. They will recommend a national redress scheme and will prescribe protocols and basic standards for child protection. Despite the horrific statistics from the past, we can at least take heart that the New South Wales Ombudsman which provided the royal commission with a lot of statistical information has advised that since 2010 'notification rates and sustained finding rates for allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual offences are similar across the government, Catholic, and independent school "industry groups" — an indicator that the systems in place for identifying and responding to allegations are generally working consistently across the schools sector'. But we are members of a society where child sexual abuse is still occurring in families and institutions at horrific rates.

There are some things which only the Church itself will be able to fix. For the first time since 1937, the Australian bishops have announced that a synod is to be held in three years' time. All proposals for breaking down the culture of clericalism need to be on the table. Our church will be credible for your children and grandchildren only if church authority is seen to be exercised transparently, accountably and inclusively. The coming generations have no interest in an institution whose leaders ask, 'What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed?' They know that it is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things, as do church authorities seeking to serve two masters. Notions of tradition, authority, and community have taken a great battering in our post-modern world. When announcing the 2020 plenary council of our Church, Archbishop Coleridge said last August, 'I think we have to accept the fact that Christendom is over — by which I mean mass, civic Christianity. It's over.' That was plain for all to see last week when our key bishops were called to account by the state. There were five black suited, silver crossed archbishops being cross-examined by a woman, in public, demanding that the questions be answered and not fudged!

I recommend to you the book Child, Arise! The Courage to Stand: A Spiritual Handbook for Survivors of Sexual Abuse (David Lovell Publishing, 2015, and listen here) by Jane N. Dowling (a pseudonym for a self-described 'survivor' of abuse). Jane hopes that 'survivors can discover that they are never alone because the loving God who created us and gave us life is with us in all the ups and downs of our healing journey.' (p. 10) Just look at the birds of the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns. Think of the flowers growing in the fields. Not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these. Let's hope and pray for those victims who will never darken the door of a church again, that they will find healing and new life assured by their God that even if those to whom they were entrusted as children forget, they will never be forgotten and they can stand firm again knowing a rock, a stronghold and a fortress. Let's be ready to extend a helping hand to victims and church leaders. They both need our help; and they are both yet to emerge from a very dark place. May God, our rock, our stronghold and our fortress sustain us in the dark days ahead. Trust in him at all times. Pour out your hearts before him.


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

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



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Existing comments

At what point will the same blowtorch be applied to every other institution, which seems let off the hook, despite clear examples of abuse of children? The State's role in the care of children has had a blind eye turned to it. I find it hard to believe that there's isn't another agenda emerging out of the RC, which is let's annihilate the church, which they've decided has no place in secular Australia. I'm proud of my church, of St V de P, of all the nuns and good services, and I'm tired of a group of mostly Anglo men seeking to eviscerate my church.

Rosemary Sheehan | 02 March 2017  

The Royal Commission has been an arduous experience for all concerned. For the survivors, a chance at last to speak, to be heard and to be believed. For the churches, a chance to look their terrible failings squarely in the eye, and to find a way forward. That way forward must take survivors' needs into account first and foremost. And for parents of children attending Catholic and other church schools, a reminder to be as involved as possible at their school. The final few sentences in the final paragraph point to new hope and new beginnings.

Pam | 02 March 2017  

Thank you Frank for the clarity and sincerity of your words. I hope your homily will be heard and read by many, and so to reflect and to have hope - for the survivors, our leaders and our Church.

Pat Ferguson | 02 March 2017  

Very pleasing to see.l think the church needs a very public yom kippur a very appropriate pre Easter preparation.

Anne | 02 March 2017  

Frank, if no man can serves two masters then the Vatican has to be the starting point. The Vatican is enormously wealthy. Back in 1985 Time Magazine estimated its wealth at $15 billion. It has probably doubled since then. Various orders like the Christian Brothers, Marists, Salesians, Vincentians for example have paid lip service to putting the welfare of the child first. But its lip service and male dormitory masters have run amok in the boarding schools for decades. And there are so many examples of abuse of power by priests as well throughout the country. Bishop Long is right. The hierarchy of the church needs an overhaul & the degrees of rank and status need to be torn down like Jerusalem's ancient temple. The "reputation" of the church should no longer take precedence over the removal of the offenders. referring victims to "Towards Healing" - a front for Catholic insurance, should stop. Rome and its cardinals and bishops need to take a good long look in the mirror and stop lecturing the "flock" about their religious precepts. As Jesus said " You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you: ‘These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; they teach as doctrine the precepts of men.’”…Matthew 15:8

francis Armstrong | 02 March 2017  

Thank you, Frank, for a thoughtful, considered reflection. Your appeal to a competent laity goes to the heart of hope for the future. Christendom is past but the next form of the Church is yet to emerge. A theologically literate and articulate Catholic public will be at the centre of that evolution as we develop structures for self-criticism and correction internally rather than rely on civil authorities to call us to account. Authority in the Church is not just from above; it is also in the heart of the authentic Christian.

Kevin Liston | 03 March 2017  

Thanks Frank for your wise words. However the elephant in the room is the response of the Vatican. It is the Vatican which told Australian bishops what to do. Have they changed their approach.

Kevin Kelly | 05 March 2017  

Chrissie Foster writes about my conversation with her husband Anthony during the royal commission hearings (“Pathetic excuses for the sins of the fathers”, The Australian 6/3). During the lunch break on the day I appeared at the commission, I was sitting outside with a group of people including two victims. While we were talking, Mr Foster came and sat alone nearby. On my way back into the commission, I went up to greet him and introduce myself. We had never met before. But I did recognise him. I then made the egregious mistake of thinking his name was O’Donnell — the “horrible priest” who committed such appalling crimes on his children. I was mortified, overcome and apologetic. I am sorry that I gave the perception of walking away “without so much as a grimace or apology”. I was shaken to my core. Never having met Mrs Foster, I now apologise to her unreservedly. My mistake was truly shocking. My only defence is that I was trying to reach out, but that is a very fraught thing for any priest relating to victims and their families at this time. I made a dreadful mistake. I’m sorry.

Frank Brennan SJ | 07 March 2017  

Thank you to Father F. Brennan & to Jane Dowling for keeping us informed and encouraged in these dark times. I thoroughly agree with this article. We seriously need to look to the future and now.

Patricia Foley | 07 March 2017  

Thank you Fr Brennan for this Homily. I'm still recovering from merely hearing the 'empty words', all but a few, the Bishops said. Listening to them, has personally given me a deeper understanding of the extreme pain, confusion, frustration and abyssal darkness those abused by their colleagues experienced. May God have Mercy on us all. But particularly may He have Mercy on these Bishops for betraying Christ Jesus in all the abused who pleaded for help, mercy, kindness and justice... For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.

AO | 03 April 2017  

Every other institution? But we are seeing the evidence against the evil that was hidden in our church. I don't think Christ will accept the apology"Oh, but it wasn't just us"! Our shame is a window showing our love and compassion. The victims are tired too - tired of the inertia shown in our parishes, by their fellow catholics, to reach out to those driven away by their shepherds. It's not the RC we need to fear. We need to fear our silence!

Patricia Hamilton | 25 April 2017  

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