Let’s be less shrill about Church-State relations

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I had the good pleasure of celebrating Easter masses out in the country — Adaminaby and Nimmitabel in the Snowy country. At Adaminaby we had a full church and a very happy baptism. At Nimmitabel, the numbers were very modest but we delighted in the peace and tranquility of the Easter full moon. Upon returning to the city I was greeted by the Murdoch headline: 'Christianity under attack: Archbishop Anthony Fisher'.

Archbishop Anthony FisherOur Dominican preacher archbishop definitely proclaimed a strong Easter warning. In part he was responding to the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and in part to some of the 16,000 submissions to the Ruddock review on religious freedom which have been published on the government website.

Being on the Ruddock panel, it would of course not be appropriate for me to comment on any particular submissions at this time. But I was shocked by the Archbishop's shrill tone when he said, 'we cannot take the freedom to hold and practice our beliefs for granted, even here in Australia. Powerful interests now seek to marginalise religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life ... We may not always be as free as we are now to evangelise and baptise as Jesus mandated at the first Easter.'

During lent we had the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull venting his frustrations with the states being slow to sign up to the proposed national redress scheme for the victims of child sexual abuse in institutions. Turnbull turned the spotlight on the churches rather than the recalcitrant states, saying: 'If a church or a charity or an institution doesn't sign up, I hope they will be shamed. We'll be using the megaphones we have to encourage them to sign up, and I hope you all are too. I'm sure that if it's a church, their parishioners and members of their congregations will be doing so.'

This shrill use of megaphones by the leaders of church and state in their respective pulpits is not helpful. In the wake of the royal commission, there is a lot of painstaking work to be done ensuring that all institutions are child safe, and ensuring justice for survivors. Though the royal commission ran for five years, it has left a lot of unanswered questions. Before the royal commission was set up, many of us were calling for state assistance to the Catholic Church because the statistics on abuse in the Church seemed to be off the scale and needing clear explanation and corrective action.

Speaking at the Law Justice Awards dinner in Parliament House Sydney back in October 2012 before Julia Gillard had decided to set up a royal commission, I had said to the assembled lawyers and politicians, 'Whatever our religion or none, whatever our love or loathing of the Catholic Church, what is to be done in the name of law and justice? Clearly, the Church itself cannot be left alone to get its house in order. That would be a wrongful invocation of freedom of religion in a pluralist, democratic society. The state may have a role to play. As our elected politicians prudentially decide how best to proceed, they need assistance from lawyers committed to justice, not lawyers acting primarily to protect the Church or to condemn it.'

At that time, Professor Patrick Parkinson, an acknowledged national legal expert in the field, had conducted an initial study comparing reporting rates of abuse in the Catholic and Anglican Churches. I said, 'If the Anglican and Catholic figures are statistically comparable, we all need to know the explanation for the discrepancy. If there be particular problems in the Catholic Church, they need to be identified for the good of all citizens, not just Catholics.'

 

"It's time for all states to get on board, and for governments to share details of the proposed redress scheme, so that churches can sign up for truth, justice and healing for victims."

 

Five years on, we know a lot more, but there's still much we don't know about the figures. 35.7 per cent of survivors who came forward and who were interviewed by the royal commission said that the abuse took place in an institution managed by a group associated with the Catholic Church. 32.5 per cent of survivors who came forward and who were interviewed by the royal commission said that the abuse took place in a government-run institution. 22.4 per cent of survivors who came forward and who were interviewed by the royal commission said that the abuse took place in an institution managed by a group associated with a religious institution other than the Catholic Church. 10.5 per cent of survivors who came forward and who were interviewed by the royal commission said that the abuse took place in a non-government, non-religious institution.

Gerard Henderson has made the point that 'due to the systemic Catholic education system, which was not reflected in other faiths, Catholics must have accounted for around 80 per cent of children educated in a religious setting in Australia. Catholics also had a much higher percentage of orphanages and hospitals than like institutions which operated in a religious setting.' He asked Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald if the royal commission had drilled down into these figures. Fitzgerald replied: 'Regrettably there are no historic prevalence studies in Australia but we recommended such be undertaken in the future.'

It's a bit like what happened with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. An Aboriginal walking down the street was ten times more likely than any other Australian to die in custody. But once in custody, a prisoner, whether Aboriginal or not, was just as likely to die in custody. It was just that an Aboriginal was ten times more likely to be in jail in the first place. How much more likely was it in the past that a child would be abused in a Catholic institution than in a non-Catholic institution? How did this rate compare with the likelihood of a child being in a Catholic institution in the first place? It would have been helpful to have the answers to these questions.

Robert Fitzgerald spoke recently on a panel at a Catholic Social Services conference. A Catholic, and still a Catholic despite all he has heard and experienced these last five years, he said:

'It is clear that in so many institutions that when children needed love, they were met with hostility. There was simply no love present in their lives. When they returned to the Church to seek justice, they were met with indifference, hostility and unjust practices. And instead of a Church walking humbly with its God based on the messages of the gospel they found an arrogant Church. A church that placed its own reputation above the interests of those victims and survivors. And did so knowingly and willingly in a way as to cause further harm to many of those victims.'

Much of the media attention at the royal commission case studies relating to the Catholic Church focused on the failure of church leadership back in the 1970s and 1980s and on the secrecy within the Church, precluding the reporting of abuse to state authorities.

The good news for everyone is that since then, state authorities, especially police forces and child protection agencies have changed. The media and politicians are now more alive to the issues. Even if there had been little change in the Church, it would no longer be possible for the Church authorities to act as they did a couple of generations ago. This is not a reason for nonchalance. But it should give us pause before we become too shrill about changes in church-state relations. There is now a need to look more dispassionately at what reforms are being proposed.

During the royal commission, there was a lot of simplistic media coverage which left the viewer thinking that all would have been well if only church authorities had reported matters to the police or if only priests were not bound by the seal of the confessional. But the evidence was altogether different. In fact, the commission in its case studies reported only one case of a child sex abuser using the confessional to try and escape the processes of the law. Even that case would not be covered by the seal of the confessional, given the improper purpose of 'the penitent'. The usual case considered by the royal commission was not a penitent confessing but a victim disclosing abuse by another.

Fr Ian Waters, the distinguished canon lawyer who appeared before the royal commission to explain the operation of the seal of the confessional, has now written: 'It is simply quite incorrect to say, "Whatever I tell a priest in a confessional will never be revealed by him to anyone". More accurately, (the canon law) states that whatever sins of a penitent confessed by the penitent to the priest during a celebration of the sacrament of penance must never be revealed by the priest to anyone — a very different matter.'

And what's more, it hardly if ever happens. Pedophiles don't think they have committed any wrong. Even if they were to confess, they are more than likely to describe their offending in very generic terms. And if they really did want to confess without being reported to the authorities, they (like any other penitent) could present for confession in a confessional behind a veil where neither the victim's identity nor theirs would ever be revealed.

On the last day of the royal commission, Justice McClellan in his brief closing remarks made four poignant observations usually overlooked by those seeking simplistic solutions or explanations for the past wrongs specially of the Catholic Church:

'Just over 8000 people have come and spoken with a Commissioner in a private session. For many of those people, it has been the first time they have told their story. Most have never been to the police or any person in authority to report the abuse.'

'The failure to protect children has not been limited to institutions providing services to children. Some of our most important state instrumentalities have failed. Police often refused to believe children. They refused to investigate their complaints of abuse. Many children, who had attempted to escape abuse, were returned to unsafe institutions by the police. Child protection agencies did not listen to children. They did not act on their concerns, leaving them in situations of danger.'

'There must be changes in the culture, structure and governance practices of many institutions.'

'The number of children who are sexually abused in familial or other circumstances far exceeds those who are abused in institutions.'

It's time for everyone to be a little less shrill in the public square while the painstaking work is done to consider the implementation of recommendations from the royal commission which are workable and principled. It's not being shrill to say that not all recommendations are equally workable and principled. It's time to ensure that all institutions are safe for children. That's the state's business. And it's time for all states to get on board, and for governments to share details of the proposed redress scheme, so that churches can sign up for truth, justice and healing for victims.

 

 

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

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Anthony Fisher, Royal Commission, clergy sexual abuse, religious freedom

 

 

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Existing comments

Careful, Frank - this Dominican archbishop was schooled by the Jesuits!
John | 03 April 2018


A brief comment on the quote from Archbishop Fisher: "Powerful interests now seek to marginalise religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life". It is true that there is marginalisation of Christians but the most critical drivers of this division come from within the Church itself. In fact, many Christians have left the Church in sadness and shame, appalled by those leaders who have prioritised the interests of perpetrators over the victims of sexual abuse. Then again with Malcolm Turnbull who was appalled by the recent cricket scandal and was indeed shrill in his condemnation of it. Asked about sledging and poor behaviour in parliament, he avoided the question. Shakespeare warns against what ‘some ungracious pastors do’ and laments how they ‘reaks not his own rede’. A good bishop, or a good PM, is one who stands on the grass and tells everyone else to get off the grass.
PeterD | 03 April 2018


Archbishop Fisher claims that: "Powerful interests now seek to marginalise religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life ... " As a committed Catholic, I am shocked that a Catholic leader can respond to the confirmed crimes of the institutional Church by playing the victim. The only responsible and Christian response is to hang our heads in shame and to practise true Christianity. The arrogance in failing to recognise, let alone address the exposed failures and dysfunctions of the Church, is the very antithesis of true Christianity. Fisher and others are behaving in a manner that confirms the damning views of the strongest of the Church's critics. As Robert Fitzgerald observed, my Church "placed its own reputation above the interests of (abuse) victims and survivors . . . knowingly and willingly in a way as to cause further harm to many of those victims." My Church and I must reject past hypocrisy and practise the faith that we profess. That requires immediate reforms in accountability, transparency and inclusiveness in every aspect of the life of the Church; it also requires Christ-like humility of which there is no evidence in Archbishop Fisher's homily.
Peter Johnstone | 03 April 2018


Statistics analyse hard data. And shrill voices are born from broken hearts. It's a volatile combination. Statistics tell us about percentages. Cries from the heart tell us people are hurting. It's kind of like watching Janis Joplin screaming "Come on, take another little piece of my heart" and someone else saying "Let's talk about this rationally". Ensuring children are safe should be the highest priority of church and state. But listen to those voices of anguish.
Pam | 03 April 2018


"A church that placed its own reputation above the interests of those victims and survivors". There it is again. As if this was the only reason little was done, and only kind of reputation. Here's another scenario, based upon a 'reputation' the church would rather 'cover up', than protect. A certain notorious abuser says, "I'm not worried about what the bishops might do to me because of what I know about the bishops". Further perhaps supporting such a statement is a certain Cardinal, then Archbishop stating that "Archbishop Little FOR SOME REASON seemed incapable or unable to deal with [the abusive priest], or even to provide any adequate level of information about the situation." Frank, this is a useful summary but until we always include the possibility of clergy's knowledge of each other’s' sexual activities and/or predilections which occur in a context of fear of revelation, strong 'catholic' guilt, strong expectations of the laity regarding the 'purity' of their clergy, until we include this reality and until we fail to deal with it, the ability to protect children will be compromised, and further, it may produce a new (well not so new) set of more 'legal' victims - adults.
Stephen de Weger | 04 April 2018


@PeterD | 03 April 2018...Nicely said. What I fear, though is that while I totally agree that the Church itself is to blame for the marginalising it is now experiencing, in the words of JC Superstar - "they only need a small excuse, to put us all away". We have the angry and the paranoid extremes expecting a battle of 'faiths' - on the one side you have the (self) righteous who believe they are in the protective arms of God's word and perception of life: on the other side, you have those who politically despise religion especially the Christian one and are indeed building up 'evidence' to do away with it - it's happened before, and even though they failed it is still an attractive source or meaning of life for many - to attack religious people that is. Many have very good reason to do so, based on previous experiences of those religious people and their institutions. So, while we observe and comment on the 'battle' between the self-righteous religious and the self-righteous anti-religious, spare a thought for the victims of abuse, child and adult, who are just simply falling apart while their 'concerned parents' fight. And high-five, John!
Stephen de Weger | 04 April 2018


The statement you quote from Archbishop Fisher, Peter Johnstone, is a statement of fact not a response to the crime of sexual abuse by "playing the victim". I suggest that he too was speaking as "a committed Catholic" who 'practises true Christianity". Arrogance, an abstract notion, exists in the eye of the beholder and may not always be reliable in its connotations.
john frawley | 04 April 2018


Calling Archbishop Fisher's one-sentence comment on what faces Christians in Australia "shrill" is itself a bit shrilly. As far as I can see, His Grace wasn't referring to the response to the Royal Commission on child abuse: he was addressing the undeniable fact that Christians in Australia, and across the West, face increasing persecution for their beliefs. There have been scores of cases where this has occurred already. Across the West, Christian b&bs have had to close for fear of fines, Catholic adoption agencies have been wiped out, a camp run by Christians on Phillip Island was fined thousands because it refused to host a group advocating homosexual practices (just as it would have refused a group advocating heterosexual group sex, adultery or any other violation of the ten commandments). The SCOTUS is at this moment deciding whether a Christian baker should be fined thousands of dollars for refusing to style a cake for a gay couple's wedding (Masterpiece v Colorado). If it decides he should be fined, how is that not persecution? Why should bakers be forced to style cakes for events they regard as profoundly immoral? Should they be forced to bake a cake for abortionists celebrating one thousand abortions? By the same token, should atheist bakers be punished merely for refusing to bake a cake celebrating a baptism? The world has gone mad. Far from shockingly "shrill", Archbishop Fisher was understating the situation.
HH | 04 April 2018


Hi Stephen: Yes, there are many who are simply motivated "to attack religious people that is" - a fair point. But it's interesting how resilient Christians can be. There are 10million Catholics in China - numbers growing. I'm reminded of a quote {Chesterton? Belloc?] along the lines no other religion led by such fops could have lasted for so long unless it had special intervention on it behalf.
PeterD | 04 April 2018


John Frawley, you describe as ‘a statement of fact’ Archbishop Fisher’s claim, "Powerful interests now seek to marginalise religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life ... ". I described that statement as “playing the victim” because it fails to respect the fact that our society has good reason to question the place of the Catholic Church in public life. In evidence before the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse, the CEO of the Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, commented: “The hypocrisy involved in these historic failures is grossly unbefitting a Church which seeks to be, and should be, held to its own high standard.” He added, “It is vital that the culture of the Church that enabled the abuse of privilege and power that led to the crimes and cover-up be confronted head on, not only by those in positions of authority but also by the Catholic community as a whole.” As I stated in my earlier post, the faith that we profess “requires immediate reforms in accountability, transparency and inclusiveness . . . ; it also requires Christ-like humility of which there is no evidence in Archbishop Fisher's homily.”
Peter Johnstone | 04 April 2018


Again, Peter Johnstone, humility is yet another abstract that exists predominantly in the eye of the beholder. One of its features is that the humble are not into personal public pronouncements of their qualities and not critical of the person of others with whom they disagree. I would contest the notion that our society has good reason "to question the place of the Catholic Church in public life". The Catholic Church is in fact the greatest single contributor, ethically, financially and through voluntary aid to the good things that characterise Western civilisation. There is no doubt, however, that the mistakes made at a time when our society was the very antithesis of what it is today in relation to child sexual abuse are not the mistakes of Christ's Church and its teachings. They are not Christ's mistakes. They are human mistakes that require human correction. If there are criticisms to be made, criticise the human not the divine. I think we who claim to be good players [practising true Christianity], committed to the team [Catholicism]should support the captain [Arch. Fisher]. After all Christ chose him and everyone else in the team. We have to play well and not disruptively or we will never win and might lose ourselves!!
john frawley | 04 April 2018


john Frawley: Humility my not be critical of others but by its nature exposes sin. The on-going scandal emanating from Rome (Cannon Law) has incorporated deflection, denials, stonewalling, bribes, intimidation and lies, to cite this evil as human ‘mistakes’ beggar’s belief. Human sinfulness, by those who profess to have been chosen, to speak for God, need to acknowledge before Him and those they were meant to serve, their collusion (Silence) with these sins. As true humility shows contrition for what has occurred, and those eyes that behold it, cannot help but acknowledge its sincerity. God Himself has given the church the means to do this through the True Divine Mercy Image one of Broken Man. Evil men within the church have forgotten who they were meant to serve, and in ‘arrogance’ made God in their own image (See the link), and in doing so committed blasphemy. I have posed this question on many sites both Conservative and Liberal …. ‘Is God’s Word (Will) endorsed by the Church Inviolate?.... The unification of silence on this question is deafening as both parties play to their own manmade agendas. If they did not do so, they possible would ‘lose them selves’ before the Inviolate Word (Will) of God, and in doing so walk in ‘humility’, dressed in the mantle of Jesus Christ, as in, “Learn from me for I am meek and ‘humble’ of heart” http://www.catholicethos.net/errors-amoris-laetitia/#comment-170
Kevin Walters | 04 April 2018


Where were you on Ember Day? The Sorrowful Mysteries Rosary was prayed. The present were on their knees for 60 minutes. As were four Bishops and His Grace. What was the answer to what the Lord told Abraham, " I have heard a great outcry". The words meditated on during the exposition of one of the mysteries?: The horrific sin the church chose: to silence the abused, by silence? Had you been there, Peter Johnstone, you would know. Had you been there you would have heard of a new promise. The words spoken by Bishop Anthony Fisher: "No child, nor vulnerable person, will ever again be abused, by clergy or religious or lay person. Nor get away with it, ever again, if it has happened. Not on my watch- mark my word!" Or in other words. (We must) resolve not to be overcome by evil. But to combat evil with good. Pope Francis
AO | 04 April 2018


You write, John, of criticising the human not the divine and then state “After all Christ chose him [captain Arch. Fisher] and everyone else in the team.” Pursuing your analogy: do we follow the captain and his leadership team in every decision? is Frank Brennan disloyal in terms of identifying ‘shrill’ tone etc? are all bishops beyond criticism because ‘Christ chose’ them? Your differentiation of human and divine around episcopal handling of issues around victims of sexual abuse is blurry. How bishops are chosen in Australia is a very human, even political process, the discipline retained by ad lumina visits. Hierarchical elements from the old Roman empire reside in the Church, the Army, PublicS, Universities etc where everyone knows their pecking order to a peck. There should not be such distinctions, Paul states. If Christ was photographed in modern times, or appeared on TV, how he would be dressed? Would he have a mitre and a crook and be attired in rich, ornamental robes? One of the criticisms of the Mardi Gras community about bishops is that ‘they like to tog up like us but hate to share the dressing room’. Christ might well be in the dressing room.
PeterD | 05 April 2018


Love the great leadership + Fisher is giving us in this area. Let us continue to pray for him
John | 05 April 2018


You are absolutely correct, Peter D. However, I would submit that Christ also chose Judas who, in his humanity, strayed into disloyalty for the coveted reward of money. Some bishops have similarly strayed, perhaps not for money but in protection of the hubris (lack of humility) that attaches in their perceptions to their human position and power. Such have done what I have called "abandonment of the divine" in favour of the human. We should follow the captain in all decisions that relate to truth, faith and morals, the object of the game, but should not follow in those decisions which are based on the human and if the captain strays as the leader, then he should be kicked out of the team [??Bishop Morris??] As far as the sexual abuse cover up was concerned, some bishops chose to cover up for what they perceived as a greater good protecting the human. I, like most other Catholics of the 1960s, 70s and 80s I suspect, was completely unaware of this diabolical scandal of sexual abuse of children and have been a critic of those who favoured the humanity over the divine and will continue in the same vane. On a lighter note, it seems that in his time and place Christ dressed in the fashion of his times. I suspect that if he were here today he would probably dress in the fashion of these times and would be highly unlikely to front up to the mardi gras !
john frawley | 05 April 2018


I agree Kevin Walters. What I called mistakes were indeed grave sins. I made the error of complying with the political correctness of this God-forsaken age where sin no longed exists and mention of it is upsetting for so many people - it would have been so un-Christian of me to call it sin!
john frawley | 05 April 2018


PeterD. To see? To see what? Ever thought the gold and the glitter in the church are deterrents for unbelievers? True believers, those who poses the mind and spirit of Christ, while beholding the baroque shell- contemplate the inner perl and how it is essentially still just a tiny grain of sand. Yes, a grain of sand, a lost coin, a dew drop, a mustard seed, a crumb, a tiny white flower. The blind see. But the seeing ( thinking they see) are blind.
AO | 05 April 2018


interesting discussion about whether Jesus would go to the Mardi Gras. Also interesting that of all the characters in (60s/70s) Jesus Christ Superstar, it was Herod's troupe that would have fit most comfortably in the Mardi-Gras. Not a judgement, just an interesting/amusing observation.
Stephen de Weger | 06 April 2018


As an ex-Catholic that I would have sent my children to a Catholic school. It is long over due for the Catholic Church to face the systematic physical and psychological abuse of children in Catholic schools of my era. In short we got shit belted out of us and lived in fear. And it still effects me more than 50 years later. Furthermore it needs to face up to the associated abuse of any non-Catholic parent, like my father. They are the primary reasons I am no longer a Catholic. Indeed, I don't think that the Catholic Church has much to do with God. How dare the Archbishop make such ridiculous claims, when it is clear that any authority to speak on moral or religious issues has been undermined by the Church's own terrible sins and spiritual arrogance.
Lee Boldeman | 06 April 2018


The Archbishop was widely quoted as saying, "Powerful interests now seek to marginalise religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones" and the accuracy of the reporting has not been challenged. Who are there "powerful interests"? Both the Governor-General and the Prime Minister are practising Catholics and there are several in the federal cabinet as well as an abundance on the Coalition back-bench (notably Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce). Were then, in Australia, does Dr Fisher seriously think that this "persecution" is occurring. He sounds like a man who las little knowledge of real persecution: perhaps he should get about more, internationally; or reflect on life in the Soviet era. I heard him preach during a Christmas concert in his Cathedral and -- inappropriately, I thought -- brought up the (by then lost) issue of same-sex marriage. For an audience which contained many children, i felt that it was seriously misjudged and it reminded me of a priest, at a seaside resort, whose Good Friday homily, to a congregation which was, overwhelmingly grandparents and grandchildren (with absolutely nobody aged in between) was about the evils of abortion. So Professor Brennan's characterisation, of "shrill", sounded most apt to me. It would be salutary if, just occasionally, bishops listened to themselves honestly and critically or looked into the mirror thoughtfully.
John Carmody | 06 April 2018


It’s a pity that so much attention has been paid, both in the press and pulpit, about the Royal Commission and the secret of the confessional, because a far more serious secret is being ignored, the pontifical secret which prevents any bishop from reporting complaints of child sexual abuse by one of his priests to the civil authorities unless there also happens to be an applicable civil reporting law. Comprehensive reporting laws only exist in NSW and Victoria currently, and in all other States and Territories, any complaint of historic abuse (where the survivor is currently over the age of 18) cannot be reported to the civil authorities without breaching canon law – art 30 of Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela and Secreta Continere of 1974. The Royal Commission has found that there is no place for such secrecy in relation to child sexual abuse and has recommended its abolition. For an issue of the secret of confession to arise, the perpetrator has to go to confession. For the pontifical secret to apply, a complaint only has to be made about a priest to his bishop.
Kieran Tapsell | 06 April 2018


On Easter Sunday Archbishop Fisher's homily could have stressed the radical love of God that underscores our salvation. Instead his people got fed propaganda about the church sacraments being the means for salvation. The characteristic of Christ's radical love is servant leadership in order to bring about life for another, instead the people heard about perceived persecution. It seems to me that Archbishop Fisher wasted an opportunity to evangelize the wonderful news of resurrection and eternal life being available for followers of Jesus, who teachings emphatically stated the requirement to bring about life to each other through recognition and healing love. Because when we are not recognized and affirmed then we are isolated. The homily I heard at Mass on Sunday talked about radical love and discipleship through service and commitment, if I had been at St. Mary's in Sydney it would have been tempting to walk out. Archbishop Fisher stressed the importance of his Sacramental Church which adheres to Canon law, but this Church's integrity is compromised by the fact that Canon law does not reflect the values taught by Christ.
Trish Martin | 06 April 2018


Well spoken, Frank. I pray that you maintain your characteristic equanimity as well as your acuity both within the context of your Ruddock Panel membership as well as in your public ruminations beyond. I note too that the tide of secularist antipathy towards religion and religious institutions and topics, especially in the aftermath of the Royal Commission's Report, has been firmly resisted by the Editors of the Conversation as well as by the majority of other known and fair-minded non-Catholics and secularists who contribute to that well-known e-journal, so adoption of victimhood in the supposed spate of anti-Catholicsm and anti-religion mooted by some here to be drowning us in (in my view self-inflicted) sorrow simply doesn't stand up to objective scrutiny. And while I have the floor, I'd respectfully remind AO that Jesus was born in a manger and celebrated His Last Supper in a room above a pub. I know of no theological, rubrical or liturgical teaching contesting this. Try telling that to the parish priest I know in Brisbane who recently imported Italian mosaicists to decorate his new church and has yet to present accounts to the lay parishioners who will end up having to pay for it.
Michael Furtado | 06 April 2018


I do not agree with all that Archbishop Fisher said. As a Catholic lay woman with years of experience of how life is really like in this ever changing world of ours, I often resent a 'spokesperson' presuming that he is speaking on my behalf when he is not.
margaret | 06 April 2018


Thanks Frank for your reflections. I am not a Roman Catholic but do not believe that the Archbishop of Sydney understands the changes that have occurred in our community life and the media seem to have a blind eye to the last points you mention re the final statement of the Commission. I would like to see a time of Lamentation and reflection by Church leadership . I am not sure however that unless the broader community attitudes change in addressing family abuse much will occur. While institutions need to be accountable so do the Governments and we the people .
Ray Cleary | 06 April 2018


As usual Frank you are very careful in your choice of words and arguments. Yet you do take issue at an archbishop' words and in this I cannot agree more. Shrill is a polite way of saying it. What this particular man, and he unfortunately is not on his own, is hell bent on doing is trying to not only ignore the teachings and spirit of Vatican II but undermining it. To say that Christianity is under attack by a secular society is, it seems to me, counter to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. As long ago as the 1960's the Catholic Church was teaching that it was in need of renewal and openness to the societies of the world. And now these men are trying to tell us that this world is against us. Fortunately the shrill words are falling on less and less ears and will continue to do so as long as this archbishop and his ilk are rewarded for their anti Vatican II rantings.
Tom Kingston | 06 April 2018


It is a statistical error to say that the percentage of all offences reported by institution reflect the size of the problem in an institution. Gerard Henderson is right to point out that this ignores the sizes of the institutions. Perhaps the figures have misled and provoked the archbishop and the politician. (Need I say that in no way do I condone or excuse any offence).
Peter Horan | 06 April 2018


Almost as an aside in this otherwise important piece, Frank Brennan regrettably dismisses the Royal Commission’s finding that, despite the ‘seal of confession’, priests should be subject to the proposed general requirement to report paedophiles. Frank refers to “simplistic media coverage” implying “all would have been well (1) if only church authorities had reported matters to the police or (2) if only priests were not bound by the seal of the confessional.” Re (2), no-one reading the RC report could draw that exaggerated conclusion. The carefully considered recommendation is intended to ensure that any knowledge of a paedophile at large is reported to the police to protect children. The principle applies regardless of numbers of paedophiles that might use the confessional. The seal is not 'sacred', rather a canonical provision for which there are good reasons but for which there are already exceptions. Any confessor who knows of a paedophile at large has a grave moral obligation to protect children by reporting that paedophile. As for (1), the failure of Church authorities to report, that failure was no small matter, an institutional protection of paedophiles, with transfers to new parishes and opportunities, leading to further abuse by paedophiles left at large, a ‘failure’ that raises fundamental questions about the Church’s unaccountable, secretive governance – questions that Church authorities have continued to ignore.
Peter Johnstone | 07 April 2018


Hullo AO, You inquired: "Ever thought the gold and the glitter in the church are deterrents for unbelievers?" Yes, I have and I know others who have. Some people are appalled also at the riches of the Vatican, its earthly treasures more logically located in a museum, a gallery etc. Along with some of the excesses of the Vatican Bank, some Catholics with attitude might suggest this is going down the 'money-changers in the temple' path. You associate true belief with those who see beyond the external image of the baroque shell and contemplate the inner pearl, the mustard seed; whereas those who can't see this, you conclude, are spiritually blind. I understand baroque is a “highly ornate and often extravagant style of architecture, art and music that flourished in Europe from the early 17th until the late 18th century.” In seeking Jesus in the gospels, why do we need in this 21st century to construct ‘ornate’ and ‘extravagant’ barriers or overlays before we encounter the simplicity of the mustard seed, the lost coin, the flower etc that you mention?
PeterD | 08 April 2018


Michael Furtado. Because all rational falls short. Only a women who has given birth to a baby, is graced by the profound understanding of the meaning of the miracle of Jesus being born in poverty. Spiritual and material poverty however you wish and 'desire' to experience them, in order to understand Christ's Love for those who love Him, will never suffice. And such desire is a drop of rain in comparison to the ocean. A biological mother is given to live the profound love and knowledge of the depth of this miraculous event as is the birth of her own child . I doubt you will ever find one who can articulate this grace to you. The blind see. Study these words. They may be of a additional help.
AO | 09 April 2018


Trish Martin. "Instead the people heard about perceived persecution... and the Sacraments"? Yes. 1) Those who truly love and have loved, Christ, have been persecuted throughout the centuries. Serving as He served, many by giving their life for others, as He did for humanity. 2) And, any doubt about the necessity of the Sacraments : His Channels of Divine Grace - His Divine Spirit - His free Gift(s) of Himself to, and for us, His Beloved. Is eradication by understanding Jesus' words to Nicodemus: "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to Spirit." John 3: 6 Though,'understanding' too, is a gift of the spirit. A gift to those who truely love Him.
AO | 09 April 2018


A very interesting discussion! It fails to take account of the Archbishop's extraordinary scholarship and experience, claimed by his professors at Law School to be of the highest order. His books on ethics are also highly regarded. I suspect he has the wood on most of us! What is unfathomable, however, is that "committed Catholics" seem determined to blame all in Catholic administration for the mistakes of the few who stupidly misjudged their responses in pursuit of what they perceived as the common good of the Church, protecting reputation rather than truth, justice and childhood innocence. Shameful, naive and stupid by any measure !! But just as shameful, the apparent determination of "committed Catholics" to ignore Christ's dying plea "Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do". Many of those things the cacophony of critics, dissenters, Vatican II interpreters and reformers demand from the Church are already enshrined in Protestantism, particularly the Anglican Church. Perhaps they would find greater peace if they were to join it and realise their dreams. Then the Catholic Church, freed from the constant demand to address criticism and defend its beliefs, might find the time for restoration and repair of the terrible damage it has brought on itself and suffered at the urgings of "committed Catholic" critics.
john frawley | 09 April 2018


Frank refers to the crimes of the 70's & 80's. This may be true but the hideous crime of covering up continues today. Until the Catholic Church re visit their pathetic pay outs of recent times & open up their files, it's all just talk.
Tim | 09 April 2018


An eminent Catholic priest, Frank Brennan SJ, registers shock at the shrill tone adopted by Archbishop Fisher on Church/State relations: the faithful can be perplexed. For many conservative Catholics, this is tantamount to disloyalty. John Frawley, for instance, believes in forgiving rather than casting stones; he equates criticism and dissent with shame. Indeed, he believes such critics might find greater peace if they were to become Protestants. How should we regard those who seek reform in the Church and criticise aspects of its governance, administration and even some of its teachings? John Frawley probably represents the views of many Australian Catholics, perhaps a majority. A question of interest to me is: How would Catholics rate the bishops’ performance in the media in Australia during the period of the RC? How would Francis Sullivan be regarded? Can the laity, particularly women, make valuable contributions in Church matters? From early days, the Church has always had conflict around issues;. For example, Peter and Paul, had different views around circumcision at the First Jerusalem Council. Jesus criticised commerce in the temple, pharisaical self-righteousness etc. How do we value airing concerns for Church renewal as opposed to loyalty, obedience, even dissent?
PeterD | 09 April 2018


The dictionary tells us that an ellipsis (represented by three dots on a page) is the omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous or able to be understood from contextual clues. But Father Brennan’s three dots are not an ellipsis because they censor the reasons given by the Archbishop for his claim, viz. “They would end funding to faith-based schools, hospitals and welfare agencies, strip us of charitable status and protections, cast us as 'Public Enemy No. 1'.” The complete homily is reproduced on the Sydney Archdiocese website. Given the shrouded reasons, if there is a problem with the relevant part of the Archbishop’s homily, it is not that the content is shrill but that the delivery was not stentorian. Why should the wrath of Satan be the only leonine roar on this earth when the Archbishop, in collegiality with the other successors of the Apostles, represents the Lion of Judah?
Roy Chen Yee | 09 April 2018


AO ‘The blind see. But the seeing (thinking they see) are blind’…. ”Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”… For me these words relate to our ongoing ‘awareness’ of our own self-judgment, under the bright lamp of Truth, and if embraced honestly, will transform the shamefulness (Grit) within our hearts, as in, we see but then we realise we do not see, then again we see/understand, this ongoing process/awareness cannot be digested in the mind alone, as the light of the our intellect is a dry light, for fluidity (Spiritual growth) it has to harmonise within our vulnerable hearts, and this can only come about by embracing our own vulnerability in Trust and humility before our Fathers inviolate Word (Will). “Learn from me I am meek and lowly of heart” and you shall find rest to your souls”. Or put another way, learn from His vulnerability while in humble ‘simplicity’ we are been emptied of the selfhood; we then find (the lost coin, a dew drop, a mustard seed, pearl) joy, the spiritual ‘treasure’ of humility dwelling/adorning within our own heart/soul. kevin your brother in Christ
Kevin Walters | 10 April 2018


Tom Kingston. I was surprised by your assessment that the Archbishop's claim that Christianity is under attack in a secular society is "contrary to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council" and that 'he and his ilk are guilty of Anti-Vatican II rantings". So surprised, that I have been hunting through the Vatican II documents since your post of four days ago in search of the teaching you speak of which I imagine supports your statement. I haven't found anything which does to date. Could you please give me a reference to the appropriate teachings [something the Church has sadly failed to do for the laity over the last 50 years] that I might become enlightened.
john frawley | 10 April 2018


Kevin Walters. Yes. The blind see. What you have written is not dissimilar to what St John of the Cross also discovered: If the understanding is to be united with that light and become Divine in the state of perfection, it should first of all be purged and annihilated as to its natural light, and, by means of this dark contemplation, be brought actually into darkness. This darkness should continue for as long as is needful in order to expel and annihilate the habit which the soul has long since formed in its manner of understanding, and the Divine light and illumination will then take its place. In order to attain the said union to which this dark night is disposing and leading it, the soul must be filled and endowed with a certain glorious magnificence in its communion with God, which includes within itself innumerable blessings springing from delights which exceed all the abundance that the soul can naturally possess…It is meet, then, that the soul be first of all brought into emptiness and poverty of spirit and purged from all help, consolation and natural apprehension with respect to all things, both above and below. In this way, being empty, it is able indeed to be poor in spirit and freed from the old man, in order to live that new and blessed life which is attained by means of this night, and which is the state of union with God.
AO | 11 April 2018


Sorry John Frawley. I am not used to be taken literally, or seriously, for that matter as I am a 'lay' person. Have given my Vatican II book to a local theological library. Maybe I could have said something about the 'spirit' of Vatican 11 that would have saved you a few hours of research.
Tom Kingston | 11 April 2018


Thank you Fr. Brennan for your thought provoking article. As a life long practising Catholic I have been appalled and shocked at the world wide shocking crimes committed by Catholic clerics and mainly male Religious of many Religious Orders. Even more shocked to hear via the Royal Commission and the world press of the cover up of these crimes by our leaders, the Archbishops Bishops and other senior leaders of Religious Orders. The motivation said to be to protect the Church. In the light of all the evidence that reason is also shocking. Thousands of innocent children, and other vulnerable people have had to wait till adulthood to have the courage to speak out about their damaged lives not to mention their Faith and Trust in their Church also in ruins for many of them. The Pontifical Secret has also been a scandal moderated by the Vatican. Is it any wonder so many of us Catholics have felt shaken in Faith and Trust in an Institution that has strayed so far from Gospel values. I have felt so grateful to the Royal Commission for exposing these terrible happenings and to our first female Prime Minister Ms. Julia Gillard for having the courage to call the Commission . It is time our church called many more faith filled competent women to all offices in our church. We need a new Pentecost. Margaret M. Coffey
Margaret M. Coffey | 12 April 2018


Thank you for replying, Tom Kingston. Not sure that mention of the "spirit" would help me - it seems to me that there are many spirits of Vatican II, each supporting a different cause and few of them paying heed to what the Council actually promulgated in its eighteen documents including the four Apostolic Constitutions which are the major purveyors of authoritative teachings of the Council.
john frawley | 12 April 2018


AO Thank you for that informative post; to reflect upon it is rather daunting. So, John 3:30 He must increase but I must decrease ...kevin your brother In Christ.
Kevin Walters | 12 April 2018


Religion a controlling mechanism for those that cannot accept end.
Mark | 12 April 2018


Fr Brennan’s article was very precise and covered some of the main concerns survivors needed to have “spelt” out to the greater community. The bottom line in all the Royal Commission’s revelations and lessons learnt is that it is imperative “changes in the culture, structure and governance of institutions”, dealing with children, are set down in a “charter” that is workable, conducive to “Child Safety”, implemented and accountability documented and counter signed for assurity.
Mary Adams | 14 April 2018


Nothing in Archbishop Fisher's homily surprised me one bit. It's content was par for the course for him. John Frawley mentions +Fisher's scholarly background, but none of it showed in his homily.
Bruce Stafford | 15 April 2018


Thank the dear Lord for Archbishop Fischer. I was present at St Mary's Easter Mass and felt a flood of relief that someone spoke honestly about the situation of being a Catholic in today's secular society. I feel very grateful that he said those words which were not shrill but music to my ears. He made me know I was not alone in my fears for the Church.I think we are in good hands with him as our Church leader. We are betrayed by too many heretical priests these days. I will ask him to remember you in his prayers.
Cressida de Nova | 31 May 2018


Fr Frank, this is a breath of fresh air. Thank you . This is a way of healing if we prayerfully share this wisdom with each other. Bless you for sharing your gifts. Pat
Patricia Adams RSM | 13 June 2018


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