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Pastoral priests decry clerical culture that fostered abuse

  • 14 February 2014

Recently I led the priests of the Diocese of Ballarat in their annual retreat. I was conscious of the burden these priests were carrying in relation to clerical sexual abuse. Yet as an outsider, I had no words of wisdom to impart to a group of men who had agonised over the issue for some time. So I invited them to share with each other their thoughts, feelings and experiences around this painful and shameful time in their lives as priests.

Each priest was painfully aware of the terrible harm done to victims of abuse, their families, the wider community and the Church. They spoke of the need for healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and continuing examination of ways to see that the climate in which such abuse was perpetrated would not continue. Later, I had a heart-rending conversation with one of the priests who said 'I am not a paedophile and I am not a bishop, but a priest who feels he is carrying the can for all the sins committed and mistakes made by others.'

Most priests believe the Royal Commission or something similar was very much needed to face up to a terrible episode in the Church's history. They also believe that sexual abuse took place in an environment of clericalism which was imposed by the highest authority in the Church, and which they felt powerless to confront. 'Father is always right' operated from the Pope down and any questioning of it was seen as disloyal or even heretical.

One of the most blatant expressions of such clericalism is propagated in an Instruction of the Congregation for the Clergy (the congregation of the Roman Curia responsible for overseeing matters regarding priests and deacons not belonging to religious orders), 'On certain questions regarding the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the sacred ministry of the priest'. This was issued on 15 August 1997 after being approved by Pope John Paul II two days earlier. It can still be found on the Vatican website.

In many ways it became the basis for the Statement of Conclusions presented to the Australian Bishops following the 1998 Oceania Synod of Bishops. Generations of Australian priests have shared the lives and aspirations of their people, listening to their stories and responding to their needs. Yet this document criticised such attitudes for being too egalitarian.

Good priests across Australia were and still are appalled at such expressions of clericalism. Many, myself