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Rebuilding trust must be the priority



It's a common refrain from survivors of clerical sexual abuse, often heard when church leaders try to explain away their failure to listen and respond to the crimes of their peers: 'They just don't get it.'

Pope FrancisUp until recently, Pope Francis has seemed to 'get it' in his response to the crisis of abuse. He has met with survivors in a number of countries, and has even written a preface to a book by a survivor. He launched the Pontifical Commission for Minors, and ensured victims had a voice on that commission.

But recent events have raised doubts on whether Francis really does 'get it'. The commission lost both of its survivor representatives, first Peter Saunders and then Marie Collins stepping down last year. The commission's term expired in December, with no word on what might be happening in the future. And, most recently, the Pope has tried to defend a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse by accusing survivors of slander.

During his three-day visit to Chile, Francis faced protests from survivors and activists angered by his 2015 appointment of Bishop Juan Barros to the Diocese of Osorno. Barros has been accused of covering up the crimes of his friend Father Fernando Karadima, who was convicted of abuse by a Vatican tribunal in 2011. Barros has insisted that he neither knew nor suspected anything of the abuses.

The Vatican has defended Barros' appointment a number of times, but it was always going to be raised during the Pope's visit. Asked about the issue on his last day in Chile, the Pope responded, 'The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I'll speak. There is not one shred of proof against him. It's all calumny. Is that clear?'

The response angered victims and activists around the world. One of Karadima's victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, tweeted: 'As If I could have taken a selfie or photo while Karadima abused me and others and Juan Barros stood by watching it all ... (T)he pontiff talks about atonement to the victims. Nothing has changed, and his plea for forgiveness is empty.'

The comments have once again set abuse survivors and their supporters in opposition to the Catholic Church. Francis issued an apology for the 'slap in the face' to victims, but continued to defend Barros, calling for 'evidence' to be brought forward. In this case, it seems, the word of survivors is not evidence enough.


"Beyond the question of the guilt of Barros, Pell or Wilson, is the issue of how moral leadership can be exercised when a church leader comes under such a cloud of suspicion."


In Australia, the Pope's comments come at a particularly bad time, as the Church struggles to retain its credibility in the wake of the final report from the Royal Commission. Here, too, Catholic bishops have come under a cloud due to alleged involvement in historical abuse.

Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson faces trial for covering up child sexual abuse in Newcastle, while Cardinal George Pell faces sex abuse charges in Melbourne. Pell has taken a leave of absence from his Vatican roles to defend the charges against him. However, Wilson remains in his role in Adelaide.

Beyond the question of the guilt of Barros, Pell or Wilson, is the issue of how moral leadership can be exercised when a church leader comes under such a cloud of suspicion. It's one thing for the Church to offer support to those who are determined to defend themselves against allegations, and to allow the justice system to do its work. But there's a practical question for the Church as to how a person can be a credible public figure when the public no longer trusts what they have to say.

The Royal Commission has highlighted many failures of governance that contributed to the Church's horrific response to clerical sexual abuse. The Catholic Church needs leaders who 'get it'. Its leaders need to be able to engage with victims, to hear the impact that abuse has had on them, and be trusted to understand the betrayal, anger and grief that the issue has stirred up. But when its leaders are so compromised that survivors won't even speak with them that task is impossible.

In the wake of the Royal Commission, and similar crises in other parts of the world, the Church's urgent task is to rebuild trust. Open, transparent and accountable governance is a must — particularly when it comes to its response to abuse. Trust won't be rebuilt by an opaque Church hierarchy going about its usual opaque business. Trust won't be rebuilt by bunkering down and insisting on 'business as usual' while so many of its current leaders face questions over their complicity in the Church's failures.

By ignoring and sidelining the voices of victims and others angry about the Church's record on abuse, Francis is making it harder for the Catholic Church to deal with an issue that has become the defining one for our times.

No one would suggest that people who have been accused of abuse, or covering up for abusers, don't deserve to be able to answer the accusations against them, and to be able to continue in ministry if the allegations are proven to be false. The issue is whether they are the right people to lead the Church out of its current crisis, or whether the Church needs a new generation of leaders more able to re-establish trust.

We Catholics cannot choose who leads us, but we all choose who we follow. If the Church's leaders are absent, or cannot be trusted to provide leadership, then people will stop listening to them. Indeed, in many cases, they already have. That is an issue that Pope Francis cannot ignore.



Michael McVeighMichael McVeigh is senior editor at Jesuit Communications, publishers of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, Pope Francis, Royal Commission, clergy sex abuse



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Existing comments

When the behaviour of priest abusers is so clandestine and comes with threats from a perceived position of power, evidence is clearly going to be difficult to come by. The only thing that reveals the abuse is the testimony of the victim. This testimony is clearly threatening to the continued very existence of the Church itself. It is understandable that individually blameless, good people in positions of authority and responsibility in the Church are torn between belief in a self-proclaimed victim without other evidence or destruction of the Church. It is a diabolical situation. If evil itself had conspired to rid the world of Christianity, it couldn't have chosen a better means of accomplishing its aim than through the sexual abuse of children. The great paradox is that if the Church had responded by abandoning the abusers to the determination of the civil courts it would have been admired more than condemned because such an action would be a public display of the true morality to which it supposedly aspires. Pope Francis is naïve in his attempts to maintain the innocence of the Church. He undoes so much of his personal good work when he makes some of the ridiculous comments on issues that are out of his domain. He should leave to Caesar the things in which Caesar is expert and widely advised (civil politics and administration) and to God the things that his appointed Earth authority is expert in ( the promotion of God's word and teaching and the prescription of morality in human living). The Pope's job is to rid the Church of corruption as Christ rid the temple of the usurers. His meddling is becoming a big problem and he doesn't get it.

john frawley | 24 January 2018  

It's immensely hurtful when someone, or some organisation, doesn't 'get it' when we tell our story. Most especially when that organisation is so vital to the fabric of our lives. When sexual abuse victims cannot produce evidence, when they cannot even articulate their abuse, how much more devastation is wrought when they are met with coldness and suspicion. This abuse hasn't happened at random but in a place of mutual dependence and belief. Maybe part of the problem with leaders in the church being perceived as unsympathetic is that the whole body is viewed by them as of greater importance than the individual within that body. Victims and perpetrators need greater love than that.

Pam | 24 January 2018  

Pam comments on the perception that 'the whole body is viewed by them as of greater importance than the individual within that body".I'd go even further. My perception is that the structure of a tiny, tiny part of the whole body is viewed by them as of greater importance than the whole Body. The Barque of Peter is supposed to be a place of healing and safety. But why would anyone take refuge there if the Captain and Crew are going to make off with the lifeboats and leave the rest of us to sink? Guys, you are failing to protect our children. How much worse can it get?

Joan Seymour | 24 January 2018  

I too feel "well, what was all that about?" I am a silent victim, having found closure through Fr Richard Rohr OFM, not from any hierarchical figure/source! "They" continue on with business as usual and heads in the sand!

Murray J Greene | 25 January 2018  

Great article Michael. Those of us who are attracted to Pope Francis's leadership style, and his refreshing spirituality, can find it difficult to acknowledge his 'blind spots' - and his lack of appreciation of the enormity of the crime of sexual abuse within the Church, certainly appears to be one of them.

michael Loughnane | 25 January 2018  

Discouraging views about church leadership might go some way to satisfying requirements of virtue-signalling and catharsis, but it's not at all evident how they help address this diabolical issue. It's unfortunate, and, to my mind, unfair, how advocates for the "People of God" metaphor of the Church, with its emphasis on covenant solidarity and equality of all the faithful, so readily isolate and point the finger at bishops - most of whom have inherited this gravest of scandals as a poisoned chalice.

John | 25 January 2018  

The Pontifical Commission was set up for Minors and Vulnerable Adults. Why is a whole set of victims constantly left off that recognition? “ Its leaders need to be able to engage with victims, to hear the impact that abuse has had on them, and be trusted to understand the betrayal, anger and grief that the issue has stirred up.” The “issue” (why can’t commentators use precise language?) does not stir these things up. The “issue” creates these things. If they already existed they could be stirred up. It’s because they didn’t exist prior to the abuse that the abuse was able to. occur and thus bring them about for a lifetime. That is the root of the matter

Jennifer Herrick | 25 January 2018  

Spot on Michael! My recent experiences assisting a close relative receive the justice he deserved from the Church left me aghast. Despite the nice words the Church leadership; their lawyers and insurers still don't "get it". I'm an optimist by nature but I hold very grave concerns for the future of our Church.

Tom Cranitch | 25 January 2018  

I have a lot of time for Pope Francis. I admire his efforts to stress the pastoral role of the church's hierarchy more than the judicial, mercy rather than condemnation, service rather than domination. However he can exasperate me at times by his almost naïve use of Genesis as if it were a record of historical events rather than the reflections of wise men at the court of King Solomon on the great human questions of life. But these reflections were influenced by the legends and myths of other civilisations. The scientific knowledge that we have today about cosmology, biology, psychology was beyond the imagination of the authors of Genesis. I detect this same naivety in his defence of Bishop Barros. I have spent over thirty years in various public service jobs. I have known cases where sexual predators, drunks, and bullies within different departments were known to junior staff but socialised with senior managers;even played squash or golf with them. When some of these miscreants were later exposed their managers expressed surprise and claimed no prior knowledge. All hierarchies and bureaucracies need Inspectors-General of Integrity. A Bishop's (or a Permanent Secretary's) word may not be his bond.

Uncle Pat | 25 January 2018  

The clerical sexual abuse and cover-up scandals are symptoms of a Church culture in urgent need of reform. But many/most clergy just don't 'get it', because to do so would threaten their power structure. The sooner the Church abolishes ordination the better! There are many men and women in parish communities who could be excellent Eucharistic celebrants if they were allowed to. There are also many who could administer parish communities far more democratically than many/most parish priests. Jesus never ordained anyone! Christian communities need to be able to choose their own leaders, not have unaccountable leaders imposed upon them.

Grant Allen | 25 January 2018  

Wonderful article Michael. I am flabbergasted that the current Church attendees & followers have not organised themselves, perhaps publicly demonstrated and refused to financially contribute until the Church leaders are forced to properly co operate with the law & secular authorities. Pope Francis is usually a wonderful salesman but that's all he is. Until he releases files & demands proper compensation, then he deserves fierce criticism. He pays absolute lip service to the problem. And there are two problems (crimes); the rape of the child & the continued cover up.

Tim | 25 January 2018  

Excellent comments Michael. Unfortunately the Catholic Church because of its tribal customs (the one true church and the like) has brought this on itself. The only way out, it appears to me, is for the hierarchy to let go and hand the immediate future of the Catholic Church over to the laity and return when invited.

Tom K | 25 January 2018  

I am Lina of Lina's Project in Maitland diocese. I say we do have an example to follow. Jesus. I say we need education in conscience. I say Bishop Bill Wright was brave to allow me to make a project on behalf of the church. As long as lawyers control our bishops and popes we can only guide ourselves. I say Jesus would nod at that.

Lina Basile | 25 January 2018  

Dear Tom K - I respectfully disagree. We do need leadership in the Church and the original New Testament tradition makes clear what sort of leadership. It is the poisonous root of clericalism and self-appointed privilege, plus the lack of integration with the body of lay people, that needs to change. This can only be done by Christ-appointed and obedient clergy reforming all of the clergy. So we pray for The Lord to raise up such holy men and women who can cause all clergy to have a change of heart. Let's join in prayer for that change.

Dr Marty Rice | 25 January 2018  

But Marty, don't you see that 'the poisonous root of clericalism and self-appointed privilege' is a direct and inevitable consequence of the sort of mediaeval structure and organisation of the Roman Church? It's no different from the 'by the Grace of God' monarchies of pre-Enlightenment Europe. Pray all you like but do you think that will achieve any change in the Vatican? Francis will be gone in a few years but the Curia and the Cardinals will still be there. Any bishop that is foolish enough to question the status quo will lose his head while his fellow bishops slink away in silence. Ask Bill Morris.

Ginger Meggs | 26 January 2018  

One might opine, on a matter not bound by magisterium, that, like the Queen, popes should speak in set pieces rather than through casual interviews because a human being cannot reliably combine the gravitas of symbol of institution, an entity which incorporates the wisdom of accumulated prudence which has enabled it to survive through time, with the fleeting sensibilities of being an ephemeral biological creature. As the appointment of who may be a bishop is a matter unbound for the most part by magisterium, it can also be opined that there is a long tradition by which a person qualified in justice for an appointment is denied it because to do so would be unjust to the institution for hampering its purpose of offering a repository in which people need to place the trust that comes from awareness of being ephemeral biological creatures. It is consistent for Juan Barros to be innocent and yet to be denied appointment because this poses a stumbling block to the fragile consciences of the faithful. But, like the precedent of Moses’ concession to divorce, the stumbling block is a concession to fragility, but fragile is not what a mature conscience should be.

Roy Chen Yee | 26 January 2018  

Scripture tells us that Christ never defended himself when questioned by his peers, he challenged religious leaders and ritual such as purity laws and the consumption of certain food. He touched women, beggars and the insane on the level of their person-hood because that is where God's life is domiciled in the God/human relationship. Jesus revealed the Father through his predisposition to vulnerability, even to surrendering his life so that the Father's work would be completed in Christ's person-hood. I don't see any evidence that our church leaders follow Christ, for they give themselves titles, power and status and then feel compelled to defend their position. Until the Pope and bishops make themselves vulnerable by being less than the laity and allow priests to be married human beings who live among the people, then nothing will change and good people will walk away and trust will never happen.

Trish Martin | 26 January 2018  

Thanks Michael for your thoughtful article. "We Catholics cannot choose who leads us, but we all choose who we follow. If the Church's leaders are absent, or cannot be trusted to provide leadership, then people will stop listening to them". I think this is true of any authority that abuses their position - religious or otherwise. The tragedy is that truth, in all its fullness, is usually the first casualty in abuse. Mark 6: 11 tells us that "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that place, as a testimony against them.” Scapegoating and crucifixion often comes next (it depends on whose perspective is being listened to as to who that person is), coupled with the assumption that "the legal system" will "fix the problem" (again it depends on whose perspective is being listened to). When the central element is about relationship (or betrayal of it) ... of a person to their own self, others, institutions, God and life itself, it is not about "law" ... it is about right relationship and righteousness. There are good people being hurt, and bad people continuing to be protected. I no longer really believe in the idea of community as I've known it ... the era in which we live has shaken it up and flung it asunder ... the fallout is everywhere. Somehow we need to re-member in a way that enlarges this understanding beyond what was known before. We all need to lean into it with humility and grace ... and learn to trust that unfolding, in life-giving, diverse and generative ways ... make room for ALL of it if we wish to grow and thrive. ... and leave the work of deadening to those who can't say 'yes' to it ... (from a misfit).

Mary Tehan | 26 January 2018  

Hi Ginger - thanks for your response. We differ, in that I'm certain (both theologically and sociologically) there is nothing impossible for The Holy Trinity and, further, that Jesus Christ has guaranteed to make our prayers heard. PRAYER CHANGES EVERYTHING (see James 1:2-6). Also, I'm sure there are Australian women religious alive today of the same calibre as St Mary of the Cross MacKillop. There are also Australian priests who courageously follow Jesus Christ in total obedience - I met one last year - Fr Ken Barker MGL. Thus, we have the saintly resources right here and should pray that such women and men be empowered to flush out the whole system, inspire all our wilted clergy to righteousness, and get the Australian Church on track again. You're right that there are strong people in the Church who will oppose our prayer; but Brother Ginger, doubt not that King Jesus is infinitely the stronger. It's not a Christian saying but possibly apposite: 'People get the leaders they deserve!' As Catholics we surely believe we WILL get every good thing we sincerely, single-heartedly, together request from The LORD. One can almost hear what Malachi heard GOD say: "Try ME in this."

Dr Marty Rice | 27 January 2018  

I like Uncle Pat's down to earth comments. He outlines the blind spots we all have and the negative capability we need to navigate paradox. The difficulty I continually find with the inferno of outrage about the abuse of power in the Church is that it is so simplistic and so easily directed to punish what looks like a target. For a system to get away with corruption you need more than one person or one rank. However I have never seen ordinary decent Catholics acknowledge their own complicity. Who gave the almost unlimited and unaccountable power to the 'clerics' about whom there is so much latter day complaint? Who walked out of a sermon which was nonsense or destructive? And now surely it is beyond hopeful to expect the power miscreants to fix the system which gave them so much power and privilege. As far as I know the clergy have not interfered with private prayer of reading the scriptures. Surely there will be growth from stripping individuals and the institution of its power abuses and superstitious attributes. Humans only give power away because they want something.

Michael D. Breen | 28 January 2018  

Pope Benedict defrocked 400 priests in 2 years, 2011-12, for sexual abuse. He also revived the case against Fr Maciel (Legionaries of Christ) and had his crimes exposed. In contrast, Pope Francis has behaved as a Machiavellian (or Peronist) politician in this area, protecting his friends, and crushing his enemies with no warrant. The classic case concerns his friend Belgian Cardinal Daneels, who is on tape telling a boy survivor of sex abuse over 13 years by a the boy's uncle, a bishop and close friend of Daneels, that he (the boy) should not go public with the matter, should forgive his uncle and should acknowledge his own guilt. It would have been impossible for Pope Francis not to have heard of this story of his close colleague Daneels. Nevertheless, not only did Pope Francis take no action whatsoever on this case or even mention it: he insisted that Daneels, though retired, attend the Synods on the Family!

HH | 28 January 2018  

Deeper than words imply. The depth of suffering He endured. Not one stone to be thrown. Not one stone will remain. The flesh. The spirit. Of one. Or the other. The word: World. The word: Word. To be both. A house divided. The depth of suffering He endured. The Prince of Peace. Deeper than words imply.

AO | 28 January 2018  

It has been said that great and influential leaders become so because they are different from others. Unlike Christ, the most influential and enduring leader the world has ever seen, perhaps many Catholic priests, regardless of rank, have become too like ordinary men.

john frawley | 29 January 2018  

Re HH's comment. The post-Vatican II self-proclaimed reformers of the church "in the true spirit of Vatican II" vilified Benedict as an arch conservative. He came as a surprise in the wake of John Paul II who was the true ultra-conservative to whom Benedict was a faithful servant, an attack dog, a rottweiler. As Pope, he was more like a spaniel! JP II dismissed the outcry against the sexual abuses perpetrated by Maciel against both women and men as 'a communist plot to bring down the Church" !!!!!

john frawley | 29 January 2018  

Completely agree! The onus on victims to keep proving themselves is a harrowing process for them, unjust and undignified. Like any other institution, the church needs to run their business as any other entrepreneur would and reassess their people (staff) and place them in the right positions according to their skill and personality IF they wish to remain relevant.

Anastasia | 29 January 2018  

Well Marty, we may differ on some things but not in our admiration of Mary MacKillop. But even she was unable to change the structure and culture of the institution. And the Missionaries of God's Love (the MGLs) may have a refreshing take on the meaning of poverty and service, but from my brief perusal of their website I doubt that are likely to throw up the likes of a 21st century Martin Luther in the short term. The point that I'm trying to make, I guess, is that absolute 'by the grace of God' regimes are only brought to heel and changed by withdrawal of consent and non-cooperation on the part of the plebs. If you accept the role of sheep to be led, that's how you will be treated.

Ginger Meggs | 31 January 2018  

The structure of the Catholic Church pre-dates the Middle Ages, Ginger: its hierarchical, apostolic and communitarian nature is the creation of its Founder; nor is any one of these characteristics exclusive of the other, or synonymous with clericalism (the opposite of the Gospel's leadership of service).

John | 31 January 2018  

I found Austen Ivereigh's take on this issue helpful: https://cruxnow.com/commentary/2018/01/22/franciss-defense-barros-may-not-satisfy-victims-right-thing/. As readers will know, Ivereigh and I have had our differences, but I do think he is a well informed reader of the Church in South America and of Bergoglio's history there. See http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/01/07/4158763.htm

Frank Brennan SJ | 01 February 2018  

Until Pope Francis makes available the files as requested by the Royal Commision regarding child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Australia (and elsewhere for that matter) it says to me that 'he does not get it' and is part of the problem.

Thomas Amory | 01 February 2018  

Ivereigh states that in the papal plane interview, Pope Francis apologised for his charge of calumny against the accusers of Barros. False ... at least in the transcript of the interview. If anything, Pope Francis doubles down on the charge. Ivereigh also fails to account for the weird sequence of decisions, as admitted by Pope Francis. 1. Pope Francis, who believes Barros to be innocent of covering up sexual abuse by Fr/Bishop Karadima, nevertheless asks Barros to take a year's sabbatical. 2. Barros agrees, but while announcing this, also names the two other bishops who are to do the same. 3. Precisely because of this naming of the other bishops Pope Francis does an about turn and appoints Barros as bishop of Orsono. So, contra Ivereigh, Pope Francis was NOT backing B'p Barros on principle. He only insisted on Barros' installation as Bishop of Orsono when Barros spilled the beans. How does one make sense of any of this?

HH | 01 February 2018  

The latest news is that (allegedly) Pope Francis has been caught "misspeaking", let us say. On the plane from Chile, he insisted that none of the Karadima-abused accusers of Barros had been in contact with him, and went on to re-accuse them of calumny. But a 2015 letter from one of the victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, to him on this very issue has emerged, together with confirmation at the time from Cardinal O'Malley to the victim that it had been handed to the Pope. In Western regimes, politicians resign when this sort of thing comes to light. NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell did so over a bottle of wine. What does a Pope do ? Whatever ... he, the Church, and the abuse victims need our prayers.

HH | 06 February 2018  

He really doesn't get it!!! If he did, he would show more discretion in his public mutterings in the presence of journos who seek nothing other than sensation and sales. NAIVE.

john frawley | 07 February 2018  

Roy- in response to your suggestion that - "like the Queen, popes should speak in set pieces rather than through casual interviews because a human being cannot reliably combine the gravitas of symbol of institution" - where does the Lord's prayer fit into your theological view where Jesus prayed for "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." It's not either/or, but both/and - Jesus was also human.

AURELIUS | 12 February 2018  

Michael, it looks like The Guardian has followed your views and thoughts very closely in its anonymous editorial today: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/11/the-guardian-view-on-the-catholic-church-and-child-abuse-pope-francis-gets-it-wrong

AURELIUS | 12 February 2018  

Aurelius: “Jesus was also human.” While still in an unglorified state, the true man-true God did not have the full knowledge of the Trinity. He did not know when the end of the world would happen. He had to be true man so he could experience the same weaknesses that could be tempted as God cannot be tempted, having no weaknesses. Popes are unglorified human beings. Consequently, because they cannot be better than their Master while he was unglorified, they cannot contain the full knowledge of the Church and what they extemporize cannot be infallible by virtue of coming out of the mind of a pope ---- which is why they should be prudent as to how and when they extemporize.

Roy Chen Yee | 19 February 2018  

Roy, It's great we all have a forum to air our opinions and make comments about our faith, but I think you are overstepping the mark and "divinising " (if there is such a word), ie delving into an area beyond human knowledge. We don't know what God thinks!

AURELIUS | 26 February 2018  

Aurelius: "We don't know what God thinks!" When the Church knows, it tells us.

Roy Chen Yee | 07 March 2018  

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