Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta diocese has been giving evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to child abuse in Australia.
A full transcript is available at the link above but he had some very interesting things to say in the course of his evidence.
BISHOP LONG: My name is Vincent Long Van Nguyen.
MS FURNESS: You’re the Bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta?
BISHOP LONG: Yes, that’s correct.
MS FURNESS: What did you do before your appointment in Parramatta?
BISHOP LONG: I was an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne for nearly five years, from June 2011 till my appointment to Parramatta, which was in June last year.
MS FURNESS: When were you ordained?
BISHOP LONG: I was ordained an auxiliary bishop on 26 June 2011.
MS FURNESS: And as a priest?
BISHOP LONG: As a priest, I was ordained in December 1989, also in Melbourne.
MS FURNESS: Thank you. I think you have the status of being the first bishop of Vietnamese background; is that right?
BISHOP LONG: In Australia, Ms Furness, yes.
MS FURNESS: Yes. You were born in Vietnam?
BISHOP LONG: I was born in Vietnam. I was a boat person in 1980 and I transited in Malaysia. I stayed in a refugee camp for 16 months before I came to Australia.
MS FURNESS: How old were you when you came to Australia?
BISHOP LONG: I was one day short of my 20th birthday. That was in December 1981.
MS FURNESS: You, soon after, went into a seminary here or you had been involved before?
BISHOP LONG: I was in a minor seminary in Vietnam, which was still in operation prior to the communist takeover, so I was trained as a minor seminarian, but in a diocesan jurisdiction, not a religious institute.
MS FURNESS: In your diocese, do you receive applications or approaches from priests overseas, including Vietnam, to come to your diocese?
BISHOP LONG: Not from Vietnam but from other countries, especially from India. We have a number of mostly religious priests who applied to minister in our diocese and some of them were accepted, so we have some overseas-born priests working in our diocese.
MS FURNESS: You heard Bishop Hurley’s evidence about not accepting seminarians and accepting only those who have been ordained elsewhere and following a process of interview, and the like. Do you follow any similar process?
BISHOP LONG: No. The fact is that we do have some, not a great number of overseas-born seminarians. We apply a very robust system of screening and monitoring in order to ensure that these candidates who are sourced from overseas are fit for our diocese.
MS FURNESS: Do you use the facilities Bishop Hurley referred to in Sydney?
BISHOP LONG: No, we have our own seminary. In fact, only last Sunday I blessed and opened our new seminary, called the Holy Spirit Seminary, in our own diocese.
MS FURNESS: By opening that, do we take it that you have a sufficient number of priests coming forward to require a new seminary?
BISHOP LONG: Yes, well, in fact, we had our own ‘seminary’ for a number of years even before I came into the diocese. They were housed in different locations because we didn’t have the facility to accommodate all of them. So we were able to build our own seminary and thankfully we have a large number of native-born, home-grown candidates in addition to some who were overseas born.
MS FURNESS: The Royal Commission has heard a deal of evidence about the diminishing numbers of young men coming forward to be a priest or religious. That’s not your experience in your diocese?
BISHOP LONG: I think there is also a reduction in the number of candidates coming forward. I think it’s a universal phenomenon. We have seminarians – the latest count is 16, but that’s in no way sufficient in terms of the replacement rate. So I wouldn’t say that we buck the trend as such, although thankfully in comparison to other jurisdictions, certainly to similar-sized dioceses in Australia, we have more candidates to the priesthood.
MS FURNESS: You will have heard evidence this morning about some seminarians in some seminaries wishing to adopt a more traditional approach to wearing the garb, et cetera. Is that an experience that you’ve had?
BISHOP LONG: It is my concern that there is a trend not only in certain seminaries in Australia but I think it’s a by-product of the two pontificates before that of Pope Francis which encouraged a certain restoration, you might say, of the traditional model of Church, and therefore the seminarians who were trained in that period, I would say, were by-products of that kind of culture in the Church.
MS FURNESS: You’ve also heard evidence that clericalism has been described as a factor or playing a role in the abuse of children and the response to that abuse and the connection between the deference and power that is part of clericalism and the more traditional approach of some seminarians. Now, do you see it like that?
BISHOP LONG: I do, and I see the clericalism as a by-product of a certain model of Church informed or underpinned or sustained by a certain theology. I mean, 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, if you like.
I think there’s a link between compulsory or mandatory celibacy and clericalism in that compulsory celibacy is an act of setting apart the ordained. It’s creating that power distance between the ordained and the non-ordained. Insofar as it is an instrument of subjugation or subservience, if you like, of the laity, it is wrong and it has to be reviewed. It has to be looked at, I think, very seriously.
Again, in my culture, my home culture, the parishioners, the faithful, address the priest as “father”, as they do across the world, except that the form of address on the part of the non-ordained is a bit more drastic, in that if you, who are a non-ordained person, address me as a priest, you have to use a certain personal form of address that identifies you as subservient, as a lower-ranking person, like a daughter.
So I would say that in order to dismantle clericalism, we need to look at also the issue of examination and maybe abolition of those honorific titles, privileges and institutional dynamics, if you like, that breed clerical superiority and elitism.
People still address me, especially the faithful Catholics, as “Your Lordship”, and I sort of cringe at that. Or when they come to see me, or they come to meet me, they kiss my ring. I’m not very comfortable with those sorts of practices because they encourage a certain infantilisation of the laity and that creation of the power distance between the ordained and the non-ordained, and I think we have to look at these things seriously.
MS FURNESS: Have you observed any change in that area towards being more relaxed?
BISHOP LONG: I think Pope Francis is certainly leading the way in that direction. Whether or not it’s being filtered down the ranks I’m not quite certain. For my part, I know – or I feel that, especially as a bishop, I need to lead the way in promoting the Church as a communio, as a discipleship of equals, that emphasises relationships rather than power. I feel that’s where we should be headed to.
COMMISSIONER FITZGERALD: Could I just take it to a more significant level, and that is if we do believe in a discipleship of equals, which was, in many senses, fundamental to the Second Vatican Council’s teachings, the rubber hits the roads when you are prepared to share governance arrangements equally both at parish and at diocesan level, doesn’t it?
At the end of the day, what we call each other in any of the Church environments we’ve spoken to is one thing, but isn’t what we’ve heard in the last couple of weeks calling into question the commitment of many leaders in the Church, at both parish and diocesan level, the willingness to actually embrace a shared governance model between men and women, priest and religious alike? Without affecting the canon law as it is for the moment, isn’t that really the difficulty?
I was wondering, Bishop Vincent, isn’t the point that you get to that if you believe in what you’ve just said about the discipleship of equals, there is a need to look at the governance arrangements within parishes and dioceses that we currently operate under?
BISHOP LONG: Yes, Commissioner, I do believe that the marginalisation of women and the laity is part of this culture of clericalism that contributes not insignificantly to the sexual abuse crisis, and I think if we are serious about reform, this is one of the areas that we need to look at.
Accountability in that perfect Church model only works upwards. You’re accountable to the person above you. As long as the bishop has the backing of the Pope, he’s safe. As long as the priest has the backing of his bishop, he’s safe. There’s no accountability that reaches outwards or downwards, and that’s the critical problem, as far as I see. That discipleship of equals calls into question that upward accountability that is in operation as a result of that ecclesiastical model of a perfect society where everyone knows their place and the pecking order is strictly dictated by ordination.
The laity have no meaningful or direct participation in the appointment, supervision and even removal of the parish priest. I think that needs to change. Or even at the episcopal level, the appointment, supervision and removal of a bishop is virtually excluded from the faithful. The Morris affair is a typical example of that. There’s no accountability to the faithful there. So that needs to be examined if we are serious about creating a new culture of accountability in the Church today.
COMMISSIONER FITZGERALD: Could we just extend it one step further, and I’m mindful of the time. Would it not have served the Church well had parishes and dioceses adopted that which was sought to be adopted after the Vatican Council, that is, parish councils and pastoral councils which may have in fact informed and kept informed the leaders of the Church as to what was going on and also assisted in the way in which they might have responded to those claims?
So it’s not just about accountability to the faithful; isn’t one of the missing links today and in the past the absence of a robust governance arrangement, including the laity, which would have in fact enabled leaders to understand what was going on and given guidance as to how to respond, and is that still a problem within the modern Church?
BISHOP LONG: I think it is, Commissioner. I think it is still a problem within the Church. A parish priest, even today, can unilaterally dismiss the parish council. And many did. Many have. To me, that’s the glaring gap that we need to really examine seriously. And, really, what do we do in terms of empowering the people? What do we do in terms of addressing the power imbalance between the ordained and the non-ordained? What do we do about the full participation of the faithful, and women in particular, in the governance structures of the Church?
I think these are serious issues that need to be addressed if we are to come clean of this abuse crisis, because it’s not just the symptoms on the surface but what lies underneath it, and I think it’s harder to address what lies underneath the phenomenon than to address what’s on the surface.
COMMISSIONER FITZGERALD: Bishop Long, you represent one of the fastest growing areas of Sydney, in fact of Australia, in terms of the Church and young people in the Parramatta Diocese. You would be aware that the Vatican has signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that the best interests of the child must be paramount in organisations that have signed, and it is consistent with much of the statements by the Pope, Pope Francis.
Yet it is not a language that we have heard in many of the panels or even this panel at all, and much of the discussion has been about the priests and their slow acceptance of these matters, but in a way that I understand, and we’ve talked about the Church’s response.
Do you have any thoughts about how the Church will actually frame itself as a Church that puts the interests of children genuinely ahead of other competing interests within the Church?
BISHOP LONG: Yes, I think, Commissioner, if the Church is a good global citizen, then it has to show that the safety and protection of the innocent children must be of paramount interest, of absolute priority.
In order to make it happen, I do believe that there needs to be a holistic, comprehensive approach. In other words, it has to be at all levels of the governance structure of the Church, be it local, diocesan or universal.
For instance, as I alluded to before, the problem of clericalism can’t just be addressed at a diocesan level. It has to be addressed as the whole Church because the whole Church is embroiled in a certain model of being Church, whether Church as a communio, which Vatican II enunciated and pointed to, or the Church as a perfect society, which is not just no longer relevant but can contribute to the abetting of the sexual abuse precisely because of the attendant issue of clericalism, which is integral to that model of Church.
So we need to have a holistic and comprehensive approach in order to move forward. My hope is that we would come to the model of Church that is not only relevant for today’s society but also life giving and, above all, consistent with the message of the gospel.
MS NEEDHAM: Do you take the view that your own personal experience, which we have heard about, as a refugee transiting through a Malaysian refugee camp – has that informed in any way your response to the victims of child sexual abuse?
BISHOP LONG: I think it does. 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.
MS NEEDHAM: Thank you, Bishop Long. No further questions.