With acknowledgement to La Croix, this article is a disturbing account of the impact of clerical sex abuse on the Australian Church. It is crystallised in the trial of George Pell, which Kelly thinks will go on for a considerable time, keeping the issue to the forefront of news and public awareness. He suggests it will take three generations for the Church in Australia to regain credibility.
Not just George Pell is on trial It’s a story that would do the best Greek tragedians proud. Michael Kelly, SJ
October 9, 2017
Here is the lead role in the tragedy – Cardinal George Pell – having to endure the humiliation of facing charges for alleged sexual abuse. The October 6th “mention” at the Melbourne Magistrates Court did not specify charges but reported that there would be up to 50 witnesses testifying in court proceedings. The “mention” occurs to set a date for the committal hearing which establishes whether Pell has a case to answer and provides rules so that all parties have access to the available evidence.
The process is likely to drag on for a long time. After the committal hearing, trials may follow for each of the charges or clusters of them if there be a collection that can be broken up into different trials.It’s a process that will attract intense, global attention from the media. Cardinal Pell’s profile has been high for decades. Now he’s an object of international interest after his web televised appearance before the Royal Commission into the abuse of minors in institutions.Whatever the outcome of the legal process, charges against clerics, whether proven or dismissed, stick in the popular imagination. Once the finger is pointed at a cleric on sexual matters, the game is up and his life in the chosen profession is finished. What’s more, for Pell, his life in the Vatican is over as these court proceedings will extend well beyond his current contract there.
When Cardinal Pell is charged, under the rules that now apply to Catholic clerics in Australia, he will not be allowed to operate as priest – celebrating a public Mass, bless weddings, etc.What is tragic in the Greek sense of what is happening to Pell is that here is a person who for thirty years has created his profile. He also linked his considerable ambitions to being the re-maker of Catholicism in Australia and, through his international alliances, in the global Church.He was the self-appointed leader of a movement to restore the Catholic Church to “orthodoxy” and right practice in Australia and joined forces with similar personalities internationally. The movement now lacks credible leadership, ideas and plausibility and its campaigns over the decades have left the Catholic Church in Australia divided and demoralized.
Call it hubris. Call it silly and ridiculous. Call it over-reaching. Call it what you like. But the ambition is now in ruins because the Catholic Church in Australia is in tatters: its credibility is zero; its leadership continues to fail to “get it” as is clear from their divided efforts to guide the current same-sex marriage debate. One (Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane) absurdly linked the unacceptability of same-sex marriage (for him) to the unacceptability of incest.
Simply put, with utterances like these, no one is listening to them.The bishops proposing the “No” vote on gay marriage just don’t seem to realize that their collective negligence in covering up the worst sex scandal in Australian history disqualifies them from being heard out on anything to do with marriage and sex for many generations to come.As one of the best bishops in Australia said to me many months ago, it will be at least three generations before the Catholic Church in Australia recovers the trust and credibility it needs to provide its service and do its job.
So where do Catholics go from here in Australia and other countries where sex abuse allegations and convictions have sapped the church of credibility and trust? Probably nowhere else than where we should have been all along – faithful, honest and alert disciples, finding life where all Christians do: at the foot of the Cross of Jesus. And that’s a good place to be.
It’s the Spirit who makes and remakes the Church and, as St. Paul never tired of saying in different ways, “Just when you think the game is all over, maybe you might let God be God and see what the Spirit can do.” In Australia, the Spirit gets another opportunity because the Catholic Church at its leadership level appears to have run out of petrol.
The church still retains credibility at a local level in some parish communities and the manifold services it offers – schools, hospitals, aged care homes, welfare services. Moreover, there is a considerable upside to the chaos.
The current Royal Commission will do a lot to end the tyranny of silence and cover-ups; it will make Church officials accountable and force them to be transparent as they’ve never had to before. Laws will be passed and procedures established to see to all of that. And indeed, so they should be.But the cause of most of the trouble – clericalism – goes much deeper and while child abuse is its most obvious and lamentable consequence, clericalism is the “cancer at the heart of the Church” as described by the present Pope. It won’t be eliminated by firmer laws or more vigilant overseers.
Clericalism is that culture of presumption shared by those in Orders who believe they run the Church and everyone in the Church is there to be run by them. It is secretive, exclusive and judgmental. It reserves to itself and its leaders the right to make all decisions without consultation beyond its narrow confines and relegates lay people to their proper functions: pray, pay and obey.
Legal reform, oversight, and compliance are all essential. Reform of the internal culture of the Church that creates clericalism and permits its abusive exercise may be moderated by such regulation. But that won’t end it.
It may sound limp-wristed, but it’s only spiritual conversion and a relentless attack on clericalism and clericalists that will end its baleful sway. And that needs to be done in a disciplined and organized way. That conversion needs to drive administrative reform in the Church. Such reforms are not uncommon in the wider world. Flawed as affirmative action may have been to redress the massive imbalance in female representation at senior executive and Board levels in commercial enterprises and government departments, the very existence of this administrative direction suggests a way forward for the Catholic Church.For the Church, the restructure needs to enhance the presence of lay people and especially women. It’s time for a quota system and the quotas won’t be hard to fill.
In fact, across the Western world and no less in Australia, almost all of the Church’s work in education, health and aged care, social welfare and the daily administration of parishes is led and staffed by lay people and especially by lay women. These services in Australia engage well in excess of 180,000 employees – teachers, nurses, social workers, administrators.But where the presence and significance of lay people is plainly missing is in the governance of the church which contributed so generously to cover up most of the sexual abuse allegations. And the governance level is where most evidence for clericalism exists.
It would seem a pretty obvious move to introduce an aggressive affirmative action policy for lay people to assume more than subordinate roles in diocesan government and in fact the German Church has done that. Between 2005 and 2015 the number of women in senior executive positions in the German Church had risen from 10% to 20%. But the president’ of the bishops conference – Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich – believes that it is underwhelming and has set targets for female representation on boards and in executive positions. We are yet to hear even the suggestion of it in most other parts of the Church.
However, there’s hope and a path to follow. Most of the Western world is familiar with an agreed system of government – representative democracy. It’s not the answer to every challenge. If it were, we wouldn’t end up with duds like Donald Trump and Theresa May running their countries.
But something that the present pope has revived in Church governance could, in fact, reach from the highest to the lowest levels of Church life – Synods and shared discernment of paths forward on contentious issues like the Church’s care of divorced and remarried people. It is the Catholic style of participatory democracy.And it is just the way everything – from the appointment of bishops to the selection of parish priests, from the creation and adoption of pastoral policies to the targeting of pastoral needs and priorities – could be considered and decided jointly by lay people and clerics in suitably arranged aggregations.
What happens now with everything from the appointment of a parish priest to a bishop is lost in the opaque world of closed-door clerical decision making. Many ask how George Pell got as far as he has up the clerical ladder? The answer is both simple and simply leads to a brick wall: patronage. And it’s not just true for Cardinal Pell. It applies to every clerical office holder in the Church.The complete absence of transparency in decision making in the church is the legacy of a power system that has nothing to do with Catholicism. It is simply the adoption of a way of operating that owes more to an aristocratic age than anything: officeholders appoint other officeholders. They include very few in considering decisions and run and hide from any accountability for the decisions if they prove to be bad ones.
If a synodal and discerning way of reaching decisions or making appointments were adopted – a structural reform really recovered from the way things were originally done in the church – we might have some credibility and trust restored to the life and processes of the church.In Australia, a national synod in 2020 is currently in preparation. However, the chances of it overcoming a stranglehold by vested interests are not great. This is not only because the last national synod was held 80 years ago. It is also because, as a top-down imposition, there has been no experience of or preparation for a national event at a local diocesan level.
With no experience of how these things work and sectional and partisan groups ready to jump and impose their agendas, just the wrong way to develop a national structure is to have it free standing and with no local platforms to take up its proposals.The Australian Church, as indeed global Catholicism, has a long way to go to develop inclusive and participatory governance.
Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com and based in Thailand.