The dangers of bishops being disconnected from society

Currently an Australian Royal Commission on Sex abuse of children is investigating how institutions like schools, churches, sports clubs and government organisations have responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse.
The following is an extract from exchange between Justice McClellan, Chief Commissioner and retired Bishop of Parramatta, Bede Heather, last Wednesday (21/09/16) afternoon.
Q. You see, what you’re telling me now has been said to us by a number of senior and not so senior members of the church, you understand?
A. Yes.
Q. What I think we’re getting to is that you only thought in a space which involved the relationship between the priest and God but didn’t see the priest’s action in terms of the civil law. Is that what it amounts to?
A. Largely I would agree, yes, that I had no formation in the civil law and didn’t assess the actions of the clergy or, indeed, of others mainly in relation to the civil law or at all in relation to the civil law. I didn’t see that as my role.
Q. Why is it a matter of formation? You were brought up as a normal child in Australian society and went to school. These sorts of things, at least in my generation, were known long before I left school as things that the civil law said shouldn’t happen.
A. Yes, well, I think you were fortunate, your Honour, to have a formation of that sort. I didn’t have such a clear perception of where the civil law and moral responsibility intersected.
Q. You’ll forgive me for saying, Bishop, that what that means is you, in your intellectual framework, left out an understanding of civil society. Do you understand?
A. I understand what you’re saying, yes, and —
Q. How did the church end up in a space where it could only see these matters in moral terms and not understand the responsibility of adults in civil society?
A. Yes, it’s a good question, and I think someone may be more competent to answer that than I am. The whole development of moral theology in the history of the church and the type of moral theology that we studied in our preparation for the priesthood – I remember very little reference at all to civil law in the course of those studies.
Q. What age were you when you first started your studies in the seminary?
A. I went to the junior seminary when I was 13 years of age.
Q. So should we understand that from then on, your intellectual framework was confined by the teachings of the church?
A. Yes, and my studies in moral theology as in other areas of theology were through manuals of Catholic theologians, yes.
Q.And you didn’t develop then an understanding of civil society as you matured as a teenager and into adulthood?
A. No, no, and I see this as one of the great issues that has now arisen through the work of the Commission. As I say, this intersection between the moral demands of the gospel as we understood them then and the demands of civil society as now understood.
Q. You do you understand that for Australian society, the church having played and continuing to play such a large role in the moral and ethical understanding of many people, that the failure for the teachings of the church to bring to you, as leaders of the church, an understanding of civil society is a very serious issue?
A. Yes, I do, yes. Yes.
(pp 21086/21087 of the transcript)

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  1. Sandra Mc Sheaffrey says:

    What shaped my knowledge of civil society when I was growing up? The Sunday Post. You could read it any day of the week. I don’t know what world view was behind it. I do remember though, a frequent utterance from one of the main characters: ‘ Help ma Boab!’ Uttered in the face of incredulity.

  2. Awareness and understanding of civil society, and the proper role of the lay Christian in ‘consecrating’ it: to what extent are these foremost in the formation of priests in Ireland today?
    I remember vividly the here-expressed conviction of one alumnus of Maynooth – very prominent on this site – that Ireland isn’t ready yet for Catholic social teaching! Are they still teaching that in Maynooth – that Ireland isn’t ready yet for principles such as equality of dignity, social solidarity and administrative subsidiarity?
    And might this century yet see the opening of this book by diocesan clergy – so that they might begin to convince us that they have some notion of what the church is FOR in civil society, beyond putting bums on seats and hands in pockets for the benefit of the clerical institution?
    Any country that isn’t ready for the core values of Catholic social teaching – as an indispensable seed-bed for lay Catholic action – isn’t ready for the Sermon on the Mount either. That would have been news even for St Patrick!

  3. W O'Brien says:

    All bishops and all dioceses have civil lawyers to advise them of their rights and responsibilities. However for the most part these lawyers who now seem to be running the church hand in hand with the accountants are more nearsighted than the bishops ever were. Their sole function, it seems, is to protect the institution and the head of the institution. I would agree that the bishops rarely learn anything of civil law in the course of their studies, and often learn less of pastoral care. They are too often career oriented and want only to protect themselves and the institution against the onslaught of society.

  4. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I’m really not surprised by these responses. The stance of a “sheltered life” is a forgivable sin in his mind. We always assume that the complexities of civil society are known to one and all but that is not the case, obviously.
    I’m not buying what Bede is selling here though but it does make an interesting argument – he must have drunk the same lemonade Robert Carlson was drinking.

    1. In the interests of fairness, as he is mentioned above, it should be pointed out that Archbishop Robert Carlson’s St. Louis archdiocese issued a strong statement about the accusation that he said he did not know that child sexual abuse was a crime.
      “Recent inaccurate and misleading reporting by certain media outlets has impugned Archbishop Carlson’s good name and reputation.
      A full reading of the deposition shows that Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis was responding not to a general question about the sexual abuse of children but to a question about a specific point of Minnesota law — mandatory reporting laws — when he said, “I’m not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not. I understand today it’s a crime.”

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I’ll follow up with your link from the contributor Dennis Coday with a link to his own account, after admitting that he might have been a little quick at simply reporting what the St. Louis archdiocese had claimed.
    After doing a little research and digging into the deposition (as I had after watching it in its entirety in 2014), another conclusion was made (that apparently went unnoticed).
    The link for Coday’s retraction is here :
    The link for the specific transcript is here :

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