‘The priesthood dehumanised’: Australian bishop urges end to clericalism



Australian bishop urges end to clericalism

Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen says culture of church contributed to sex abuse crisis in country

Dec 13, 2017

by Peter Feuerherd


Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen of Parramatta, Australia, speaking to the National Council of Priests of Australia, urged an end to clericalism in the church and expressed hope that a newly revitalized Catholic clergy would emerge from the sex abuse crisis that has wracked the Catholic Church in Australia.

He spoke Aug. 30 to the National Council of Priests in Australia, which reprinted his remarks in the December edition of The Swag, its quarterly magazine.

Van Nguyen, 55, a Conventual Franciscan who became bishop of Parramatta last year, declared in a message to a Royal Commission investigating sex abuse in the Catholic Church that he himself had been abused by church members as an adult. He told the priests’ group that “we are in a big mess” as priests “bear the brunt of public anger and distrust in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis. It is one of the hardest times to be a priest.”

He suggested they look to the example of Pope Francis as a vision of priesthood based on a servant, not an authoritarian, model.

After Francis was elected, he eschewed the usual papal trappings and asked for the gathered crowd to pray for him at St. Peter’s Square. That gesture, said Long, “was truly the prophetic sign of the century.”

“The ground under our feet has shifted,” said Long. “There needs to be an attitudinal change at every level, a conversion of mind and heart that conforms us to the spirit of the Gospel, a new wine in new wineskins, not a merely cosmetic change or worse, a retreat into restorationism.”

In Australia, he said, “the priesthood no longer enjoys the prestige and the power it once had. For a lot of young people, it is no longer surrounded with the aura of mystique and fascination.” In response, he urged priests to embrace what he called a model of servant-leader.

The sex abuse crisis was more than the evil acts of individuals. Van Nguyen said the culture of the church contributed to the crisis in Australia.

“Unless we have the courage to see how far we have drifted from the vision of Jesus, unless we are prepared to go beyond the symptoms and explore the deeper issues that lurk behind the surface, unless we genuinely repent of our sins and face up to the task of reclaiming the innocence and powerlessness of the servant-leader, we will have failed the test of our integrity, discipleship and mission,” he said.

Van Nguyen added, “When privilege, power and dominance are more evident than love, humility and servant-hood in the church, then the very Gospel of the servant Jesus is at risk.”

He urged priests to see their ministry as a counterweight to the human lust for power and domination, to stand, like Jesus, with the outcast and the vulnerable.

“If one can detect the direction of Pope Francis’ pontificate, it has something to do with the movement from security to boldness, from being inward looking to looking outward, from preoccupation with the present status and safeguarding our privileges to learning to be vulnerable, and learning to convey God’s compassion to those who are on the edges of society and the church,” said Van Nguyen.

He asked that priests be willing to “bridge the yawning gap between the ideal and the real, between what the church teaches and how the people respond.”

“The new wine of God’s unconditional love, boundless mercy, radical inclusivity and equality needs to be poured into new wineskins of humility, mutuality, compassion and powerlessness. The old wineskins of triumphalism, authoritarianism and supremacy, abetted by clerical power, superiority, and rigidity, are breaking,” he said.

It is a vocation of the Christian leader to be with his people in their hopes and struggles, anxieties and fears, he said.

“It is not easy to be in the middle, and to be loyal to both ends of the spectrum, to belong to the church of orthodoxy and yet also to minister in the world of the unorthodox. It truly involves being, as the saying goes, between a rock and the hard place.”

Van Nguyen, who came to Australia as a Vietnamese refugee with his family, said he had a particular interest in the biblical experience of the exile.

“My personal story of being a refugee, my struggle for a new life in Australia, coupled with my Franciscan heritage have all contributed to the sense of hope which was the legacy of the exile of old and which should inform and enlighten our present exile experience,” he said. “Like the prophets who accompanied their people into exile, who interpreted the signs of the times and led them in the direction of the kingdom — the arc of salvation history if you like — we must do the same for our people in the context of this new millennium.”

He cautioned against focusing on increased vocation numbers as an indication of a healthy priesthood.

“The strength of our mission does not depend on a cast of thousands. Quality, not quantity, marks our presence. It is substance and not the size of the group that makes the difference. Hence, this time of diminishment can be a blessing in disguise as it makes us reliant less on ourselves but rather on the power of God,” Van Nguyen said.

He argued that one of the key insights of the Second Vatican Council is that “the church is not the church of the ordained but of all the baptized.”

Van Nguyen urged a rethinking of clerical titles, privileges and customs in the church.

“Furthermore, it is my conviction that the priesthood ‘pedestalized’ is the priesthood dehumanized. It is bound to lead us into the illusion of a messiah complex and an inability to claim our wounded humanity and to minister in partnership. What we need to do is to humanize the priesthood so as best to equip ourselves with relational power for authentic Gospel living and service.”

The church, he said, needs to dismantle the pyramid model of church which “promotes the superiority of the ordained and the excessive emphasis on the role of the clergy at the expense of nonordained” and is the root cause of clericalism.

“It is to acknowledge and to have the courage to die to the old ways of being church that no longer convey effectively the message of the Gospel to the culture in which we live,” said Van Nguyen.

Those who predict the death of the priesthood see the sex abuse crisis as the final nail in the coffin. They are half-right, said Van Nguyen.

“They fail to see the other side of the equation. The Catholic priesthood is only dying to that which is not of Christ. It is dying to worldly trappings, triumphalism, and clericalism; it is rising again to the power of vulnerability, servant-leadership, discipleship of humble service and radical love,” he said.

Van Nguyen concluded, “that model of the exalted, separated and elitist priesthood is drawing its last breaths — at least in many parts of the world, including Australia. There is a better wine that the good Lord has prepared for us.”

[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR’s Field Hospital series on parish life.]


Similar Posts


  1. Phil Greene says:

    Van Nguyen added, “When privilege, power and dominance are more evident than love, humility and servant-hood in the church, then the very Gospel of the servant Jesus is at risk.”
    All the signs are that a lot of our pampered princely priests in Rome and elsewhere really don’t care how they are seen , by God or by man it seems… its their way or no way..
    ..the natives are restless.. the faithful despondent.. where next for more abuse disclosures?.. and will it again be the secular justice system that seeks the truth.. Thank God for secularism, it too has its faults, but we would be worse off relying on a Church where hypocrisy appears to be a necessary part of the office for many.
    The peasants don’t revolt now..they can walk away.. good priests are left to help the faithful despondent.. and yet if the priests only asked the faithful to help them sort the mess that is Rome downwards we would, and perhaps have both a Church as well as a Faith to be proud of..never perfect (and like learning to play golf, possibly worse for a while!!) but trying hard…together.

    Or is it really just none of our business..?

  2. Kevin Walters says:

    December 2009, in the wake of the Murphy Report: Bishop Martin

    “We are deeply shocked by the scale and depravity of abuse as described in the Report. We are shamed by the extent to which child sexual abuse was covered up in the Archdiocese of Dublin and recognise that this indicates a culture that was widespread in the Church. The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the Church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children. This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again.

    “We humbly ask for forgiveness.”

    The term ‘cover up’ is the most horrendous part of the crimes that were committed against innocence, as it permitted them to continue over decades.
    But the clerical culture within the church apparently refuses to absorb this reality. We can see this in a lecture recently given by Fr. Mark Patrick Hederman to the ACP, at its annual general meeting.
    Mark Patrick

    “How poorly and insensitively the church has managed this crisis; although it is a recognised fact that the near pandemic and we are seeing it in the papers every day a pandemic of child abuse in Ireland during the twentieth century that most of the percentages and the perpetrators are within family life itself, now that is a statistic which never hits the headlines, but certainly the extensive and horrific and inexcusable crimes committed by however small number of priest, these became scapegoats, the monster upon whom the understandable enraged public vented its spleen and this of course in turn created situation of uncertainty and terror for members of the clergy who found it difficult to trust that justice would be theirs in such a hostile atmosphere….Guilty until proven innocent…

    “People surmising as they always do, that there could be no smoke without fire”…..

    We see the on-going smouldering wick (Dying Church) of self-deception and deflection in this statement, as it hides (Minimises) from the full realty of the Truth of the situation, that is you cannot defend the indefensible (Cover up). No matter how you present it, as it is repugnant to any with a modicum of honesty and this continual denial/deflection/MINIMISATION, only highlights the on-going lack of moral fibre within the leadership (Clericalism) of the Church. Rather than serve the Truth they sacrificed innocence. And in doing so, they now manifest soiled hearts and smouldering wicks before the laity and mankind, as the bright lamp of Truth (Christ established Church) is now been extinguished.

    Only an act of ‘true humility’ can reverse this situation.

    kevin you brother
    In Christ

  3. Kevin@2, what an excellent piece you have given us. You say it all, perfectly, Kevin. Yet, as we know there are still those who would deny the reality you have just described, and not just Hederman. There are people who should read Diarmuid Martin’s brutally honest statement every day. You absolutely hit the nail on the head. Thank you, Kevin.

  4. I would not dismiss Mark Hederman’s remark. The ritual and mandatory demonization of Cardinal Law is of a piece with the scapegoating so common in our society. A Jewish voice reminds us not to let the good he did be interred with his bones:

    “Rabbi James Rudin, senior inter-religious affairs advisor at the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement that it is also important to recall Law’s early support for civil rights and his global leadership in “building human bridges of mutual understanding and reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.”
    Rudin, who worked with Cardinal Law when he led the U.S.C.C.B.’s commission on ecumenical and interreligious affairs, said the prelate “understood the historic significance of the Second Vatican Council’s call in 1965 for a positive change in the Church’s teachings about Jews and Judaism, and he took actions to implement that revolutionary reform.””

  5. Kevin Walters says:

    Paddy Ferry @5

    Thank you Paddy for your comment and overall support, I am grateful, but I think you should take some of the credit for my post above, as it incorporates this sentence of clarity and insight “you cannot defend the indefensible” which I believe originates from one of your posts.

    Of course I have read about Cardinal Law and many others, but I have always avoided making comments about individuals, who may be implicated in the cover up. I see the sin of those who abused completely differently to those who covered up their atrocities. There will always be sin because of our fallen human nature. But spiritual corruption as in to pervert the course of justice in regards to the protection of innocence is in a different league.

    In the Old Testament, God spoke against those who operated in their own authority while abusing the very people they were to bless. We have seen and see men of power within the church misusing that power and often deflecting their responsibility to protect innocence, by referring to their obedience to Canon Law.
    It could be said that Canon Law is comparable to the term used for corporate responsibility as in
    ‘A Controlling Mind,’ as this term is used when directors of corporate companies are called to account for their dictates that have caused civil or criminal law to be breach, resulting in a claim against the corporation.

    One really has to wonder what sort of ‘Controlling Mind’ controls the church; it is certainly not the mind of Jesus Christ.

    Paddy and all who participate on the site
    May the light of the new born Jesus
    Dwell in our hearts
    While its radiance embellishes
    Itself within as
    And the gift of His Joy (Peace) be ours
    Now this Christmas time and always

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    1. Brian Fahy says:


      Bernard Law has died
      A cardinal last seen in crimson
      A good priest in his early days
      Rose to power and the dizziness of position
      Public esteem in a powerfully public church

      Brought low by not really knowing
      The hurt and harm being done
      Sweeping under a carpet
      Sins that can’t see the sun

      The Church only dealt in sins
      Crime belongs to the world
      Sins are whispered in secret
      And sex has no place at all

      Abuse is only heard in the darkness
      The sinner sent to be fixed
      Time in a priory clinic
      Move on
      It doesn’t exist

      The victim is never known
      Neither by face or by name
      Until the world gets to hear
      And the Church is covered in shame

      Go back to the very beginning
      Go back to the words of the Lord
      To offend against another is sinning
      We all have much still to learn

      We were taught to be frightened of sex
      We were taught to stay well away
      And pedestal priesthood was crazy
      Sure no one can live life that way

      Forgive us O Lord for our pride
      Forgive us our self-assured ways
      Teach us to look out for children
      From now to the end of our days

      Brian Fahy
      22 December 2017

  6. Phil Greene says:

    Thank You Kevin , as Paddy said , you say it perfectly.
    Whilst it is true that most abuse takes place within the family itself this should not be a reason for the church to ,to use your words,”deny/deflect/minimise” their duty to properly acknowledge their wrongs and set about publicly and privately ensuring that clericalism becomes a word that belongs in the history books.

    Your words stay with me Kevin, knowing that in your heart you mean every one of them.
    Van Nguyen… “Furthermore, it is my conviction that the priesthood ‘pedestalized’ is the priesthood dehumanized.” One wonders how many priests would actually want to change the status quo – being a celebrity (but always feeling humbled!) where people either fawn over you or stay away must be quite an addiction..where does a real sense of reality sit?

  7. Joe@5
    Why are you trying to defend the indefensible ,or is it in spite of all we have read and heard of abuse by Catholic Clergy and subsequent cover ups ,as ( Fr. Brian Darcy remarked in a recent radio interview )that unless you were abused yourself you cannot fully understand the consequences for the victim. He does because he was abused twice . There is no delete button for memories. It sickens me to see Law been protected and rewarded for Not doing his job.

  8. I think we need to resist the fearsome dynamic of scapegoating and moral panic. The constantly cited cases of Frs Geoghan and Stanley are symptomatic of this: the former murdered in jail, the second convicted on the iffy basis of “recovered memory.”

  9. Kevin Walters says:

    Phil Greene @ 8
    Thank you Phil for your encouraging comment

    “Being a celebrity (but always feeling humbled!) Where people either fawn over you or stay away must be quite an addiction”….. “Where does a real sense of reality sit?

    In the world we see the Media ‘pedestalization’ celebrities etc, and then for some unfortunates demonize them, as it is good for business so to say, this same ploy is used on many who sincerely follow Jesus Christ and what a better targets than Priests, Religious and sincere Christians.
    Not all those who treat “father” like a celebrity do so with a Christian heart rather quite the opposite as this feigned pedestalization comes in ‘different disguises’ as can be in my post in the link below; from my post in the link

    As a child in the fifties I would usually spend my summer holidays in Limerick, as my bed in Leeds was needed by one of my uncles, so that he could spend the summer months working in England. On one occasion, I was with a relative queuing outside a butcher shop close to the centre of Limerick, when a young priest joined the queue, I could not help noticing how clean and well turned out (nourished) he was, in comparison to the rest of us. The butcher came out of the shop and in a loud voice proclaimed “It is not right that a man of the cloth should have to wait in a queue; come forth and take the first place” (Words to that effect) the smiling young priest went forward and for his troubles also received some extra free meat (Lamb). There were murmurings within the queue from some of the women; to the effect of “I have twelve hungry children at home waiting to be feed, another “I will be lucky if I can afford a few bones” etc. As the young priest left the shop, full of hope with a kind smiling face, someone quipped, “Our next bishop” this was accompanied by sniggers, he was oblivious of what he had just done. In oblivion, our young priest had taken his first step into venality, in spiritual ignorance his pride had taken advantage of his spiritual position and unaware he had bought into the privileged classes of power and authority and in so doing he may have begun a journey of trampling on those he was meant to serve.
    The butcher, businessman (Man of the world) was fully aware of what he had brought about and this scenario (corruption), under ‘Different Disguises’, is still been re-enacted today, not just in Ireland but throughout the Western World, as our emptying churches can testify.
    Continue in the link my post @ 3


    The culture of ‘pedestalization’ needs to change but how can those who have be institutionalized do this this?
    A new culture of manifest/true humility has to be encouraged as in “learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart”

    We could start by taking the lead given by José Antonio Pagola
    A quote of his on this site.

    “You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven” For Jesus, the title of Father is so unique, profound, and intimate that it really ought not be used for anyone else. Why do we still allow it?”

    My response
    An excellent point, I have tried to avoided the use of calling priests father for some considerable time now and use the term ‘Pastor’ wherever possible, as the use of the term father to any other than to our true ‘Father’ and Creator is offensive to Him, as it undermines the Inviolate Word (Will) of God, given to us within the Gospels causing (through double talk) confusion amongst the laity and nonbelievers while at the same time it belittles the teachings of Jesus Christ before all of mankind.

    Posted by xxxxx on another site
    “I don’t know what you call(ed) you male parent (Male Parent?), but I don’t buy into your Protestantism. My mind and heart are open, which does not equate to acquiescing to everyone who comes along with a contrary opinion. And I find the precious notion that it’s wrong to call priests “father” ridiculous. It’s a term of respect and affection, no more than that”……………

    My response
    I called my male parent daddy; I do not think that Jesus was referring to your ‘lawful’ as in ‘Honour or your father and your mother’ (Natural) father, before God, to think that He was, would be preposterous as God’s inviolate Word (Will) cannot contradict itself.
    Yes the term father is a term of respect and affection (Love) and due to our natural earthly father, but in the fullest sense as in our Father/Creator, it is due to Him and Him alone as we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and he is the Father of us all.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  10. Phil Greene says:

    Thank you again Kevin for responding at such a busy time of the year for all of us.
    I remember such tales being recounted at the kitchen table of family/friends in the past.. people in power used/ misused it to their advantage ..whatever their calling.. and some used it for the good of all..whatever their calling.

    “The church, he (Bishop Long)said, needs to dismantle the pyramid model of church which “promotes the superiority of the ordained and the excessive emphasis on the role of the clergy at the expense of nonordained” and is the root cause of clericalism.”
    In Michael’s comment under Seamus Aherne’s post “Wandering Thoughts” it appears that the pyramid is alive and very much kicking in various parts of Ireland and what disturbs me is that it seems to be generally accepted in a resigned fashion. Where are these priests bosses advising them that they are here to share – to be outward- looking.. to help them find the energy/ or the people to manage this outreach.. Bishop Long is speaking about very recent reports in Australia.. We are a good way down the road and whilst progress in safe-guarding children has been made , in many parts of this country we see no real engagement with the Lay people unless absolutely necessary…
    An atheist friend laughingly says that when he wants something from others he uses the Catholic method of deciding how to get it using the ” permission or forgiveness” model and goes for forgiveness nearly every time as he doesn’t do guilt. I remind him that people can only be fooled for so long.. one-way relationships are not healthy.. they last longer when they are healthy, respectful and equal relationships.. he laughs again and says “look at the Catholic church, it’s still around”…!

  11. This article, from the National Catholic Reporter, is, I think, a well-balanced assessment of Cardinal Law.

    Fr. James Connell, at one stage in the piece, says that “bishops destroyed trust”. They certainly did and not just in America. And, not many of them held up their hands either when their culpability became obvious. We did not have many Bishop Moriaritys.
    I have come around to your way of thinking, Kevin. While the initial crime –priests sexually violating children  — was heinous, the second crime of bishops covering the abuse up and moving the abuser priest onto another, unsuspecting parish to continue that abuse and showing no obvious concern at all for the innocent victims, is even worse. I have read Marie Kennan’s excellent book, “Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church. Gender. Power and Organisational Culture.”   You come away, having read that book, feeling sympathy for the priests and brothers who committed the abuse. As you have said, Kevin, there will always be sin because of our fallen human nature. But the sins of Cardinal Law and his ilk are much harder to deal with.


  12. Kevin Walters says:

    Joe O’Leary @ 5
    “I would not dismiss Mark Hederman’s remark”

    Yes I agree; Initially the ACP released an audio that incorporated part of Mark Hederman speech
    I believe that this original insightful information given by the ACP opened a window for all of us as a church, that gave a glimpse of the difficulties that our Shepherds have to deal with at this moment in time
    In my post @ 4 that is related to local- radio-coverage, in the Link above I stated
    “So as the meeting was recorded is there a ‘full’ transcript of his speech with responses that could be made available to us as laity, who participate on the site”

    Shortly afterwards the ACP issued information on how one could be purchased. Hence my extract from Mark Hederman’s lecture in my post above @ 2
    As can be seen I had purchased one and had hoped that some others might do the same and that an ongoing discourse would take place that would include laity, religious and priest, sadly the facility to post was closed shortly afterwards and the informative information was removed from the main page of APC site.

    To be able to purchase the CD (giving us a ring side seat, so to say) that enabled us to listen to the reality of the hearts/concerns our Sheppard’s was a move in the right direction, as in letting one’s guard down in humility. Although not all comments made at the meeting were to be found on the CD, nevertheless some of the comments relating to scapegoating made by individual priests who had given a lifetime of service to the church, were moving and humbling.

    As I reflected upon this, I wonder was a complete cd issued/offered to all ACP members (Priests) who could not attend the meeting (Or regional Meetings) if not, one could ask why not, as to do so, would it not encourage and promote cohesion and participation, as in ‘Unity of Purpose’, is this not the best antidote to isolation and depression, that some priests voiced at the meeting; a bulk order of CD’s or even DVD’s would not be that expensive to produce for both regional meetings and the annual meeting and then distribute them and in so doing invigorating participation. This enlivened group may then draw in younger priest members, without whom the long term future for the ACP is not good, and perhaps eventually the laity may be included also.

    It was stated ‘again and again’ that the most overall concern was the new missal, but for me the missal was the result of a ‘Controlling Mind’ giving us (laity/clergy) a diversion/distraction in difficult times. Yes the liturgy is important but it will not restore the church’s ongoing loss of credibility, focus needs to be selective as in dealing with this fundamental issue, as anything else is living in cloud cuckoo land.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  13. Joe O'Leary says:

    I read John Boyne’s novel “A History of Loneliness”, highly recommended by Joyce Carol Oates, John Banville, and John Irving.

    It’s clever but highly tendentious. The story line is spiced with melodramatic events that don’t conduce to subtle treatment of its theme. All the seminarians in it are forced into the priesthood by their parents, sometimes with physical violence. The narrator is presented as heterosexual but the only evidence is a very fleeting and unconvincing affair with a Roman waitress, and he is involved in the death of John Paul I in an equally unconvincing plot development. The narrator’s best friend turns out to be a child abuser and at the end the narrator confesses that he should have known all along but was too bookish to notice, and that his whole life has been a mistake and a waste, and that all of Ireland’s shame is due to the Church, which has to be got rid of. Totally missing is any reference to the spiritual dimension of the church’s mission, apart from odd references to “the five chapters of the angelus” (the five joyful mysteries of the rosary?). The blurbers take the novel as an authoritative and historically important comment on the crisis of Irish Catholicism, but I’d say it lapses into propaganda and is thereby weakened as a novel. Nowhere near the subtle insights of Joyce, Mary Lavin, or Thomas Kilroy.

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    I meant Richard Power not Thomas Kilroy. (Haven’t read The Big Chapel.)

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.