‘Church has 5 years for a complete turnaround or it’s over’
Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, Vienna
One of the world’s most credible reform-minded Catholic priests has warned that time is running out for the Church to make major structural changes if its leaders want to save it from collapse.
“If the Church does not accomplish a turnaround shift within the next four or five years, then it’s over,” said Father Helmut Schüller, a former vicar general of the Archdiocese of Vienna, at a press conference on Feb. 27 in the Austrian capital.
The 66-year-old cleric, a co-founder in 2006 of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative (API), said the current sex abuse crisis must impel the Catholic Church to rethink (überdenken) its constitution, give lay Catholics more rights and introduce control mechanisms for those in positions of power.
Speaking to reporters during a meeting of Austrian Church reform movements, Schüller said one of the most necessary reforms is to “desacralize” the priesthood.
“We must get back to seeing the priesthood as a service and not as an office that gives the holder power, because that can lead to abuse,” he said.
A related reform that is also urgent, he added, is to make those in positions of responsibility accountable “from the top down.” Additionally, there must be a charter to establish and protect the basic rights of the baptized faithful, Schüller said.
He noted that Paul VI had made proposals in this direction but “when the powers-that-be realized that any such plans would cut to the bone,” the proposals were “buried” by Pope St. John Paul II.
Schüller insisted that a system of checks and balances be implemented without delay in the Church since “now everything always lands on the pope’s desk.” He said proposals for a basic Church constitution should be made by Church employees at all levels, and that this is an urgent matter.
“The abuse crisis has only grown rampantly in a system that has become unhealthy,” the priest reiterated.
A credible voice for Church reform
Schüller, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1977, is a credible voice on the abuse issue and Church reform.
A former head of Caritas Austria, he was Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s vicar general from 1995-1999 and head the Archdiocese of Vienna’s ombudsman office for helping victims of clergy sex abuse from 1996 until 2005, when he pushed to have a layperson take up that position.
The following year Schüller and Father Udo Fischer, a monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Göttweig, founded the API.
The initiative has backed Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, the re-institution of a married priesthood and the ordination of women.
It has led to the establishment and strengthening of similar priests’ movements in places such as Ireland, Germany, France, Australia and the United States.
In 2011, the API issued a “Call to Disobedience,” which ramped up calls for reform and insisted that laypeople be allowed to run priestless parishes. A year later Pope Benedict XVI stripped Schüller of the honorary title of “monsignor” which the Vatican had bestowed upon the priest in 1992.
During the Feb. 27 press conference in Vienna, Schüller insisted that the basic problem behind the “abuse phenomenon” lay in the imbalance that exists in the Church.
“Catholics have become resigned to living in two worlds – in the world outside, which in Europe is usually a democratic world; and within the Church, where as soon as they cross the Church threshold, they are servants in an absolute monarchy,” he said.
He pointed out that the baptized faithful had long enjoyed no rights at all and were completely isolated if, for instance, they were assaulted by clerics.
The Vatican abuse summit
The Vienna archdiocesan priest also weighed in on the “abuse summit” that was held Feb. 21-24 in Rome with the participation of the pope and representatives of all the world’s bishops, religious orders and abuse victims.
“The Vatican summit must speedily trigger concrete system changes. Pope Francis has the unique chance to convert the Church into a community equipped with a basic constitution and he himself must lead the way,” Schüller said.
He was critical of the summit, saying he hoped “that something like this will never happen again – not in this form and in this vagueness.”
“Things that are taken for granted and do not need repeating were once again emphasized,” Schüller said. “But that merely shows how deep the crisis is,” he added.
“The summit was a costly event at which the participants first had to be brought up to the same level (of knowledge) on something that even the youngest members of our parish councils are fully acquainted with,” the reformer-priest said.
He said every summit participant should have been handed “notebook with a list of obligations/duties” for use in their own local Church. And he added that a stack of forms allowing bishops to submit their resignations should have been placed at the exit of the Synod Hall where the summit was held.
Many of those attending the Vatican meeting “are, after all, part of the problem and not of the solution,” Schüller pointed out.
The Cardinal Groer Affair
The Austrian priest’s initial experience in dealing with clergy sex abuse came during Holy Week in 1995 when it was revealed that the then-Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, had abused a minor.
John Paul II appointed Father Christoph Schönborn, then a Dominican theologian, as coadjutor bishop to Cardinal Groer. A few months later the Vatican allowed the disgraced cardinal to retire at age 75. And as the new archbishop, Schönborn named Schüller head of the archdiocese’s newly established ombudsman office for reporting abuse.
The priest said the awareness that “respect, esteem and safeguarding possibilities for the victims” were imperative and had led to a “long and tough learning process.”
But he said there was still something missing — the “right of control” as far as bishops were concerned and their commitment to accountability and to shouldering responsibility.
“Bishops should not only be removed from the episcopal office if they cover up abuse cases – but also if they simply sit back and do nothing,” Schüller emphasized.
The Cardinal Pell case is a warning
In an interview with one of Austria’s most respected dailies, Die Presse, Schüller noted that, only 48 hours after the conclusion of the Vatican abuse summit, it was officially announced that Australian Cardinal George Pell had been convicted of sexual abuse.
He said the “remarkable” thing about the Pell case was that Pope Francis had made no attempt to protect the Australian cardinal at the Vatican. Rather, he told Pell to report to the police in Melbourne where he’d been accused.
“That is very different from former times when Church officials who committed offences did not turn themselves in,” Schüller said.
The Pell case certainly indicates a shift from the way the Vatican previously has dealt with sexual abuse involving senior Church officials, he said.
“Pell was one of a group of the pope’s closest advisors,” the Austrian priest said. “His case is a warning for the many who have up to now not taken the abuse cases seriously enough.”