Time running out to save the church



‘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.”

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  1. Kevin Walters says:

    “If the Church does not accomplish a turnaround shift within the next four or five years, then it’s over,”

    We are ‘all’ sinners, nevertheless His promise “the gates of hell shall not prevail “ still holds true and the challenge to-day for renewal, will be based on both scripture and sacred tradition, which will involve all the ‘faithful’.

    ‘A lack of stillness’ desolates as can be plainly seen in the turbulence today within the Church, similar to the time God destroyed the Tower of Babel because they did not speak /act in unity of purpose, as they served their own egos rather than the Will of God.

    Jesus was very specific in regards to the Commandments, as in not “One iota” as with His teaching “Whatever you do to these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me”. Self- justification has no part to play within a Christian heart, as we all fall short in regards to “One iota” and love of neighbour, and this comes about when we fail to “Love the Lord your God with all our Heart, mind and soul”… this is the precursor to ‘A lack of stillness’.

    It could be said that a ‘Good-Enough Life’ is that of love of neighbour without the Love of God/’Truth’, but it ‘is not good enough’. But a humble life/heart is, as “Only God is Good”. Truth is the essence of love. The Truth, as in not one iota, is the yoke that binds us to Jesus Christ, in ‘humility’. St. Bernard- Humility a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself…

    “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you shall find rest (‘Stillness’) for you souls” …

    The True Divine Mercy Image/message, one of Broken Man given by Our Lord Himself, is a missionary call that offers the Church the means to embrace all her children no matter what their state of being, who are ‘willing’ to embrace the wedding (Bonding) garment of humility. The one and only state from where the ongoing transforming action of The holy Spirit can take place. While we evangelize through the action of Humility, a disarming action in its honesty, that embrace all in its simplicity, as we encounter our brothers and sisters who stand and seek direction at the crossroads (Difficulties) of life.

    So in our present shameful situation, is God preparing the birth of a Church that will be truthful with herself. A Church that proceeds and leads in humility, openly acknowledging her failings before God and all of her children and in doing so, permit her children to do the same, and walk dressed in the Wedding (Bonding) Garment of humility also. Please consider continuing via the link

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Frances Burke says:

    ‘The tribunalization of the Church is tempting because it brings down the guilt solely on abusers and those who it covered up — few or many, but still delimited individuals.

    This clear distinction between a few bad apples in comparison to the otherwise healthy batch can too easily become self-absolutory for the rest of the Church. If we assume that we can clearly identify the individuals responsible for the crimes, we feel relieved of the fault that weighs on the Church.

    There is a gray area between “the bad ones” and “the good ones” that the entire Church must address, a work it cannot relegate to others.

    “The gray area, it’s not just the others. The gray area is also us,” said Father Hans Zollner SJ, one of the chief organizers of the Vatican abuse summit, in an article recently published in the German cultural weekly Die Zeit.

    The hard truth is that those who are morally and theologically responsible for Catholic sexual abuse crisis are a far greater in number than those who can and should be convicted by a tribunal for their crimes.’


  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    Here is the text of the article, in case it’s blocked to non-subscribers:

    A young Catholic activist faces expulsion from Queensland’s Liberal National Party after she called on fellow party members to send letters of support to convicted cardinal George Pell.

    The furore erupted when Brisbane woman Tien Kelly, 23, used a closed Young LNP Facebook group last week to post the prison mailing address of the imprisoned cleric.

    It prompted LNP state director Michael O’Dwyer to phone Ms Kelly to reprimand her, but she refused to take his call and instead sent a fiery text message accusing party officials of using “emotional and aggressive” tactics to crack down on freedom of speech.

    “I will not be returning your call as I do not wish to subject myself to abuse and/or intimidation over the telephone,” she wrote, copying the message to party members.

    “Does the LNP party no longer support free debate and religious freedom? … Obviously your behaviour indicates that it does not, under your ‘leadership’.

    “Your interference within our branch is not appropriate nor ­appreciated. Good day and God bless you and your family.”

    Her original post was deleted at the order of LNP headquarters, which feared a political backlash over party channels being used to solicit letters of support for a convicted child abuser.

    LNP insiders said party bosses were also concerned about the reputation of Ms Kelly, who was publicly ridiculed last month over her push to resurrect the Miss Young Liberal pageant.

    Ms Kelly’s West Brisbane Young LNP branch has also proposed motions to ensure the youth wing recites the Lord’s Prayer and sings God Save the Queen before council meetings.

    The LNP president’s committee suspended Ms Kelly from the party last Thursday — banning her from party meetings and events — ahead of a meeting of the powerful disputes committee to review her membership.

    Ms Kelly’s membership was not in jeopardy before she shared her text message to Mr O’Dwyer with her Young LNP branch colleagues.

    The controversy emerged as Melbourne’s University of ­Divinity council postponed last week’s awarding of an honorary doctorate to Jesuit priest Frank Brennan after he questioned the Pell verdict in an article published in The Australian.

    “While affirming Professor Brennan’s entitlement to freedom of speech, the Council in no way wishes to offend or take anything away from appropriate recognition of our students’ significant achievements,” acting vice-chancellor Gabrielle McMullen wrote to staff.

    Professor McMullen included a statement from Father Brennan acknowledging his article had “occasioned unintended hurt to some victims of child sexual abuse”.

    “I am sorry for any hurt caused. In these circumstances, the university has decided to postpone the conferral of the honorary degree,’’ he said.

    “I hope this decision can assist with some healing in our badly fractured community at this time.’’

    Father Brennan and Pell are poles apart on the church’s political spectrum. Father Brennan is a social progressive, advocating compassion for asylum-seekers and same-sex civil marriage.

  4. Paddy Ferry says:

    I think I have said on more than one occasion on this site that in my humble opinion JP11 was the instigator of the policy of cover up in the clerical sex abuse scandal. In last weeks Tablet Clifford Longley offers some evidence to support that contention –though in fact he could have presented even more evidence. But, now, of course, the man is a saint !!

    Sexual abuse survivors held a protest demonstration when John Paul II was canonised
    by Clifford Longley

    In all the soul searching in the Catholic Church over clerical child abuse and its cover-up, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the role played by Pope John Paul II. There seems to be a conscious refusal, particularly in the right-wing Catholic media, to acknowledge the responsibility he bore for years of evasion, negligence and even criminal complicity. John Paul II is their model, their hero. His image must not be tarnished.

    The evidence is plentiful. Excuses are less easy to come by. Karol Wojtyla, even before he was elected Pope, was aware that the Communist regime that ruled his native Poland was ever willing to invent accusations of sexual misconduct as a weapon against the Catholic clergy. That appears to have shaped his response when, as Pope, he was faced with clear information that Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, was a habitual sex offender who included child abuse and incest among his many crimes.

    But there is more to it than that. Marcial Maciel was his kind of Catholic, and the Legion was his kind of Catholicism. It was authoritarian and ultra-conservative, and the head man’s word was law, not to be challenged. It was, so to speak, more Opus Dei than Opus Dei – another organisation John Paul II was to favour. He dismissed the sort of spiritual and moral deviation being alleged as just not credible.

    Or take the case of Cardinal Bernard Law. He was hounded out of Boston, Massachusetts, as told in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, and offered refuge in the Vatican to escape the clutches of the Boston public prosecutor. But rather than opt for a quiet life, he became a major player inside the Vatican. He belonged to more dicasteries than any other cardinal, and used his positions to promote a conservative authoritarian agenda. Yet this man had repeatedly protected abusive priests, moving them round his diocese in response to complaints so they would abuse again and again. He caused a vast amount of human misery. Yet in the Vatican he was a major policy influence on John Paul II.

    Or take the case of Theodore McCarrick, whom John Paul II promoted to cardinal in spite of widespread rumours about his sexual proclivities. Or the case of Hans Gröer of Vienna, another of his protégés, who had to stand down when his history of sexual wrongdoing was exposed. And indeed, George Pell, promoted by John Paul II to cardinal in 2003 – the same year he promoted Keith O’Brien. And these are just some of the figures he advanced to the top of the Catholic tree. Why could he not see it? Because they were loyal and unimaginative, safe pairs of hands who did not question the received Catholic orthodoxy – John Paul II’s orthodoxy – on issues, above all, of marriage, sex and gender. That was the Catholic “product” that good salesmen did not criticise.

    There was perhaps another reason, more subtle and fundamental than this. I greatly admire John Paul II’s work to develop and modernise Catholic Social Teaching, whose underlying philosophy is Thomistic and Aristotelian. But in sexual matters he went off piste, so to speak, to apply the phenomenological theories of an obscure German philosopher called Edmund Husserl.

    And whatever else you may think of it, John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” did not throw much light on child sex abuse. It was non-procreative sex, so he could not approve of it. But he would see it only as a breach of chastity and celibacy by the perpetrator, to be condemned for that reason. This was not what sex was “for”. And said perpetrator could, after Confession, be absolved and returned to his duties – perhaps with the stipulation that he move away and break off relations with the person he’d abused. I don’t think child victims, per se, would have been on his theological radar.

    It is not entirely irrelevant that sexual abuse survivors held a protest demonstration when John Paul II was canonised. The mess the Church is in today was brewed up during the 27 years of his papacy. Indeed, in the eyes of some critics, his real mission was to thwart the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, restoring the Church to where it was before. I suspect it was not so deliberate. He saw the whole Church and the whole world through the lens of pre-war Polish Counter-Reformation Catholicism. That was what shaped his vision. Turning a blind eye to sexual abuse was simply part of that.

  5. Eddie Finnegan1 says:

    Paddy@4, if we can at least talk of rescinding knighthoods, withdrawing Nobel prizes, unnaming Ozzie shooters in Christchurch, laicising paedophile clerics, defrocking archbishops, “reducing” cardinals to the lay state (the insulting expression of that word “reducing” !!), the Canons of Canon Law must include a mini-footnote somewhere about the process of de-canonisation? DeSantificare Subito!

  6. Paddy Ferry says:

    Eddie, when my Polish nurse first arrived 16 years ago she was distraught when I could not share her exalted view of her Polish pope. Gradually over the years, as I presented evidence to support my position, she has come to agree with me. Now, she tells me that there are those back home in Poland, among her family and friends, who are discussing if it is possible to rescind a sainthood.

  7. Frances Burke says:

    ‘This kind of leadership can only emerge from the community. The whole focus of the church needs to shift from hierarchical priorities. Catholics shouldn’t waste time on bishop-sponsored activities like plenary councils. They should concentrate on developing lay leadership, particularly women’s leadership. Laity and priests need to act strategically in developing new structures in parishes and dioceses to which everyone is responsible, including bishops. Leadership in the church is something earned, not granted by ecclesiastical appointment.’


  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    Paul Collins, fine, but it’s been said 50 years ago. Requirements:

    1. creative inspiration
    2. patience
    3, unity of purpose among the laity
    4. strategic savvy in outwitting obstructionists
    5. ability to protect and promote the emergent lay and female leadership in loyal defiance of the dead hand of clericalism

    Can we hope for this? Note that even if by a miracle all bishops were to push the Collins agenda their inveterate controlling instincts would make their contribution a dubious blessing.

  9. Mary Vallely says:

    Nodding my head here as it makes perfect sense. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Frances. Have shared it on the ACI FB page.
    “ The age of hierarchs is already over.”
    We waste far too much time waiting for them to take the lead. Laudato Si is one of the great wake-up calls of Francis’s papacy and we haven’t prioritised it.
    Little Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl prophet, is showing us the way.
    “ Adults keep saying, ‘ We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’
    But I don’t want your hope.
    I don’t want you to be hopeful.
    I want you to panic.
    I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.
    And then I want you to act.
    I want you to act as if your house is on fire.
    Because it is.”

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