A Personal View of Six Discernment Papers for the Plenary Council

A Personal View of Six Discernment Papers for the Plenary Council

Patricia Gemmell has a Masters in Theology and for 34 years has been a parishioner of St Leonard’s Naremburn, NSW. Patricia is also a member of the Australian Grail National Leadership Team. This article first appeared on the website of The Grail in Australia in June 2020 and is re-published here with permission of the author.


We are all familiar with Karl Rahner’s statement, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” The more I advance on the Plenary Council journey, the more it seems to me that the Church of the future will be synodal or will not exist at all. This makes me wonder about the connections between mysticism and synodality. I’m sure there’s a theological essay in there but I have other fish to fry right now!

Can we make some general statements about the 6 Discernment Papers to illuminate the way forward? I believe we can.

If I were to pick the one thing that stands out as being of most importance, it would be the key analysis in Humble, Healing and Merciful. Let me quote some of it:

God is asking the Church in Australia today to start afresh from the place of humility…The Church in Australia is in need of healing. It bears a great wound and must not act as if it were not wounded…Overlooking and blocking out trauma, however, does not result in healing but leads to more pain, paralysis and, ultimately, death.

As long as the Church takes a “business as usual” approach, we will continue to experience “night” under the shadow of the sexual abuse scandal and other challenges. No matter how much energy we invest…in an attempt to draw people back to the pews, we will struggle to flourish.

Not surprisingly, the first recommendation in this paper is to DO sorry. It’s a recommendation found in most of the papers, in one form or another. It’s recognised as a foundational step to renewal.

The concepts of synodality and co-responsibility recur frequently. “In a synodal Church there is an openness to the Holy Spirit in a genuine process of conversion by both a humble leadership and an actively engaged community.” (Inclusive, Participatory and Synodal) This is very much the vision underpinning much of what is written in these papers, which face the challenges honestly but hopefully. Unfortunately, I don’t see much of this hope in the wider Catholic community, so there is much work to be done between now and the first session of the Plenary, if we are serious about changing a deeply entrenched culture of clericalism.

There is no substitute for reading the papers themselves and I hope you do so. I was heartened by some of the recurring priorities and proposals, especially seeing the very first proposal and one of the last (in the order they appear on the website) call for Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, to be the inspiration for an integral ecology approach in this country.

Of particular interest and relevance at this time is the recurrent call for the embedding of Indigenous knowledge and culture in our Church, and the forging of deeper links with our First Nations Peoples. Several times Pope St John Paul II’s address to them in 1986 is quoted:

You are part of Australia and Australia is part of you. And the Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.

It will come as no surprise that there were many questions and proposals around the participation of women, issues of governance and ministry, ongoing lifelong formation of bishops, clergy and laity at all levels, and a call for communal discernment to become a more deeply embedded process in our activities. It was also interesting to see how often a proposal was made for a national Catholic body to be created to oversee and co-ordinate various functions, in recognition of the fact that it is not always effective or desirable to have the dioceses all doing their own thing.

There was much in these papers to delight the reader interested in a life-giving culture of renewal. From a personal and parochial perspective, I was particularly impressed with the proposals made by the Prayerful and Eucharistic Writing Group, and especially their calls for “a collaborative model of ordained and lay sacramental ministry” and “formal approval and encouragement for suitably qualified lay women and men to break open the Word within the community.”

I don’t wear rose-coloured glasses. I am aware of the deep divisions in the Catholic Church in Australia, the resistance of some to the Plenary Council and the non-engagement of many others. However, that we have come this far in our journey of communal discernment is a great achievement, and we must build upon it.

We need forums for ongoing dialogue and discernment. It is clear that not all parishes or dioceses are going to provide these, and indeed, why should we expect that? If we are going to move from a culture of clericalism to a culture of synodality and co-responsibility, now is a good time to start. We at the grassroots must take the initiative. Various lay groups are already starting to do so. However, we need more than to meet in our silos and echo chambers. We need to engage with those who disagree with us or who bring a different faith perspective. It’s uncomfortable and it’s challenging and we don’t do it well.

Discernment takes us to the heart of things, to the things that really matter. Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom and all the rest will follow. For St Paul unity in Christ was everything. Jesus and the gospel must be our compass. Can we seek out our delegates to the Plenary Council and start processes of respectful dialogue and prayerful discernment with them and others, so that together we can begin to discern where the Spirit is leading us? And in the doing, can we learn to be united in our differences, knowing that in Christ we are all one?

Patricia Gemmell

June 2020

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Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time : 7 July 2019

“Start off now, but remember, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals. Salute no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, let your first words be: ‘Peace to this house!’” Luke 10, 1-12, 17-20

Jesus was so fired up with his appreciation of God as father and his dream and hope for a world in which all would be free, equal, respected and treated with dignity that he saw the need for helpers in bringing his vision to everyone without exception. Relying on what he had heard about Jesus, Luke gave us a picture of how Jesus engaged seventy-two assistants in an effort to put order and organisation into spreading his message. We now call it “evangelisation” or spreading the good news. However, it indicates just how practical Jesus was. Convinced that his message was worth sharing and conscious of his own human limitedness, he gathered together a group of assistants and gave them basic instructions as to how to go about spreading his message.

Over centuries, the Christian community, taking the lead from Jesus, has set about packaging and promoting his vision in many different ways in their efforts to convince others of the value of Jesus’ dream for us and our world. Sometimes, they presented his message in a distorted way and ended up using fear as a tactic or motivational force to pressure others to embrace the “good news”. Ultimately such efforts became counter-productive as they presented God as someone of whom to be afraid rather than as “loving Father”. As a result, many people have come to regard “organised religion” with a degree of suspicion because they have experienced so many organisations as oppressive, controlling, bureaucratic and institutionalised. Many contemporary Catholics have a healthy suspicion of their local churches because they have experienced them as authoritarian, hierarchical, prejudiced against minority groups, and reluctant to fully accept women and the gifts they bring.

Yet, if we are not careful, we can fall into the trap of identifying God with the Church, as if the flaws and failures of the organised Church can be attributed to God. The truth is we look to attribute our dissatisfactions to what we perceive to be the failure of Church leaders and members to be faithful to the commitments emanating from their baptism. It seems to me that there is a three-fold source of our dissatisfaction: the scandal and betrayal of child sexual abuse and subsequent cover-up by leaders; the apparent reluctance or inability to celebrate liturgy with imagination and creativity and with connection to the lives and needs of teenagers and young adults; the insistence on prescribing a brand of religious education heavily-laden with doctrinal material that has little relevance to the struggles of life.

Since Vatican II, the demanding challenges of Jesus and his Gospel have been so domesticated that their impact is all but neutered. Those challenges have been replaced by a kind of “placebo Christianity” that seems to ignore the fact that Jesus named the deficiencies of his disciples for what they were and confronted with vigour, and even venom, the Temple money-changers, the Pharisees, and religious hypocrites. Paradoxically, however, service of others, especially the poor and needy, is now more in evidence than ever before.

Still, we would be deluding ourselves if we were to think that doctrine or theological dissertation moved anyone to embrace Christianity. The earliest converts to the Gospel seem to have been drawn by the vibrant, attractive and magnetic person of Jesus, as well as by the kind of people like the seventy-two disciples of today’s gospel.

We are given no details of the gifts, preparation or qualifications of that group of seventy-two. Their only claim to fame is that they were selected and commissioned by Jesus himself, to address a need he clearly saw as urgent. And they returned rejoicing in the fact that the straight-forward directions he had given them actually worked. The implication, of course, is that we and others like us are their modern-day successors. God is sufficiently big-minded to work through people as ordinary and ill-equipped as we are, through ordinary people like us who visit the sick, the lonely and the forgotten. What these people offer matters much more than who they are or their qualifications and training. They come as messengers of peace, and their love speaks all languages and touches all hearts. As today’s second reading from Galatians reminds us, external characteristics count for little. What matters most is that we are renewed and enlivened by the grace and love of God. And the messages of peace we give and receive can come in surprising ways. So, I conclude with the story of Brennan Manning (1934 – 2013), former Franciscan priest, writer, speaker and recovering alcoholic. It is a story about himself, and this is how he told it:

“A few years ago, I lay desperately sick on the floor of a motel room. I learned later that within a few hours, if left unattended, I would have gone into alcoholic convulsions and possibly died. At that time, I could not admit to myself that I was an alcoholic. I did my best to crawl to the phone to dial for help. However, my hands were shaking so hard that I managed to press only one digit. Providentially, it connected me to the operator, who dialled Alcoholics Anonymous for me. Within ten minutes, a complete stranger walked into the room, scooped me up in his strong arms and rushed me to a detox centre. After I had endured the pain of withdrawal, that stranger loved me back to life. A fallen-away Catholic who had not been to Mass in years, he told me repeatedly that the Father loved me, that God had not abandoned me and would draw good out of what had happened to me. He told me that this wasn’t the time for guilt and fear and shame, but for survival. Above all, he affirmed me in my emptiness and loved me in my loneliness. In time, I learned that my benefactor was an itinerant labourer, who fronted up daily at an employment agency in the local area, taking whatever work was on offer. He put cardboard in his work boots to cover the holes. Yet, when I was able to eat, he took me to McDonald’s for my first meal. For a full week, he breathed life into me physically and spiritually, day and night, and asked nothing in return. I learned later that he had lost his family and fortune through drinking. Yet every night he would spend fifteen minutes reading a meditation book. And before going to bed, he would thank God for what he had left, pray for other alcoholics and then open his window and bless the world. Two years later, I returned to that city to reconnect with my friend. When I was unable to locate him, I called AA, only to be told that he was back on Skid Row. So I went in search of him. When I thought I had spotted him sitting in a doorway, I went up and discovered another wino who was neither drunk nor sober. ‘Hey man’, he said, ‘can you gimme a dollar to get some wine?’ I knelt down in front of him, took his hands in mine, and looked into his eyes. They filled with tears, and I leaned down and kissed his hands. He began to cry. He didn’t want a dollar. He wanted what I needed two years earlier as I lay on that motel floor: to be accepted in his brokenness, to be affirmed in his worthlessness, to be loved in his loneliness. He wanted to be relieved of what Mother Teresa described as the worst feeling of all: the feeling of not being accepted or wanted. I never located my friend.”

“Several days later, I was celebrating Eucharist for a group of recovering alcoholics. Midway through my brief homily, my friend walked through the door. My heart skipped. But he disappeared during the distribution of communion and did not return. Two days later, I received a letter from him which read in part: ‘Two nights ago in my own clumsy way, I prayed for the right to belong, just to belong among you at the holy Mass of Jesus. You will never know what you did for me last week on Skid Row. You didn’t see me, but I saw you. I was standing just a few feet away in a shopfront window. When I saw you kneel down and kiss that wino’s hands, you wiped away from my eyes the blank stare of the breathing dead. When I saw you really cared, my heart began to grow wings, feeble wings, but wings. I threw my bottle of wine down the sewer. Your tenderness and understanding breathed life into me and I want you to know that.” (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Penguin Random House NY, 1990)

Flawed and addicted though these winos were, strangers to one another as they were, they still ministered caringly to each other, they breathed life into one another. Were they different from the seventy-two sent out by Jesus to bring peace, comfort and consolation to others? Flawed and broken like the rest of us, they reached out in their brokenness in the alleyways of shame and loneliness. Can we step away from today’s gospel reading thinking that we can leave being Christ to others? Are we not really among the seventy-two sent out to breathe life and love into those we encounter?

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection

The Body & Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) – reflections on the Sunday readings

By Brother Julian McDonald cfc

Then, taking the five loaves and two fish, and looking up to heaven, Jesus said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. Luke 9, 11-17

The more I dig into Luke’s Gospel, the more I come to appreciate how carefully it has been constructed. In the account of the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it, Luke tells us three times, in the space of 12 verses, how Mary’s new-born baby was “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger” (Luke 2, 6-17). A manger is a feed bin for cattle, sheep and goats, and the word is very closely related to the French verb manger and the Italian mangiare, both meaning to eat, feed or chew. So, Luke uses the symbol of the feeding bin in which the new-born Jesus was laid to point to how Jesus would eventually become food, the “bread of life” for the whole of humanity.
This Sunday’s readings are effectively the Church’s invitation to us to reflect on the meaning of the Eucharist for us and the way in which we integrate it into our daily lives. Whenever I reflect on Eucharist, I find myself dwelling on the words St Augustine believed were appropriate for people to hear when they came to the altar to receive communion: “Behold who you are, become what you receive!” It was Augustine’s view that, if we really grasped the meaning of that very profound statement, the way we live our lives would be transformed immeasurably.
“Behold who you are…” – “Look, you are the body of Christ! Do you really appreciate who you are? You are the Christ for everyone you will meet today, and until you come back to the altar to be reminded once again just who you are meant to be”.
“…become what you receive!” – “Become nourishment for everyone with whom you interact when you walk out of the church today! Be bread, broken and given to nourish the lives of those you will encounter today and into the future. Give selflessly of yourself and of your time and energy. Breathe life and hope into others, into your family members, your friends, your work colleagues and the strangers you meet.”
In his Second Letter to the Christian community in Corinth, Paul challenged his audience to test the genuineness of their Christianity by answering a very simple question. “Do you recognise yourselves as people in whom Jesus Christ is present? If you don’t, you have failed the test.” (2 Corinthians 13, 5) Augustine went a step further and urged his community to come to the realisation that they were Jesus Christ to everyone they met. The manner in which they engaged with the people around them would demonstrate that. The Eucharist they received would have its full impact as they encouraged, affirmed and loved into life all those around them.
In our neighbourhood, Vincentian chapel here in Rome, the priest finishes Mass each morning with the words: “Go and glorify God in your lives.” If we take him seriously, we will spend the remainder of our day in our own very ordinary efforts to nourish those around us by the way we relate to them, by the way in which we greet them and acknowledge their presence, by the ways in which we express appreciation to them.
And, if we are alert, we will see others around us doing the same, and find encouragement from how they do it. Moreover, if we look beyond our own narrow boundaries, we will find inspiration in abundance.
The New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof found it in a quietly-spoken priest and a religious sister in South Sudan. Kristof wrote in May 2010: “I met Father Michael in the remote village of Nyamlell, 150 miles from any paved road here in southern Sudan. He runs four schools for children who would otherwise go without an education, and his graduates score at the top of state-wide examinations… Father Michael came to southern Sudan in 1978 and chatters fluently in Dinka and other local languages. To keep his schools alive, he persevered through civil war, imprisonment and beatings, and a smorgasbord of disease. ‘It’s very normal to have malaria,’ he said. ‘Intestinal parasites — that’s just normal’. Father Michael may be the worst-dressed priest I’ve ever seen — and the noblest…He would make a great pope.”
Kristof continued: “In the city of Juba, I met Cathy Arata, a nun from New Jersey who spent years working with battered women in Appalachia. Then she moved to El Salvador during the brutal civil war there, putting her life on the line to protect peasants. Two years ago, she came here on behalf of a terrific Catholic project called Solidarity with Southern Sudan… Sister Cathy and the others in the project have trained 600 schoolteachers. They are fighting hunger not with handouts but with help for villagers to improve agricultural techniques. They are also establishing a school for health workers, with a special focus on midwifery to reduce deaths in childbirth.”
But we don’t have to go across the world to see people breaking the bread of their lives and giving it to others, to those with whom they live and work and to those who are homeless, lonely or needy in all kinds of ways. For decades, two wonderful Good Samaritan Sisters, Mary and Marie have been giving of themselves to people in their neighbourhood in Balmain, Sydney, who have struggled as single parents, who have carried the burden of mental health issues or who have been unable to negotiate the bureaucratic maze of a complicated Social Security “service”. These two extraordinary women have kept their door open to all comers, at all hours of the day and night. Their lives have been an endless succession of days when they have been bread broken, and have given selflessly to people broken by the circumstances of their lives.
As we approach the table of the altar in our churches this coming Sunday, let’s imagine that we hear the Eucharistic minister saying to us, as he or she holds before us that small, consecrated particle that hardly resembles bread: “Behold who you are, become what you receive!” And let’s leave our churches to be and do that for everyone we encounter.

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection
Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Lessons and learnings for the People of God

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Lessons and learnings for the People of God

Robert Fitzgerald AM served as a Commissioner for the duration of the Royal Commission. He was on leave from the Productivity Commission where he has served as a full time Commissioner since 2004. He was previously the Community and Disability Services Commissioner and Deputy Ombudsman in New South Wales. Further background information about Robert is available here.

Robert addressed ‘Q and A in the Crypt’ at St Patrick’s Church, the Rocks, Sydney for Catalyst for Renewal on 27 May 2018 and subsequently provided this extended presentation. Download the PDF here.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse:
Lessons and learnings for the People of God

May 2018
Robert Fitzgerald AM
(Extended Presentation)

When the Royal Commission commenced its work more than five years ago it had three tasks: to bear witness to what had happened, to provide just responses to those abused and to recommend ways to create child safe institutions.

Fundamental to our work was to hear from those directly affected – the victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Nearly 17,000 came forward. We gave voice to their stories through private sessions, case studies, written accounts, forums and community engagement initiatives. We published 4,000 de-identified narratives. And a commemorative book in the National Library contains over a thousand messages from survivors to the Australian community. They have been heard.

For you, as both leaders and members of faith based communities your response to what has been heard depends on whose voice you will listen to. As people of God, whose voices will resonate in both your head and your heart?

Will you listen to the voices of those that have spoken through the Commission and their calls for acknowledgement, redress, reform and healing? Or will you listen to the strident voices, within some parts of church and society, who seek to minimise the extent of the abuse claiming it was only a few rotten apples rather than the culture and practices of the church? They cast it as an historical problem which has passed, shift blame to the societal contexts rather than institutional failings and seek to restore the good order of the past, unreformed and unrepentant. They deny the truth of what has been exposed and the imperatives for reform.

Your response rests as much in the Gospel as it does in the recommendations of the Royal Commission. For in the Gospel it was the voice of the oppressed and marginalised that Christ used to declare a new order. It was through his engagement with the poor Christ proclaimed the truth and the light. He admonished those who sought to maintain the status quo and those who sought to maintain the privileges of power, abuse and influence.

Whose voice will you listen to in responding to the challenges of what has been revealed?

Fact from Fiction

The Commission’s work has covered so much territory, so many institutions and so many issues that this paper can only touch on a few issues. But importantly the Commission has debunked some long held and often claimed myths or inaccuracies in relation to the Church and abuse in Australia. It has sought to put the record straight to the extent possible. For me, some of those keys areas worth mentioning up front are:

  • Child sexual abuse has been present within the Catholic Church for much of its history and is not a phenomenon only of the last century or more specifically the more permissive 1970s and 80s. Despite many positive changes in the church’s understandings, policies and practices it remains a contemporary issue and significant present day risks exist.
  • Child sexual abuse in religious institutions and the Catholic Church was more extensive than admitted or expected with some specific institutions having very high levels of reported allegations of abuse.
  • Abuse was not just an issue of bad conduct by a few ‘rotten apples’, rather there were systemic issues that enabled abuse to occur and hindered effective, just and compassionate responses especially prior to the mid-1990s.
  • Many contributing factors collectively gave rise to personal and institutional failures including unhealthy clericalism, mandatory celibacy and inadequate selection, training and formation of religious and clergy. The absence of professional development and ongoing pastoral supervision exacerbated such weaknesses. And homosexuality was not generally a contributing factor to the sexual abuse of children.
  • Poor governance, inadequate leadership, and an unhealthy culture that preferenced secrecy and the Church’s own interests contributed to the collective failure of the Catholic Church. The interests of children, and then later adult survivors, were not paramount or even adequately addressed until at least the mid 1990’s.
  • Many of the improvements in good governance and child safe practices in the Church’s human service ministries appear not to have been adequately adopted in the operation of parishes and dioceses, at least until more recently.
  • The Catholic Church in Australia did eventually take decisive action to address the complaints and needs of survivors especially with the adoption of Towards Healing (and many claims were satisfactorily dealt with), but inconsistent practices and implementation, and aggressive defences to civil claims lead to much criticism, injustice and unnecessary pain to many.

The story of Religious Institutions through the lens of the Royal Commission

More than 4,500 survivors told the Royal Commission in private sessions that they were sexually abused as children in religious institutions. The abuse occurred in religious schools, orphanages and missions, churches, presbyteries and rectories, confessionals, and various other settings. In private sessions we heard about child sexual abuse occurring in nearly 1,700 different religious institutions.

The sexual abuse took many forms, including rape. It was often accompanied by physical or emotional abuse. Most victims were aged between 10 and 14 years when the abuse first started. We heard about perpetrators including priests, religious brothers and sisters, ministers, church elders, teachers in religious schools, workers in residential institutions, youth group leaders and others.

We conducted 30 case studies on religious institutions. They revealed that many religious leaders knew of allegations of child sexual abuse yet failed to take effective action. Some ignored allegations and did not respond at all. Some treated alleged perpetrators leniently and failed to address the obvious risks they posed to children. Some concealed abuse and shielded perpetrators from accountability. Institutional reputations and individual perpetrators were prioritised over the needs of victims and their families.

Religious leaders and institutions across Australia have acknowledged that children suffered sexual abuse while in their care. Many have also accepted that their responses to this abuse were inadequate. These failures are not confined to religious institutions. However, the failures of religious institutions are particularly troubling because these institutions have played, and continue to play, an integral and unique role in the lives of many children.

They have also been key providers of education, health and social welfare services to children in Australia for many years. They have been among the most respected institutions in our society. The perpetrators of child sexual abuse in religious institutions were, in many cases, people that children and parents trusted the most and suspected the least.

Many people who experience child sexual abuse have the course of their lives altered forever.

Many of the survivors we heard from continue to experience the ongoing impacts. For some, these impacts have been profound. They include a devastating loss of religious faith and loss of trust in the religious organisation that was once a fundamental part of their life. The impacts have rippled out to affect their parents, siblings, partners, children and, in some cases, entire communities. Some victims have not survived the abuse, having since taken their own lives.

It would be a mistake to regard this child sexual abuse as historical; as something we no longer need to be concerned about. While much of the abuse we heard about in religious institutions occurred before 1990, long delays in victims disclosing abuse mean that an accurate contemporary understanding of the problem is not possible. Some of the abuse we heard about was recent. More than 200 survivors told us they had experienced child sexual abuse in a religious institution since 1990. We have no way of knowing how many others may have had similar experiences. It is and will be an issue today and into the future,

However, it would also be wrong to say that nothing has changed. In some religious institutions there has been progress during the past two decades. Some of the religious institutions examined told us about their child protection reforms. Others remained reluctant to accept the need for significant internal changes.

Some important numbers

As of May 2017, 15,249 people had contacted us about child sexual abuse that fell within our Terms of Reference. Of these, 7,382 people told us about child sexual abuse in religious institutions. Many went on to attend a private session. As of May 2017, we had heard from 6,875 survivors in private sessions, of whom 4,029 (58.6 per cent) told us about child sexual abuse in religious institutions. We heard more allegations of child sexual abuse in relation to the Catholic Church than any other religious organisation, followed by the Anglican Church, The Salvation Army and others.

Whilst there are no historic prevalence studies as to what percentage of children have been sexually abused in an institutional setting, nor in which institutional types, the numbers prepared to share their stories are alarming and cannot be minimised.
For instance by the end of the Commission’s work, 32% of all those who came forward identified an institution run by a government, yet nearly 37% identified an institution run by the Catholic Church. Whilst the church ran many schools and other institutions, they were far less than those run by governments.

In relation to schools more than 76% of those who reported abuse in schools, identified a non-government school- 74% catholic, 26% independent.

Furthermore notwithstanding large numbers of complaints received by institutions to date and participation in redress schemes by many, only 34% of all private session attendees indicated that they have advised the relevant institution of their abuse.

The occurrence of child sexual abuse in religious institutions – which we heard was most common in religious schools and residential institutions – should be considered against the backdrop of the roles that religious organisations have played in Australian society. In particular, religious organisations have provided educational and social welfare services to a large number of children, and have received considerable amounts of government funding for this service provision.

The majority of survivors who told us in private sessions about child sexual abuse in religious institutions were male. The average age of victims at the time of first abuse was 10.3 years. Most survivors told us about multiple incidents of abuse and many told us about abuse that continued for more than a year.

We heard about children experiencing sexual abuse in religious institutions in Australia from the late 1920s until well after the establishment of this Royal Commission. Because of delayed disclosure, information gathered from private sessions is likely to under-represent the number of survivors of more recent abuse. The survivors we heard from in private sessions took, on average, 23.9 years to disclose that they had been sexually abused.

The Catholic Church claims data showed that the average age of claimants at the time of the first alleged incident of child sexual abuse was 11.4 years for all claimants, 11.6 years for male claimants and 10.5 years for female claimants. Of those who made a claim, 78 per cent were male and 22 per cent were female. The largest proportion of first alleged incidents of child sexual abuse occurred in the 1970s. The average duration of abuse was 2.4 years. There was an average delay of 33 years between the date of the first alleged incident of abuse and the date the claim was made.

The most common religious contexts in which we heard about child sexual abuse occurring were religious schools, residential institutions, and places of worship or religious activities. As of May 2017 of the 4,029 survivors who told us in private sessions about child sexual abuse in religious institutions:

  • 39.0 per cent told us about abuse in religious schools
  • 35.2 per cent told us about abuse in residential institutions managed by religious organisations before 1990, such as orphanages, children’s homes and missions
  • 24.8 per cent told us about abuse in places of worship or during religious activities
  • 1.6 per cent told us about abuse during recreational activities affiliated with religious organisations, such as church-run camps.

Characteristics of child sexual abuse specific to religious institutions

We heard about some aspects of institutional child sexual abuse which were specific to religious institutions.

We heard that such abuse generally occurred in the context of a religious community. Survivors told us about characteristics of their religious communities that may have contributed to the risk of abuse, acted as a barrier to disclosure, or affected institutional responses.

We heard about some religious communities that could be described as ‘closed’, where children had limited interaction with the broader community. We also heard from survivors about growing up in religious communities with little or no education about sex, and about how this left them vulnerable to sexual abuse.

In devout religious families, parents often had such high regard for people in religious ministry that they naturally trusted them to supervise their children. People in religious ministry were considered to be representatives of God. Many parents were unable to believe they could be capable of sexually abusing a child. In this environment, perpetrators who were people in religious ministry often had unfettered access to children.

Children were often sexually abused by people in religious ministry after the perpetrator had groomed the child’s family members by becoming closely involved in their family life. We commonly heard about perpetrators who ingratiated themselves into the family and became regular visitors to the home. Sometimes perpetrators stepped into the role of ‘father figure’ or exploited particularly vulnerable families such as those experiencing marriage breakdown or mourning a death.

Survivors also told us that as children they were threatened or blamed for the sexual abuse they experienced, often in ways that manipulated their religious beliefs – such as the threat of being sent to hell if they resisted sexual abuse or disclosed it. The use of threats and blame in the name of God had a powerful effect on children.

We heard that some children experienced sexual abuse that involved the use of religious rituals, symbols or language and in confession. Some survivors described such experiences as amounting to a type of ‘spiritual abuse’, which profoundly damaged their religious beliefs and trust in their religious organisation.

Impacts of child sexual abuse in religious institutions

The impacts of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts can be devastating. There can be distinctive impacts where the abuse is inflicted in a religious context.

Some survivors told us they felt a sense of spiritual confusion or spiritual harm after being sexually abused as a child by a person in religious ministry. Many survivors said they lost their religious faith. We heard that children were raised to have the utmost respect for the religious organisation their family was a part of, and were often taught that people in religious ministry, such as priests, were God’s representatives on earth. Some perpetrators used this status to facilitate child sexual abuse. When a religious child was sexually abused by such a person, the impacts were often profound. Some children felt that they had been abused by God or that God must have willed the abuse to happen.

The impacts of child sexual abuse extend beyond victims. Their parents, siblings, partners, carers and children can be significantly affected, as can other children and staff in institutions where abuse occurs. The impacts can be intergenerational and can affect entire communities.

We heard that some religious families were torn apart when children disclosed that they had been sexually abused by people in religious ministry, because parents were unable to believe that people in religious ministry could be capable of perpetrating such abuse. Some survivors told us that negative reactions from family members when they disclosed abuse led to alienation between them and their family members for years, in some cases a lifetime.

We also heard that some survivors were not believed, or were ostracised by their religious community, after disclosing experiences of child sexual abuse. Many survivors told us they had experienced suicidal thoughts or had attempted to end their life after being sexually abused in a religious institution as a child. Some survivors described ‘clusters’ of suicides in affected communities. In some cases we heard about children who took their own lives.

While many survivors told us they lost their religious faith as a result of being sexually abused, others told us their spirituality or religious faith helped them to cope.

Common institutional responses to child sexual abuse across religious institutions

Despite many differences between religious faiths,, there were remarkable similarities in the institutional responses to child sexual abuse across religious institutions. Common failures were very evident especially prior to the mid-1990s when many institutions started to more fully address these issues.

Our case studies demonstrated that it was a common practice of religious institutions to adopt ‘in-house’ responses when dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse. Sometimes there was no response at all. Often, alleged perpetrators were treated with considerable leniency. ‘In house’ responses ensured that allegations remained secret, and shielded religious institutions from public scrutiny or accountability.

Leaders of religious institutions often showed insufficient consideration for victims at the time they disclosed child sexual abuse. They frequently responded with disbelief or denial, or attempted to blame or discredit the victim. We also heard of instances where children who disclosed sexual abuse in religious institutions were punished or suffered further abuse. Leaders of religious institutions often minimised the sexual conduct that was reported to them and wrongly concluded that there was no criminality in the alleged actions. In other cases religious leaders knew that actions were or may have been criminal. However, leaders of religious institutions typically did not report allegations to police.

Leaders of religious institutions were often reluctant to remove alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse from positions in ministry or employment after suspicions of child sexual abuse were raised or allegations were received. In some cases perpetrators made admissions of behaviour amounting to child sexual abuse, yet religious leaders were still reluctant to take decisive action or report them to police.
Some leaders of religious institutions made serious errors of judgement in the face of compelling evidence of child sexual abuse, by giving alleged perpetrators a ‘second chance’ with continued or successive appointments.

This included moving alleged perpetrators to new positions in different locations where they were offered a ‘fresh start’, untarnished by their history of sexual offending or previous allegations.. The communities that perpetrators were moved into were in some cases not made aware of the risks these individuals posed.

Leaders of religious institutions also commonly allowed alleged perpetrators to continue in ministry or employment with little or no risk management or monitoring of their interactions with children.

Across religious institutions, the inadequacy of internal disciplinary systems and the limited use of disciplinary measures meant that some perpetrators of child sexual abuse were not disciplined at all; some were disciplined, but in a minimal way; and others were disciplined, but only many years after allegations were raised or they were convicted. This often meant that perpetrators who were in religious ministry retained their religious titles, and lay perpetrators remained attached to religious institutions in circumstances where it was plainly inappropriate for them to do so.

Instead of reporting allegations to police or engaging with formal disciplinary processes for the dismissal of perpetrators of child sexual abuse from religious ministry, people who responded to allegations of child sexual abuse in religious institutions sometimes encouraged perpetrators to retire or resign as a way of dealing with these matters ‘quietly’. This included, for example, allowing perpetrators to retire or resign on false grounds, such as for health reasons.

Common contributing factors across religious institutions

Multiple and often interacting factors have contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in religious institutions and to inadequate institutional responses to such abuse. Our work suggests these include a combination of cultural, governance and theological factors.

In several of the religious institutions we examined, the central factor, underpinning and linked to all other factors, was the status of people in religious ministry. We repeatedly heard that the status of people in religious ministry, described in some contexts as ‘clericalism’, contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in religious institutions, as well as to inadequate institutional responses.

The power and authority exercised by people in religious ministry gave them access to children and created opportunities for abuse. Children and adults within religious communities frequently saw people in religious ministry as figures who could not be challenged and, equally, as individuals in whom they could place their trust.

Within religious institutions there was often an inability to conceive that a person in religious ministry was capable of sexually abusing a child. This resulted in a failure by adults to listen to children who tried to disclose sexual abuse, a reluctance of religious leaders to take action when faced with allegations against people in religious ministry, and a willingness of religious leaders to accept denials from alleged perpetrators.

In some cases, it is clear that leaders of religious institutions knew that allegations of child sexual abuse involved actions that were or may have been criminal, or perpetrators made admissions. However, there was a tendency to view child sexual abuse as a forgivable sin or a moral failing rather than a crime.

Others inappropriately saw an allegation of child sexual abuse as an ‘aberration’ or a ‘one-off incident’ and not as part of a pattern of behaviour.

Consequently, rather than being treated as criminal offences, allegations and admissions of child sexual abuse were often approached through the lens of forgiveness and repentance. This is reflected in the forgiveness of perpetrators through the practice of religious confession, as well as encouraging victims to forgive those who abused them.

Many leaders of religious institutions demonstrated a preoccupation with protecting the institution’s ‘good name’ and reputation.

In some cases, the structure and governance of religious institutions may have inhibited effective institutional responses to child sexual abuse.

Catholic Church

I acknowledge that particularly since the mid-1990s the Catholic Church has been active in seeking to respond to child sexual abuse within its institutions. This included redress arrangements, counselling and support services, appointment of safeguarding officers and changes to professional standards arrangements. The appointment of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council was a very significant initiative. Yet the history of the Church’s response over time has been found to be inadequate and deeply flawed especially in past times, lacking in justice and compassion in many instances.

Fifteen of our case studies examined responses to child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, including schools, residential institutions, and places of worship and during religious activities.

As of May 2017, of the 4,029 survivors who told us during private sessions about child sexual abuse in religious institutions, 2,489 survivors (61.8 per cent) told us about abuse in Catholic institutions. The majority (73.9 per cent) were male and 25.9 per cent were female. A small number of survivors identified as gender-diverse or did not indicate their gender. The average age of victims at the time of first abuse was 10.4 years. Of the 1,489 survivors who told us about the age of the person who sexually abused them, 1,334 survivors (89.6 per cent) told us about abuse by an adult and 199 survivors (13.4 per cent) told us about abuse by a child. A small number of survivors told us about abuse by an adult and by a child. Of the 1,334 survivors who told us about sexual abuse by an adult, 96.2 per cent said they were abused by a male adult.

Of the 2,413 survivors who told us about the position held by a perpetrator, 74.7 per cent told us about perpetrators who were people in religious ministry and 27.6 per cent told us about perpetrators who were teachers. Some survivors told us about more than one perpetrator.

We also commissioned a survey to gather data from Catholic Church authorities in Australia regarding claims of child sexual abuse they received between 1 January 1980 and 31 December 2015. This data showed:

  • 4,444 claimants alleged incidents of child sexual abuse in 4,756 reported claims
  • 78 per cent of claimants were male and 22 per cent were female, and the average age of the claimant at the time of the first alleged incident of child sexual abuse was approximately 11.4 years
  • 90 per cent of alleged perpetrators were male
  • of all known alleged perpetrators:
    37 per cent were non-ordained religious (32 per cent were religious brothers and 5 per cent were religious sisters);
    30 per cent were priests;
    29 per cent were lay people;
  • 3,057 claims of child sexual abuse resulted in a payment being made following a claim for redress, with a total of $268.0 million paid (of which $250.7 million was paid in monetary compensation in relation to 2,845 claims, at an average of approximately $88,000 per claim).

We also sought information from 75 Catholic archdioceses/dioceses and religious institutes about the number of their members who ministered in Australia from 1 January 1950 to 31 December2010, and how long each of them ministered. We then calculated the proportion of members of these Catholic Church authorities who ministered in the period 1950 to 2010 who were alleged perpetrators, taking into account the duration of ministry (a weighted average methodology).

Of all Catholic priests included in the survey who ministered between 1950 and 2010, taking into account the duration of ministry, 7 per cent were alleged perpetrators.

The weighted proportion of alleged perpetrators in specific Catholic Church authorities with the highest rates, included: the St John of God Brothers; the Christian Brothers; the Benedictine Community of New Norcia; the Salesians of Don Bosco ; the Marist Brothers ; the De La Salle Brothers.

There were however great variations between dioceses and orders raising the question as to why. The differences indicate systemic issues played a part in creating in some institutions an environment in which abuse could take place and remain unreported.

Awareness of allegations of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church

Our inquiry revealed that sexual abuse has been a long standing issue for the Catholic Church going back to the first millennium. In Australia there a numerous examples of child sexual abuse matters being known of as early as the 1870s. We identified numerous more recent cases where senior officials of Catholic Church authorities knew about allegations of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions but failed to take effective action.

It is also evident that other priests, religious and lay members of the Catholic community were aware either of specific complaints of child sexual abuse or of rumours or gossip about certain priests or religious. While the knowledge and understanding of child sexual abuse may have developed and deepened in the last two decades of the 20th century, it is clear that Catholic Church leaders were aware of the problem well before that time.

Institutional responses to child sexual abuse before the development of national procedures

We concluded that there were catastrophic failures of leadership of Catholic Church authorities over many decades, particularly before the 1990s.

Those failures led to the suffering of a great number of children, their families and wider communities. For many, the harm was irreparable. In numerous cases, that harm could have been avoided had Catholic Church authorities acted in the interests of children rather than in their own interests.

Few survivors of child sexual abuse that occurred before the 1990s described receiving any formal response from the relevant Catholic Church authority when they reported the abuse. Instead, they were often disbelieved, ignored or punished, and in some cases were further abused.

The responses of various Catholic Church authorities to complaints and concerns about their priests and religious were remarkably and disturbingly similar. It is apparent that the avoidance of public scandal, the maintenance of the reputation of the Catholic Church and loyalty to priests and religious largely determined the responses of Catholic Church authorities when allegations of child sexual abuse arose.

Complaints of child sexual abuse were not reported to police or other civil authorities, contributing to the Catholic Church being able to keep such matters ‘in-house’ and out of the public gaze. Had Catholic Church authorities reported all complaints to police, they could have prevented further sexual abuse of children.

In some cases, leaders of Catholic Church authorities were reluctant to remove alleged perpetrators from positions that involved contact with children. Some alleged perpetrators were allowed to remain in religious ministry in the same positions and locations for extended periods of time after allegations of child sexual abuse were raised; in some cases there were further allegations of the sexual abuse of children. If appropriate protective steps had been taken, subsequent abuse may have been avoided.

The removal of priests and religious from locations where allegations of child sexual abuse arose, and their subsequent transfer to new locations, was one of the most common responses adopted across Catholic Church authorities in Australia before the development of national procedures in the early 1990s. Some priests and religious brothers who were accused of child sexual abuse were moved on multiple occasions.

When the priest or religious left, sometimes hurriedly, untrue or misleading reasons were sometimes given for their departure. On occasions, the move was timed to avoid raising suspicion. In some cases, no warning, or no effective warning, was given to the new parish or school of the risk posed by the incoming priest or religious.

Until at least the early 1990s, alleged perpetrators often were sent away for a period of ‘treatment’ or ‘reflection’ before being transferred to a new appointment or being allowed to continue in an existing one. Some leaders of Catholic Church authorities believed that psychological or other forms of counselling could assist or ‘cure’ alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

Throughout this period, there was a system under canon law for disciplining priests and religious accused of child sexual abuse, under which the most severe penalty was dismissal from the priesthood or religious life and return to the lay state. However, the Catholic Church authorities we examined did not engage with these canonical processes for priests or religious accused of child sexual abuse in the decades before the development of national procedures in the early 1990s. Instead, bishops and religious superiors adopted a range of informal responses aimed at limiting the capacity of alleged perpetrators to engage in ministry or, at most, permanently removing alleged perpetrators from particular dioceses or religious congregations.

The clearest indication of the inappropriateness and ineffectiveness of institutional responses by Catholic Church authorities to alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse in this period is that often they did not prevent the further sexual abuse of children. Some perpetrators continued to offend even after there had been multiple responses following initial and successive allegations of child sexual abuse.

Development of national procedures

In the late 1980s, Catholic Church leaders began to discuss the issue of child sexual abuse more formally at the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC). In 1988 the ACBC established a dedicated committee to consider issues related to child sexual abuse, and the adoption of a series of national protocols from 1990 was an important step towards formulating a nationally consistent response. However, these protocols retained a focus on responding to the alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse rather than on the needs of victims, and their implementation by Catholic Church authorities was sporadic.

By the mid-1990s there had been a shift in understanding about the appropriateness of keeping alleged perpetrators in ministry where they would be in regular contact with children. At about the same time, members of the newly constituted Bishops’ Committee for Professional Standards recognised that a new protocol focusing on the needs of victims was required. The formulation and adoption of Towards Healing and the Melbourne Response in 1996 were considerable achievements in this regard.

Institutional responses to alleged perpetrators during and after the development of national procedures

From the mid-1990s, there were some improvements in the responses of Catholic Church authorities to allegations of child sexual abuse. Alleged perpetrators began to be placed on administrative leave while complaints were investigated, and steps were generally taken to remove perpetrators from ministry if complaints against them were substantiated. However, these processes were not always followed, and some measures masked the reasons for the action taken. Further, processes to dismiss priests and religious appear to have been rarely used during the 1990s and early 2000s.

While the early protocols contained some provisions relating to alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse, they did not comprehensively set out the obligations of bishops and religious superiors in responding to alleged perpetrators and convicted offenders. Furthermore, it appears that leaders of Catholic Church authorities were not always aware of or did not consistently follow these protocols.

The early protocols did not require leaders of Catholic Church authorities to report allegations to the police. Towards Healing did not mandate this until 2010. From the mid-1990s, leaders of Catholic Church authorities continued not to report alleged perpetrators to police, leaving this to victims and survivors. This had the effect of keeping many complaints from the public gaze and in some cases meant that children continued to be at risk.

The early protocols saw the introduction of the approach that alleged perpetrators should be required to take leave from active duties while allegations were investigated. However, Catholic Church leaders in some cases did not take this action and alleged perpetrators continued in the same positions for extended periods of time after allegations had been raised. In some cases, leaders of Catholic Church authorities took steps to remove perpetrators from religious ministry when complaints of child sexual abuse were substantiated or if they were convicted. In other cases action was taken due to a concern about the level of risk posed by an alleged perpetrator. In the case of priests, removal from ministry was generally achieved through the ‘withdrawal of faculties’.

Some bishops permitted priests to resign or retire following allegations of child sexual abuse, in circumstances where it was not made publicly known that allegations had been made against them. Other priests were bestowed with honorific titles, such as Pastor Emeritus, at the time of their resignation, despite being the subject of allegations or having made admissions of child sexual abuse.

The delayed or limited use of canon law processes to dismiss those found to have committed child sexual abuse meant that some perpetrators remained in the priesthood or in religious orders for many years after their guilt had been admitted or established. In addition, the Vatican was very slow to respond to petitions for dismissal from Catholic Church authorities in Australia, and it is clear that the Vatican’s approach to child sexual abuse by clergy was protective of the offender. One bishop told us that in a number of cases his requests to have offender priests dismissed from the clerical state were refused and he was instead directed to ensure that the priests live a life of prayer and penance.

Institutional responses to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse after the development of national procedures

In several case studies we considered the experiences of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse who engaged with Towards Healing and the Melbourne Response. For some, participating in these processes was a positive experience which contributed to their healing. However, others told us that their experiences were difficult, frightening or confusing, and led to further harm and re-traumatisation.

We recognised that many people who have engaged with the Towards Healing process since 1997 may have received greatly needed compassion and support and derived important benefits from their participation. However, some survivors have been disappointed by the process and critical of it. We heard from a number of survivors that the principles and procedures set out in Towards Healing were not followed by Catholic Church authorities.

Significantly, a number of survivors told us they perceived that the personnel they engaged with were insufficiently independent of the Catholic Church. Some told us they experienced a power imbalance between themselves and the Catholic Church representatives involved.

We heard from a number of survivors who pursued civil litigation that Catholic Church authorities took advantage of the legal defences available to them and conducted litigation in a manner that did not adequately take account of the pastoral and other needs of survivors of child sexual abuse. The role of legal advice given and accepted without regard to values and mission of the church was deeply concerning.

We also heard that in some cases, Catholic Church authorities avoided or resisted meeting with communities affected by child sexual abuse and failed or refused to provide pastoral support to communities who both needed and requested it. We heard of instances where Catholic Church authorities withheld information from affected communities, which meant that people were not alerted to possible cases of child sexual abuse or were left with unanswered questions.

Contributing factors in the Catholic Church

We considered a range of factors that may have contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions or affected institutional responses to such abuse.

Child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and religious may be explained by a combination of psycho-sexual and other related factors on the part of the individual perpetrator, and a range of institutional factors, including theological, governance and cultural factors. The same theological, governance and cultural factors that contributed to the occurrence of abuse also contributed to the inadequate responses of Catholic institutions to that abuse.

     Individual factors

Individual pathology on its own is insufficient to explain child sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy and religious. Rather, a heightened risk of child sexual abuse arises when specific factors in relation to an individual’s psycho-sexual immaturity or psycho-sexual dysfunction combine with a range of situational and institutional factors.

Compared with perpetrators of child sexual abuse in the wider community, research suggests that Catholic clergy perpetrators are an atypical group. They tend to begin offending later in life and to be better educated, less antisocial and more likely to have male than female victims.

Factors that may influence whether a priest or religious is susceptible to sexually abusing a child may include confusion about sexual identity, childish interests and behaviour, lack of peer relationships, and a history of having been sexually abused as a child. Further, some clergy and religious perpetrators appear to have been vulnerable to mental health issues, substance abuse and psycho-sexual immaturity. We heard that personality factors that may be associated with clergy and religious perpetrators include narcissism, dependency, cognitive rigidity and fear of intimacy.

Although most of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that we heard about were male adults, and most victims were boys or adolescents, it is a misconception that all perpetrators who sexually abuse children of the same gender as them are same sex attracted. Research suggests that child sexual abuse is not related to sexual orientation: perpetrators can be straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual. Research has indicated that men who identify as heterosexual are just as likely as men who identify as homosexual to perpetrate child sexual abuse. Vatican documents that link homosexuality to child sexual abuse are not in keeping with current psychological evidence or understanding about healthy human sexuality.


Clericalism is at the centre of a tightly interconnected cluster of contributing factors. Clericalism is the idealisation of the priesthood, and by extension, the idealisation of the Catholic Church.

Clericalism is linked to a sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion, and abuse of power. Clericalism nurtured ideas that the Catholic Church was autonomous and self-sufficient, and promoted the idea that child sexual abuse by clergy and religious was a matter to be dealt with internally and in secret.

The theological notion that the priest undergoes an ‘ontological change’ at ordination, so that he is different to ordinary human beings and permanently a priest, is a dangerous component of the culture of clericalism. The notion that the priest is a sacred person contributed to exaggerated levels of unregulated power and trust which perpetrators of child sexual abuse were able to exploit.

Clericalism caused some bishops and religious superiors to identify with perpetrators of child sexual abuse rather than victims and their families, and in some cases led to denial that clergy and religious were capable of child sexual abuse. It was the culture of clericalism that led bishops and religious superiors to attempt to avoid public scandal to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church and the status of the priesthood.

We heard that the culture of clericalism continues in the Catholic Church and is on the rise in some seminaries in Australia and worldwide.

     Organisational structure and governance

The governance of the Catholic Church is hierarchical. We heard that the decentralisation and autonomy of Catholic dioceses and religious institutes contributed to ineffective responses of Catholic Church authorities to child sexual abuse, as did the personalised nature of power in the Catholic Church and the limited accountability of bishops.

The powers of governance held by individual diocesan bishops and provincials are not subject to adequate checks and balances. There is no separation of powers, and the executive, legislative and judicial aspects of governance are combined in the person of the pope and in diocesan bishops.

Diocesan bishops have not been sufficiently accountable to any other body for decision-making in their handling of allegations of child sexual abuse or alleged perpetrators. There has been no requirement for their decisions to be made transparent or subject to due process. The tragic consequences of this lack of accountability have been seen in the failures of those in authority in the Catholic Church to respond adequately to allegations and occurrences of child sexual abuse.

The hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church created a culture of deferential obedience in which poor responses to child sexual abuse went unchallenged. Where senior clergy and religious with advisory roles to diocesan bishops or provincials of religious institutes were aware of allegations of child sexual abuse, often they did not challenge or attempt to remedy the inadequate responses of their bishop or provincial, or believed that they could not do so.

The exclusion of lay people and women from leadership positions in the Catholic Church may have contributed to inadequate responses to child sexual abuse. Despite considerable changes to the conduct of many of its human services and the adoption of sound governance arrangements, including through incorporation, there remains much confusion as to what constitutes good governance especially in the diocesan structures.

In accordance with contemporary standards of good governance, we encouraged the Catholic Church in Australia to explore and develop ways in which its structures and practices of governance may be made more accountable, more transparent, more meaningfully consultative and more participatory, including at the diocesan and parish level. We recommend that the ACBC conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and participation of lay men and women.

We noted that diocesan bishops and provincials of religious institutes are increasingly making use of professional expertise in the management of their various institutions, including in the administration of their responses to child sexual abuse. We also accepted that the Catholic education and Catholic community services sectors have increasing lay involvement in their governance, operate professionally and are subject to significant government oversight.


In its responses to child sexual abuse, the leadership of the Catholic Church has failed the people of the Catholic Church in Australia (especially prior to 2000), in particular its children. The results of that failure have been catastrophic.

It appears that some candidates for leadership positions have been selected on the basis of their adherence to specific aspects of church doctrine and their commitment to the defence and promotion of the institutional Catholic Church, rather than on their capacity for leadership.

This meant that some bishops were ill equipped and unprepared for the challenges of dealing with child sexual abuse and responding to emerging claims. Catholic Church leaders in Australia have prioritised protecting the reputation of the church at the expense of the welfare of individuals when responding to child sexual abuse.

Meaningful and direct consultation with, and participation of, lay people in the appointment of bishops, as well as greater transparency in that process, would make bishops more accountable and responsive to the lay people of the Catholic Church, including in responding to child sexual abuse. We recommended that the ACBC request that the Holy See amend the appointment process for bishops.

We also recommended that each religious institution in Australia ensure that its religious leaders are provided with leadership training, both before and after their appointment, including in the promotion of child safety.

     Canon law

The disciplinary system imposed by canon law for dealing with clergy and religious who sexually abuse children contributed to the failure of the Catholic Church to provide an effective and timely response to alleged perpetrators and perpetrators. We heard that canon law as it applied to child sexual abuse was cumbersome, complex and confusing. We recommend that the ACBC request that the Holy See amend a number of provisions in canon law.

A number of the issues we identified have impeded the permanent removal from ministry of priests or religious against whom complaints of child sexual abuse have been substantiated, or the dismissal of priests or religious convicted of offences related to child sexual abuse. We recommended that if a complaint of child sexual abuse against a person in religious ministry is substantiated, the person be permanently removed from ministry. Canon law should be amended to this effect .We also recommended that canon law be amended to ensure that priests and religious who are convicted of a child sexual abuse-related offence in a civil court are dismissed from the priesthood and/or religious life.


While not a direct cause of child sexual abuse, we were satisfied that compulsory celibacy (for clergy) and vowed chastity (for members of religious institutes) have contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse, especially when combined with other risk factors. We acknowledged that only a minority of Catholic clergy and religious have sexually abused children.

However, based on research we concluded that there is an elevated risk of child sexual abuse where compulsorily celibate male clergy or religious have privileged access to children in certain types of Catholic institutions, including schools, residential institutions and parishes.

For many Catholic clergy and religious, celibacy is implicated in emotional isolation, loneliness, depression and mental illness. Compulsory celibacy may also have contributed to various forms of psycho-sexual dysfunction, including psycho-sexual immaturity, which pose an ongoing risk to the safety of children. For many clergy and religious, celibacy is an unattainable ideal that leads to clergy and religious living double lives, and contributes to a culture of secrecy and hypocrisy.

This culture appears to have contributed to some clergy and religious overlooking violations of celibacy and minimising child sexual abuse as forgivable moral lapses committed by colleagues who were struggling to live up to an ideal that for many proved impossible.

We recommended that the ACBC request that the Holy See consider introducing voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy. We also recommend that Catholic religious institutes implement measures to address the risks of harm to children and the potential psychological and sexual dysfunction associated with celibacy.

Further, we recommended that, to promote healthy lives for those who choose to be celibate, Catholic Church authorities improve their processes of selection, screening and training of candidates for the clergy and religious life, and their processes of ongoing formation, support and supervision of clergy and religious.

     Selection, screening and initial formation

It is apparent that initial formation practices were inadequate in the past, particularly before the 1970s, in relation to the screening of candidates for admission, preparing seminarians and novices to lead a celibate life, and preparing them for the realities of a life in religious or pastoral ministry. The initial training of priests and religious occurred in segregated, regimented, monastic and clericalist environments, and was based on obedience and conformity. These arrangements are likely to have been detrimental to psycho-sexual maturity, and to have produced clergy and religious who were cognitively rigid. This increased the risk of child sexual abuse.

Although from the 1970s there have been improvements in the selection, screening and formation of candidates for the priesthood and religious life, it appears that these have largely been implemented in an ad hoc and inconsistent manner. In particular, there is still a lack of consistency between seminaries and houses of religious formation in relation to the selection and screening of candidates.

We recommended that the Catholic Church adopt a national protocol for screening candidates and that bishops and religious superiors draw on wide-ranging professional advice in their decision-making in relation to the admission of individuals to ordination or the profession of vows.

We also recommended that guideline policy documents relating to the formation of clergy and religious be revised to explicitly address child sexual abuse and its prevention.

We also heard that certain models of formation may be instrumental in inculcating a culture of clericalism. We recommended that the ACBC and Catholic Religious Australia conduct a national review of current models of initial formation.

     Oversight, support and ongoing training of people in ministry

It is apparent that Catholic clergy and religious have not received adequate training in relation to professional responsibility, the maintenance of healthy boundaries, and ministerial and professional ethics. It is clear that inadequate preparation for ministry, loneliness, social isolation, and personal distress related to the difficulties of celibacy, have contributed to the sexual abuse of children.

Processes for the management and oversight of clergy and religious in their working ministry have been poor. Bishops and religious superiors have limited capacity to personally oversee the activities of clergy or religious, and, especially within dioceses, ‘middle management’ structures have been inadequate. We heard that there has been a view, particularly on the part of some Catholic clergy, that following ordination they do not need ongoing training. We heard that the Catholic Church in Australia has developed a code of conduct for clergy and religious that includes standards in relation to professional development, professional supervision and appraisal. And we heard of the establishment of a new national professional standards body.

However, we also heard that most clergy do not fully comply with ongoing formation activities. Improved and updated policies and practices in relation to the oversight, support and ongoing training of all people in religious and pastoral ministry in the Catholic Church are essential to reducing the risk of child sexual abuse and ensuring better institutional responses to abuse.

We recommended the development and implementation of mandatory national standards to ensure that all people in religious or pastoral ministry in the Catholic Church in Australia undertake regular professional development, undertake professional/pastoral supervision and undergo regular performance appraisals.

We also heard that specialised programs for the screening, induction, and professional support and supervision of priests and religious recruited from overseas are inadequate. We recommended the creation of targeted programs for these purposes. I believe this is an urgent priority.

     Sacrament of reconciliation (confession)

We were satisfied that the practice of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) contributed to both the occurrence of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and to inadequate institutional responses to abuse. We heard in case studies and private sessions that disclosures of child sexual abuse by perpetrators or victims during confession were not reported to civil authorities or otherwise acted on. We heard that the sacrament is based in a theology of sin and forgiveness, and that some Catholic Church leaders have viewed child sexual abuse as a sin to be dealt with through private absolution and penance rather than as a crime to be reported to police. The sacrament of reconciliation enabled perpetrators to resolve their sense of guilt without fear of being reported. In some cases we heard that children experienced sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests in confessionals.

We recommended that any religious institution with a rite of religious confession implement a policy that confession for children be conducted in an open space and in a clear line of sight of another adult.

Whilst the Church has a profound commitment to maintaining the confessional seal in the Commission’s view we believe that the protection of children must be paramount. There is a clear conflict that confronts the Church that cannot be resolved by the mantra that the seal of confession is sacrosanct – end of discussion. The protection of children is an equally sacred obligation of the Church as demonstrated by Christ in the Gospels. Because of the high risk of recidivism, even by those who confess, we recommended that there should be no exemption to obligations to report under mandatory reporting laws or the proposed ‘failure to report’ offence in circumstances where knowledge or suspicions of child sexual abuse are formed on the basis of information received in or in connection with a religious confession.

During our public hearings on the Catholic Church, it emerged that Catholic leaders were unclear about whether information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they had been sexually abused would be covered by the seal of confession.

Contemporary risks

There are many contemporary risks within all institutions including the Catholic and other churches. Some are directly related to the vulnerabilities of the child or the particular institutional setting. For religious institutions I believe they fall into three main areas.

  • Complacency by many or more troubling wilful ignorance by a few, especially in influential roles, could derail efforts to ‘put right that which was wrong’ and to make the necessary reforms to create truly healthy and safe religious institutions. Resistance to change is always a given but the interests of children and responding to the truth of what has been uncovered compels decisive action at all levels of religious institutions.
  • Second, children within very traditional or devout communities or ethnically based communities which have not yet been open to a conversation about sex and abuse, and believe such matters should be dealt with, within the community , may well be at some risk. This is despite every such community being committed to the safety of their children. I note that some ethnic communities and churches are moving forward tentatively on what is a difficult journey and this is to be encouraged. Closed institutional settings do present higher risk environments for children especially where they lack the protective factors outlined in the Commission’s report.
  • Third, with respect to religious personnel, contemporary risks include a failure to address the unhealthy use of ministerial status and power, including clericalism, the inadequate vetting, training and supervision of overseas personnel and a failure to improve governance, leadership and cultural issues.

Of course whilst child sexual abuse may have reduced in institutions, it does continue to occur and vigilance will always be necessary. All children are potentially at risk, some more than others.

What next for the Catholic Church in Australia?

My personal views and hopes are based on what I have heard. There is enormous pain in many parts of the Catholic Church. For clergy and religious the revelation that some of their colleagues abused children is almost overwhelming. For lay people the fact that trusted priests, religious and lay leaders, often friends and mentors, have offended against children has been devastating. For many parents the failure of their fellow parishioners to believe them and their children is deeply wounding.

The hurt of such betrayals runs deep. For many it is like a grieving process. The church they once knew and loved has been exposed as being deeply flawed. Leaders who they had every right to trust failed them as well as those abused. Some clergy and religious feel their vocation is less valued and the important works of the past and the great good that they did has been diminished. Many are unsure as to how to interact with children and feel constrained in carrying out their ministries.

For the laity the well-recognised failings of the church, raised internally by many, have been publicly exposed. Many may feel powerless in the face of a governance model that appears to alienate them or even guilty that they failed to challenge poor governance and practices earlier.

However, as with all grief, whilst the journey is painful great good can follow. The Church needs to enter into a period of healing. This process is one that must engage survivors, clergy, members of religious communities and all the people of God. It must however be founded on the truth revealed.

Too many have been harmed directly or as secondary victims. Too many have suffered as their beliefs in a just and loving church have been damaged. For leaders of religious communities this task of healing may start within but must move outwards, beyond your own organisations. For parishes they must be actively involved in an honest, open and robust conversation that ultimately seeks to heal and reform. A conversation that never ends.

Many in church are well on that journey. Some are yet to be convinced.

You have the capacity to reshape our institutions and the Church at large:

  • To create institutions that are genuinely safe for children and which act in the best interests of children.
  • To create institutions that are genuinely responsive to the voices of those that have come forward.
  • To create a church whose governance and leadership is competent, engaged and open to learning and improvement.
  • To create an ongoing conversation with the people of God and to invite them into the governance and leadership of the Church.
  • To create a church more truthful, transparent and accountable to the faithful and the community at large.
  • To create a church in which the community’s trust can be restored.
  • To create a church authentically based on the Gospels and the revelations of Jesus Christ – one that seeks to heal not to hurt.
  • To create a church that loves, that acts justly and that walks humbly in the presence of God and each other.

The Commission’s recommendations are many. Many are directed at institutions generally such as mandatory child safe standards, changes to criminal and civil laws and reportable conduct regimes. Many of these if adopted by government will compel compliance by institutions.

Some recommendations are directed at institutional types such as schools, out of home care, sport and recreation clubs etc.

Yet some are targeted at religious institutions generally and then some specifically to particular churches including the Catholic Church.

Some can be adopted immediately, others will take time. Yet, they do provide a blueprint for going forward. They need your deep consideration. They call for your courage and commitment. They will demand a steadfastness in their implementation. They will require resourcing, good processes and openness to the possibility of real reform.

I acknowledge that some in the church have worked tirelessly for victims and survivors. Others have worked to bring about much needed reforms. I acknowledge important initiatives by the Church including the formation of Catholic Professional Standards Limited, the appointment of an Implementation Advisory Group to advise the Bishops on their response and intensive work within many religious orders and ministries. I wish these initiatives success notwithstanding the ever present opposition by some – but those initiatives will only succeed if the body of the church, the people of God, is engaged in an open, ongoing dialogue and engaged in the necessary reforms that must follow. I hope that Plenary 2020 is a constructive part of that process.

Most importantly we need a Church that opens its heart to those already abused. Whether they ever seek to connect with our Church is not the issue. The question is whether we are open to that encounter.

Now is the time for healing for those within and outside Church. Yet this healing must be one based on an acknowledgement of what has happened and what has been revealed, acceptance of responsibility, redress for those wronged and a steadfast commitment to reform in order to create a healthy, safe and loving Church.

Robert Fitzgerald AM



Some questions to consider:

  • Whose voice will we listen to and embrace?
  • Do we accept the evidence or truth of what has been found and the need for reform?
  • Do we better understand why we failed to be a church of love, justice and humility?
  • How do we create an open, honest and sustained conversation at all levels of Church including parish and in all its ministries- a conversation that informs, engages, heals and reforms?
  • How do we engage children in this conversation?
  • Are our governance structures a hindrance or a help in creating a child safe institution? What needs to change to engage and empower the whole of the people of God in creating and maintaining a healthy and safe church?
  • How do clergy and lay work together as one in creating such a culture leading to healthy and safe church?
  • Does our Church culture and do our practices promote acting in the best interest of children and vulnerable people? How do we improve Church culture and practices to ensure we respond justly to those abused?
  • What do we need to do to ensure our clergy, religious, staff and volunteers are properly selected, formed, trained, supervised and professionally developed?
  • How do we guard against the rise of unhealthy clericalism?
  • How can we influence the Church leadership in all areas of church life to embrace a new future based on honesty, transparency, accountability, responsiveness, compassion and humility?
  • How do we create a culture in Church that seeks healing for those within and with those affected by the failures of Church?



Recommendations made by the Royal Commission to the Catholic Church:

Recommendation 16.6

The bishop of each Catholic Church diocese in Australia should ensure that parish priests are not the employers of principals and teachers in Catholic schools.

Recommendation 16.7

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women. This review should draw from the approaches to governance of Catholic health, community services and education agencies.

Recommendation 16.8

In the interests of child safety and improved institutional responses to child sexual abuse, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should request the Holy See to:

a. publish criteria for the selection of bishops, including relating to the promotion of child safety

b. establish a transparent process for appointing bishops which includes the direct participation of lay people.

Recommendation 16.9

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should request the Holy See to amend the 1983 Code of Canon Law to create a new canon or series of canons specifically relating to child sexual abuse, as follows:

a. All delicts relating to child sexual abuse should be articulated as canonical crimes against the child, not as moral failings or as breaches of the ‘special obligation’ of clerics and religious to observe celibacy.

b. All delicts relating to child sexual abuse should apply to any person holding a ‘dignity, office or responsibility in the Church’ regardless of whether they are ordained or not ordained.

c. In relation to the acquisition, possession, or distribution of pornographic images, the delict (currently contained in Article 6 §2 1° of the revised 2010 norms attached to the motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela) should be amended to refer to minors under the age of 18, not minors under the age of 14.

Recommendation 16.10

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should request the Holy See to amend canon law so that the pontifical secret does not apply to any aspect of allegations or canonical disciplinary processes relating to child sexual abuse.

Recommendation 16.11

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should request the Holy See to amend canon law to ensure that the ‘pastoral approach’ is not an essential precondition to the commencement of canonical action relating to child sexual abuse.

Recommendation 16.12

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should request the Holy See to amend canon law to remove the time limit (prescription) for commencement of canonical actions relating to child sexual abuse. This amendment should apply retrospectively.

Recommendation 16.13

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should request the Holy See to amend the ‘imputability’ test in canon law so that a diagnosis of paedophilia is not relevant to the prosecution of or penalty for a canonical offence relating to child sexual abuse.

Recommendation 16.14

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should request the Holy See to amend canon law to give effect to Recommendations 16.55 and 16.56.

Recommendation 16.15

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia, in consultation with the Holy See, should consider establishing an Australian tribunal for trying canonical disciplinary cases against clergy, whose decisions could be appealed to the Apostolic Signatura in the usual way.

Recommendation 16.16

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should request the Holy See to introduce measures to ensure that Vatican Congregations and canonical appeal courts always publish decisions in disciplinary matters relating to child sexual abuse, and provide written reasons for their decisions. Publication should occur in a timely manner. In some cases it may be appropriate to suppress information that might lead to the identification of a victim.

Recommendation 16.17

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should request the Holy See to amend canon law to remove the requirement to destroy documents relating to canonical criminal cases in matters of morals, where the accused cleric has died or ten years have elapsed from the condemnatory sentence. In order to allow for delayed disclosure of abuse by victims and to take account of the limitation periods for civil actions for child sexual abuse, the minimum requirement for retention of records in the secret archives should be at least 45 years.

Recommendation 16.18

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should request the Holy See to consider introducing voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy.

Recommendation 16.19

All Catholic religious institutes in Australia, in consultation with their international leadership and the Holy See as required, should implement measures to address the risks of harm to children and the potential psychological and sexual dysfunction associated with a celibate rule of religious life. This should include consideration of whether and how existing models of religious life could be modified to facilitate alternative forms of association, shorter terms of celibate commitment, and/or voluntary celibacy (where that is consistent with the form of association that has been chosen).

Recommendation 16.20

In order to promote healthy lives for those who choose to be celibate, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and all Catholic religious institutes in Australia should further develop, regularly evaluate and continually improve, their processes for selecting, screening and training of candidates for the clergy and religious life, and their processes of ongoing formation, support and supervision of clergy and religious.

Recommendation 16.21

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia should establish a national protocol for screening candidates before and during seminary or religious formation, as well as before ordination or the profession of religious vows.

Recommendation 16.22

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia should establish a mechanism to ensure that diocesan bishops and religious superiors draw upon broad-ranging professional advice in their decision-making, including from staff from seminaries or houses of formation, psychologists, senior clergy and religious, and lay people, in relation to the admission of individuals to:

a. seminaries and houses of religious formation

b. ordination and/or profession of vows.

Recommendation 16.23

In relation to guideline documents for the formation of priests and religious:

a. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should review and revise the Ratio nationalis institutionis sacerdotalis: Programme for priestly formation (current version December 2015), and all other guideline documents relating to the formation of priests, permanent deacons, and those in pastoral ministry, to explicitly address the issue of child sexual abuse by clergy and best practice in relation to its prevention.

b. All Catholic religious institutes in Australia should review and revise their particular norms and guideline documents relating to the formation of priests, religious brothers, and religious sisters, to explicitly address the issue of child sexual abuse and best practice in relation to its prevention.

Recommendation 16.24

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia should conduct a national review of current models of initial formation to ensure that they promote pastoral effectiveness, (including in relation to child safety and pastoral responses to victims and survivors) and protect against the development of clericalist attitudes.

Recommendation 16.25

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia should develop and each diocese and religious institute should implement mandatory national standards to ensure that all people in religious or pastoral ministry (bishops, provincials, clergy, religious, and lay personnel):

a. undertake mandatory, regular professional development, compulsory components being professional responsibility and boundaries, ethics in ministry, and child safety

b. undertake mandatory professional/pastoral supervision

c. undergo regular performance appraisals.

Recommendation 16.26

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should consult with the Holy See, and make public any advice received, in order to clarify whether:

a. information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they have been sexually abused is covered by the seal of confession

b. if a person confesses during the sacrament of reconciliation to perpetrating child sexual abuse, absolution can and should be withheld until they report themselves to civil authorities.

Recommendations of the Royal Commission to all religious institutions in Australia:

Recommendation 16.31

All institutions that provide activities or services of any kind, under the auspices of a particular religious denomination or faith, through which adults have contact with children, should implement the 10 Child Safe Standards identified by the Royal Commission.

Recommendation 16.32

Religious organisations should adopt the Royal Commission’s 10 Child Safe Standards as nationally mandated standards for each of their affiliated institutions.

Recommendation 16.33

Religious organisations should drive a consistent approach to the implementation of the Royal Commission’s 10 Child Safe Standards in each of their affiliated institutions.

Recommendation 16.34

Religious organisations should work closely with relevant state and territory oversight bodies to support the implementation of and compliance with the Royal Commission’s 10 Child Safe Standards in each of their affiliated institutions.

Recommendation 16.35

Religious institutions in highly regulated sectors, such as schools and out-of-home care service providers, should report their compliance with the Royal Commission’s 10 Child Safe Standards, as monitored by the relevant sector regulator, to the religious organisation to which they are affiliated.

Recommendation 16.36

Consistent with Child Safe Standard 1, each religious institution in Australia should ensure that its religious leaders are provided with leadership training both pre- and post-appointment, including in relation to the promotion of child safety.

Recommendation 16.37

Consistent with Child Safe Standard 1, leaders of religious institutions should ensure that there are mechanisms through which they receive advice from individuals with relevant professional expertise on all matters relating to child sexual abuse and child safety. This should include in relation to prevention, policies and procedures and complaint handling. These mechanisms should facilitate advice from people with a variety of professional backgrounds and include lay men and women.

Recommendation 16.38

Consistent with Child Safe Standard 1, each religious institution should ensure that religious leaders are accountable to an appropriate authority or body, such as a board of management or council, for the decisions they make with respect to child safety.

Recommendation 16.39

Consistent with Child Safe Standard 1, each religious institution should have a policy relating to the management of actual or perceived conflicts of interest that may arise in relation to allegations of child sexual abuse. The policy should cover all individuals who have a role in responding to complaints of child sexual abuse.

Recommendation 16.40

Consistent with Child Safe Standard 2, wherever a religious institution has children in its care, those children should be provided with age-appropriate prevention education that aims to increase their knowledge of child sexual abuse and build practical skills to assist in strengthening self-protective skills and strategies. Prevention education in religious institutions should specifically address the power and status of people in religious ministry and educate children that no one has a right to invade their privacy and make them feel unsafe.

Recommendation 16.41

Consistent with Child Safe Standard 3, each religious institution should make provision for family and community involvement by publishing all policies relevant to child safety on its website, providing opportunities for comment on its approach to child safety, and seeking periodic feedback about the effectiveness of its approach to child safety.

Recommendation 16.42

Consistent with Child Safe Standard 5, each religious institution should require that candidates for religious ministry undergo external psychological testing, including psycho-sexual assessment, for the purposes of determining their suitability to be a person in religious ministry and to undertake work involving children.

Recommendation 16.43

Each religious institution should ensure that candidates for religious ministry undertake minimum training on child safety and related matters, including training that:

a. equips candidates with an understanding of the Royal Commission’s 10 Child Safe Standards

b. educates candidates on:

i. professional responsibility and boundaries, ethics in ministry and child safety

ii. policies regarding appropriate responses to allegations or complaints of child

sexual abuse, and how to implement these policies

iii. how to work with children, including childhood development

iv. identifying and understanding the nature, indicators and impacts of child

sexual abuse.

Recommendation 16.44

Consistent with Child Safe Standard 5, each religious institution should ensure that all people in religious or pastoral ministry, including religious leaders, are subject to effective management and oversight and undertake annual performance appraisals.

Recommendation 16.45

Consistent with Child Safe Standard 5, each religious institution should ensure that all people in religious or pastoral ministry, including religious leaders, have professional supervision with a trained professional or pastoral supervisor who has a degree of independence from the institution within which the person is in ministry.

Recommendation 16.46

Religious institutions which receive people from overseas to work in religious or pastoral ministry, or otherwise within their institution, should have targeted programs for the screening, initial training and professional supervision and development of those people. These programs should include material covering professional responsibility and boundaries, ethics in ministry and child safety.

Recommendation 16.47

Consistent with Child Safe Standard 7, each religious institution should require that all people in religious or pastoral ministry, including religious leaders, undertake regular training on the institution’s child safe policies and procedures. They should also be provided with opportunities for external training on best practice approaches to child safety.

Recommendation 16.48

Religious institutions which have a rite of religious confession for children should implement a policy that requires the rite only be conducted in an open space within the clear line of sight of another adult. The policy should specify that, if another adult is not available, the rite of religious confession for the child should not be performed.

Recommendation 16.49

Codes of conduct in religious institutions should explicitly and equally apply to people in religious ministry and to lay people.

Recommendation 16.50

Consistent with Child Safe Standard 7, each religious institution should require all people in religious ministry, leaders, members of boards, councils and other governing bodies, employees ,relevant contractors and volunteers to undergo initial and periodic training on its code of conduct. This training should include:

a. what kinds of allegations or complaints relating to child sexual abuse should be reported and to whom

b. identifying inappropriate behaviour which may be a precursor to abuse, including grooming

c. recognising physical and behavioural indicators of child sexual abuse

d that all complaints relating to child sexual abuse must be taken seriously, regardless of the perceived severity of the behaviour.

Recommendation 16.51

All religious institutions’ complaint handling policies should require that, upon receiving a complaint of child sexual abuse, an initial risk assessment is conducted to identify and minimise any risks to children.

Recommendation 16.52

All religious institutions’ complaint handling policies should require that, if a complaint of child sexual abuse against a person in religious ministry is plausible, and there is a risk that person may come into contact with children in the course of their ministry, the person be stood down from ministry while the complaint is investigated.

Recommendation 16.53

The standard of proof that a religious institution should apply when deciding whether a complaint of child sexual abuse has been substantiated is the balance of probabilities, having regard to the principles in Briginshaw v Briginshaw.

Recommendation 16.54

Religious institutions should apply the same standards for investigating complaints of child sexual abuse whether or not the subject of the complaint is a person in religious ministry.

Recommendation 16.55

Any person in religious ministry who is the subject of a complaint of child sexual abuse which is substantiated on the balance of probabilities, having regard to the principles in Briginshaw v Briginshaw, or who is convicted of an offence relating to child sexual abuse, should be permanently removed from ministry. Religious institutions should also take all necessary steps to effectively prohibit the person from in any way holding himself or herself out as being a person with religious authority.

Recommendation 16.56

Any person in religious ministry who is convicted of an offence relating to child sexual abuse should:

a. in the case of Catholic priests and religious, be dismissed from the priesthood and/or dispensed from his or her vows as a religious

b. in the case of Anglican clergy, be deposed from holy orders

c. in the case of Uniting Church ministers, have his or her recognition as a minister withdrawn

d. in the case of an ordained person in any other religious denomination that has a concept of ordination, holy orders and/or vows, be dismissed, deposed or otherwise effectively have their religious status removed.

Recommendation 16.57

Where a religious institution becomes aware that any person attending any of its religious services or activities is the subject of a substantiated complaint of child sexual abuse, or has been convicted of an offence relating to child sexual abuse, the religious institution should:

a. assess the level of risk posed to children by that perpetrator’s ongoing involvement in the religious community

b. take appropriate steps to manage that risk.

Recommendation 16.58

Each religious organisation should consider establishing a national register which records limited but sufficient information to assist affiliated institutions identify and respond to any risks to children that may be posed by people in religious or pastoral ministry.




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Where to from here?

Where to from here?

Where to from here?

Francis Sullivan

Francis Sullivan is the Chief Executive Officer of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council which was established to coordinate the Catholic Church’s response to the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse with a commitment to justice and compassion for survivors. On Friday 10 March 2017 Francis gave a speech to a Catalyst Dinner at Villa Maria Parish Hall at Hunter’s Hill in Sydney. The speech is reproduced below, with permission.


It was only last month that we were confronted with the devastating statistics of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.

I don’t think anyone was prepared for the extent of the abuse and the appalling rate across male religious orders and within the priesthood.

Frankly, even though there had already been 15 case studies conducted by the Royal Commission into various instances of abuse in either religious orders or dioceses, the release of the allegations data really put a stake through the heart of our Church.

And that is the point.

The fact that a Church actually has to acknowledge that abuse occurred within its ranks and that it exercised a systemic cover up – even to the point of never releasing its own data voluntarily to the community – speaks volumes for the way it has lost touch with its very purpose, its very heart.

When I started this role I had no real sense of the scope and extent of child abuse within the Church.

I thought that maybe the Church had up to 100 paedophiles in its history.

So far, our records indicate that more than 1,200 priests and brothers have had an allegation of abuse made against them.

To put this in context, in the USA, around 5 percent of diocesan priests were the subject of allegations. In Australia that figure is around 8 percent.

In some of the male religious orders the percentages were gob-smacking.

In the St John of God brothers, well over a third of the order in early times had abuse allegations made against them.

Twenty two per cent of Christian Brothers had allegations made against them and the Marists were not far behind.

These figures speak of a moral disease that profoundly infects not only the communities of religious orders and dioceses, but the wider Catholic community.

It is a disease that is ingrained, almost cemented, within the culture of the Church.

This fact has not been lost on the Royal Commission.

In its final hearing into the Church the Commission spent three intense weeks examining some of the cultural issues that have contributed to the abuse scandal.

At one point the five senior archbishops sat together in the witness box, attempting to explain the way in which clericalism, celibacy, power, institutional might and other issues played a part in the entire scandalous affair.

My sense is that they toiled in vain.

There is now a deep malaise compounded by a simmering anger within the community about the Church and child sexual abuse.

The unprecedented level of inquiry brought on by the Royal Commission has laid bare a history that the Church authorities have purposefully sought to keep from public witness for decades.

The posturing and spin of years past has been seen for what is was – an avoidance of the truth and a failed attempt to divert the public from the scale of the abuse and the depths to which Church officials had sunk as they tried to keep it hidden.

Moreover it was also a deliberate effort to keep senior Church figures who were implicated in the mismanagement or worse of this scandal out of the public gaze.

And what is most confounding is that none of this was constructed out of any agreed plan on the part of the Church leadership as a whole.

There was no secret meeting of leaders in which the strategy of concealment and cover-up was formulated.

The way in which leaders responded to abuse allegations, to move priests, to ignore evidence, to dismiss claims, was consistent.

It was as if it had been built into their DNA.

In most western countries the leaders of Catholic Church authorities have acted in the same way. Almost as if there was a roadmap to follow.

Yet there has been no roadmap, rather an institutional culture hell-bent on self-protection and self-preservation.

Ironically at the very same time that the Australian Church is being rotisseried by the Royal Commission we have the phenomenon of Pope Francis.

Like a godsend Francis appeared on the scene in 2013 – just before our first case study.

So, as the Royal Commission began to unwind the Church edifice on this scandal, the Holy Father likewise began to dismantle the institutional cultural bulwark that has strangled the life out of the modern Church.

And as with any reform process there have been bumps along the road.

In today’s media there are many reports from senior US cardinals extolling the efforts and outcomes of the Pope in changing the culture of the Church.

The cardinals from Washington, Chicago and Boston to a man speak of the Pope’s shrewdness in placing a new vision and attitude for the Church at the forefront of reforms.

They very clearly say that Pope Francis is reigniting the spirit, intent and teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

The Church is no more in restoration mode, but now is to be unashamedly engaged in the modern world.

There are many quotes I could point to, to back this up. Here is but one from Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl:

This is a very different culture than even 25 years ago…we know now we have to move from what was a much more comfortable maintenance posture into a much more challenging, Gospel-driven, evangelizing discipleship, to use Francis’ words.

However, as I said, there have been bumps along the way and the child sexual abuse scandal must surely be one of the biggest flaws.

It was recently reported that the Pope is starting to go light on some priests who have been found to have abused children.

Nicole Winfield, a highly regarded religious reporter for The Associated Press, recently wrote about the case of the notorious Italian abuser Fr. Mauro Inzoli. She wrote:

The Inzoli case is one of several in which Francis overruled the advice of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and reduced a sentence that called for the priest to be defrocked. Instead, the priests were sentenced to penalties including a lifetime of penance and prayer and removal from public ministry.

You have to seriously wonder whether this isn’t the Pope backsliding on what has been a strong and determined crack down on offending priests and the circumstances that allow abuse to take place.

The second very concerning development in Rome over the past couple of weeks has been the resignation of the last remaining, publicly identified, abuse survivor from the Pope’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Marie Collins.

As most of you know the Commission was set up by Pope Francis to advise him on how best to deal with the many issues associated with child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

In an interview with the Jesuit outlet, America, she denounces “the resistance” and “lack of cooperation” with the commission by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and “some” Vatican officials.

She also denounces the “clericalism” she has found in some parts of the Roman Curia, and the “reluctance” of the CDF to implement the Commission’s recommendations – even after Pope Francis had approved them.

Ultimately she reflected on whether the resistance to the commission is in fact resistance to the Pope himself.

Together these two developments paint a picture of the Vatican establishment, its bureaucrats and courtiers, doing all they can to either undermine the Pope or driving an agenda that is about maintaining the status quo and protecting the institution. Business as usual.

What can we draw from these two very disturbing developments?

For my mind the clearest message is this. If people of good will, the good priests, the willing religious, the enlightened leaders, but more importantly people like you – the engaged and informed Catholics – don’t continue to push for change then, as sure as night follows day, the reactionaries will overcome and nothing will change.

If we do not continue to push – and push hard – the impetus for change will fade, inertia will set in, reformists will be shunned, and the victims of what has been the greatest betrayal in the Catholic Church in Australia will remain mired in hopelessness, despair and anger.

This is a very dangerous time for the Catholic Church in Australia.

If the Church in Australia doesn’t see continuous, concerted change from our leaders driven and backed by an active and demanding Catholic Community, then our Church as a religion will become a marginalized rump, stripped of credibility and relevance, left to preach to an ever ageing congregation with eyes on an ever dimming here after.

The Royal Commission’s final hearing into the Catholic Church finished two weeks ago today.

The three-week case study heard evidence from theologians, academics, religious leaders, bishops, archbishops, priests, lawyers, canon lawyers, psychologists, management consultants, Catholic education, welfare service providers, professional standards executives, international church representatives and others.

They spoke about how and why the abuse occurred for so long, what’s working and what isn’t and how the church needs to change.

Evidence ranged across issues such as:

  • canon law and its interaction with civil law and the secrecy provisions within it;
  • clericalism and the abuse of power;
  • celibacy and what part it might have had in the extent of abuse in the Church;
  • the confessional;
  • psycho-sexual development, or lack of it, for priests and seminarians;
  • formation and training of seminarians;professional training and basic administrative failings of bishops;
  • the Vatican and its failure to come to terms with and acknowledge its failures in dealing with abuse;
  • Church history and significant milestones including the Second Vatican Council and what has or hasn’t been implemented; and
  • lay leadership, including the need for women in decision-making positions.

More than anything else the Commission returned to the Church’s culture, and the need for change.

This was a theme that was endorsed by all senior leaders who gave evidence.

The commissioners are now using the testimony and evidence from this last and many other hearings to understand:

  • why clergy abuse occurred on such a massive scale within the church;
  • why the response to complaints was so flawed; and
  • what has been done internally to address the cultural, structural, and governance factors that contributed.

Here’s the rub.

For the 250 or so people sitting here tonight listening to me speak, none of what I’ve just said is new.

None of what I’ve said comes as a surprise.

It doesn’t come as a surprise to you that within our Church there are major problems and at the heart of them is a culture which must change.

And for me, key to this are two questions:

  • what is it about us as a people that we were so permissive and docile that we didn’t demand more transparency, accountability and integrity from our administrator?; and
  • why have we been prepared as a Catholic community to not address issues as matters of urgency and profound importance, preferring instead for the most part to sit on our hands and grumble from outside the boundary line?

This passivity in the Catholic community, in large part, comes from the en-cultured way in which even highly intelligent people acquiesce to authority figures in the Church.

It becomes what I like to describe as the ‘altar boy’ syndrome.

In truth it is adults not acting with responsibility, not taking part with a mature yet demanding sense of agency within the Church.

When this doesn’t happen, as was certainly the case up till more recent times, we are left with blind loyalty instead of mature conversation.

We are left with blinkered defensiveness and knee-jerk reactions rather than open-mindedness, willingness and engagement.

This all leads to a heavy sense of inertia where energies turn in on themselves, people become demoralized, and ultimately are defeated by the system – or they simply leave.

So there are a number of ways we can go from here. Build a church on those who remain, the regular participants; or we can have the courage to go out to those who have left, understand their disillusionment and make the changes that are so dangerously needed.

On many occasions I’m asked who should be responsible for the abuse that took place in our Church.

One view is that the current leadership should take the fall and resign, en masse, given they now represent organisational and leadership failures that have brought the Church in Australia to its lowest ebb.

Others say the magnitude of the abuse within the Catholic Church disqualifies it from receiving any public benefits – taxation relief and an automatic voice in national debates that determine public policy – not just on the moral and philosophical direction of our country, but also on so much of the nation’s health, education and welfare agendas.

While both of these considerations are extreme they are not surprising.

As I’ve said before, within the Church there is a heavy underlying malaise, and externally there is a profound degree of mistrust and scepticism.

What will it take for this to change?

For what it’s worth I’d like to suggest just a few things.

One: any church leader who has ever pronounced apologies or actions or sentiments or commitments to putting victims and survivors first must be held to account by the Catholic community, because my observation is that the Royal Commission has viewed many of these statements with scepticism.

Two: we need a stringent policy of putting the right people, with the right skills, in the right places all the time.

In other words we cannot afford the blunders of incompetent administration, advisors and minders and we certainly can’t afford the fumbled attempts to use spin and PR to protect and cotton wool church leaders from facing the consequences of their actions, or in many cases, inactions.

Three: diocesan and church organisations need to open the doors and the windows to genuine participation of the Catholic community in how their money is spent, and in the proper planning to make the church relevant in the daily lives of the people in our community.

Four: church leaders should publicly commit to employment ratios for women in senior positions and encourage diversity in their workplaces.

Five: Church leaders must demonstrate a move away from a church of privilege, of comfortable lifestyles far removed from many of the faithful.

As the Pope says we need to become a:

Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.

Six: Church leaders should publicly commit now to a public consultation and deliberative process on all issues within the Catholic community that are the source of respectful dissent and even disengagement.

I’m sure many of you have you own ideas that could be added to this list.

And while the leadership of our church and the changes that need to take place must be prominent in all our hearts and minds there are also other considerations.

Most of us in one way or another are all seeking a pathway to meaning.

We are all seeking a sense of being on a genuine spiritual path and I worry that we will become so caught up in seeking structural changes, almost for change in itself, we will lose or shift attention from the deeper more profound journey.

What has shocked and confronted me the most about this sex abuse scandal is that it took place in a church.

The very fact that the church was on trial, rips at the heart of what the church is meant to be.

And that speaks to me of a profound loss of direction, integrity, purpose and meaning at the heart of the church.

A spiritual wasteland.

It is my sense that so many Catholics share that shock.

People say the Church now needs to get its house back in order but I say we have to re-build the house.

Let’s not put the same foundations in place that delivered us this scandalous history – this profound moral and criminal upheaval.

Why was it that moral leadership failed so consistently, so pervasively?

Where was the wisdom and counsel we have been lead to believe comes from those on the spiritual journey?

We must address this spiritual bankruptcy as much as anything else.

Over the past four years I have spoken to many different groups and organisations about the abuse crisis and the future of the church in Australia.

Their overarching concern points towards the willingness, or otherwise, of the church leadership to instigate change.

The questions asked are always very similar.

Will senior church leaders have the courage to foster a discussion about human sexuality in all its different guises?

Will there be a genuine attempt to reform power and decision making processes?

Will there be serious and sustained innovation in ministry shared by women and married lay folk?

Will the church redirect resources to educate adults as well as children in how to live a contemporary Christian life?

Will our church become a movement for justice rather than a pillar of the establishment?

What tangible signs will be offered that demonstrate our church is a place for all regardless of gender, sexual orientation, past histories or family circumstances?

Will our leaders, both overtly and otherwise, reflect the communities they serve rather than expect the deference that divides?

Again, I’m sure you have many questions that could be added to this list.

But at the very least, answers to some of these questions could be the KPIs of a church that is changing.

Sadly, too often, they are millstones for one that won’t.

As I said in the Truth Justice and Healing Council’s statement to the Royal Commission at the start of this last hearing it is vital that the culture of the Church that enabled the abuse of privilege and power which led to the crimes and cover-up be confronted head on, not only by those in positions of authority but also by the Catholic Community as a whole.

Changes must be made, and if they are not made willingly they will most certainly be forced upon us.

While words are important, the measure of commitment can only ever be gauged by actions.

To the abuse survivors who are here tonight and to the many thousands spread out across our communities I say the wrongs of the past must be repaired, survivors must be shown the compassion and justice they have been calling for, and change must be embedded in the culture of the Church.

Thank you.

10 March 2017


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Guidelines for Good Conversation

Guidelines for Good Conversation


Nine helpful attitudes
Seven practical steps
Eleven things to avoid

Some guidelines for good conversation
Prepared by Catalyst for Renewal


1. I want to be changed through this encounter: It is no accident that “conversation” and “conversion” share the same roots … there can be no conversation without the openness to conversion … if I genuinely seek good conversation, I must also seek conversion in and through that encounter … this above all else will distinguish conversation from mere talk, debate or argument, any of which may, paradoxically become conversation for me if I do in fact seek conversion in that encounter.

2. I want to appreciate the other person: I am more likely to hear the other if I genuinely seek to appreciate him/her … I am less likely to be overtaken by prejudices and personal biases if my orientation is deliberately appreciative … … I want the best for the other person …. This may require me to deliberately call on the Lord and pray for that other person, especially if my feelings are negative towards him/her … this implies self-transcendence, a moving beyond selfishness and self-absorption.

3. I want to understand the other person: I listen for what the person is actually saying and bracket my personal thoughts, conclusions on the matter, my prejudices, what I may have heard beforehand or been led to expect … I endeavour to discover common ground … I look beyond personal traits and reputations.

4. I want to contribute something positive: Even if it is just my being there, my intention can be positive and creative … sometimes silent, positive presence contributes much more than words can convey … I desire my words and all my contributions to promote what is good and true … I listen carefully to the flow of conversation and do my pest to participate constructively, bearing in mind that the best conversations have a life of their own.

5. I want to see truth and goodness triumph over ideology, especially my own: Good conversations submit to the topic or question …. they have a graced quality if we are attentive and faithful to the moment … we experience them as taking us where we have never been before … they are always an experience of what is true and good.

6. I want to be a gracious participator: Life is more about participation than conquest, more about facilitation than mastery … the mature person is characterized by a certain grace and freedom … it is as important to ask, “What does life want of me?” as it is to ask, “What do I want of life?”

7. I want to be thoroughly honest with myself: There is not a lot of point in living a lie, no matter how respected and “successful” … the deepest honesty is to become who I am, and this is a life’s work … so I will actively and constantly pursue this inner journey towards truth … this is the stuff of spirituality and brings us face to face with the Living God.

8. I want to know the power of the silence in my own soul: Good words come from silence and lead back to silence … the person who knows the silence within can bring grace and freedom to the conversation … the words that carry silence, heal and enliven.

9. I appreciate that life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to solved: There are many problems to solve in life but life itself and the big issues of life have no solution … The most important things in life emerge slowly … we must learn to wait, and yield.


1. Learn to listen with the ears of the heart (St Benedict): Be consciously present … be attentive to the moment … listen with every part of your being … learn to ask open questions … an open question is asked with the head and answered with the stomach, ask the question than go inside and wait, let the response come … “what?” questions tend to be more fruitful than “why?” questions … the most practical and fundamental open question you can ask in any situation is “What’s happening here?”

2. Listen carefully to what is happening in you: Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings … listen within … unresolved conflicts and unacknowledged agendas can adversely affect a conversation … inner listening is particularly helpful when you catch yourself being strongly moved, either positively or negatively … open questions might include: “What am I feeling at the moment?” “What are my dominant thoughts?” “What is happening here?” “What is the bigger picture?” “What else is relevant?” “What am I missing?” “Am I reminded of anything?”

3. Listen carefully to the other person as well as what the other person is saying: Take the other person seriously … pay attention … do your best to appreciate his/her point of view … look straight at him/her without judgment … ask open questions like: “What might be happening for this person at the moment?” “Is anything in this situation difficult for the other person?” “What is the main point he/she is endeavouring to make?” “Where are our points of agreement?”

4. Speak respectfully and courteously: Be gentle and clear when disagreement must be voiced … look the other in the eye … sometimes questions can be less aggressive and less threatening than statements when expressing an alternative point of view … keep the tone and manner of speaking moderate … if you cannot be respectful and courteous it might be better to withdraw.

5. Be humble: No one knows everything … everybody makes mistakes … speak in a way that allows you and others room to move … humble people do not take themselves or their point of view too seriously … humility has a sense of humour.

6. Be alert to expressions of pain: Do not be put off by aggressive or strident talk or behaviour as this almost certainly is a symptom of great pain … do your best to hear that person’s pain and show them that you care …. this may be the most difficult situation to handle in a public conversation … it may require a communal response.

7. Know when and how to terminate a conversation: Every conversation has its beginning, its end and its pace … we must be alert to that and submit … this includes graciously but definitely terminating a conversation that is not going to get off the ground or is getting out of control … even good conversations must be terminated at a certain point ….. leave the way open for further conversation later.


1. Flamboyant metaphors

2. Point scoring

3. Talking too much

4. Arrogance

5. Personal attacks

6. Finding identity in being “the victim”

7. Aggression

8. Sweeping generalizations

9. Self-absorption

10. Ideologies

11. Shouting

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15th Sunday in Ordinary Time – a Reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The seeds sown in good soil stand for those who hear the message and understand it.” Matthew 13, 1-23

In today’s first reading from Romans, Paul describes an experience with which, I suspect, many of us can identify. Using the image of the slow rate of change in the created world, Paul applies it to the frustrations we experience and the lamenting we do about how slow we are to let the action of God change our hearts and minds. While we express the desire for the kind of conversion of heart needed to be genuine and committed disciples of Jesus, we know our frailty and the struggle we have to change, even a little. Embracing the “glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God” proves to be much more difficult than it sounds. Perhaps the slowness of our progress has a lot to do with the way in which we relate to God. God loves us extravagantly, yet so often we find ourselves hesitant or even cringing at the very thought that God really does love us in our weakness and human fragility.

Today’s gospel is decidedly more optimistic. It speaks of our faith in God growing and developing like a seed sown in the ground. While the dangers facing the seed are listed, our faith is described as something that grows, sometimes even laboriously, over time. With the care of a patient “farmer”, who knows how what is planted develops and changes shape, we are assured that our spiritual and personal evolution is underway.

Like all of the stories that Jesus told, the parable of the sower is multi-layered. Within this parable there are meanings tucked away, which sometimes don’t register with us for years. Paradoxically, the parable of the sower is so well known to us that we can probably repeat it in its every detail. But knowing the details so well, of any story, means that we can miss the hidden meanings. Yet, if we consciously set our imagination to work on it, some of those hidden meanings might well come to light. The simplest meaning of the parable is that that we are invited to mirror both Jesus, the story-teller and the Sower in the parable. We are invited to scatter the seeds of the Gospel by the way we live it, and we just don’t know what kind of ground they will land on, or how long they might take to germinate. And we are asked to share our stories – the stories of our lives, of where and how we encounter God each and every day of our lives. Stories, by nature, create ripples in the minds and hearts of those who hear them. They fire not only our own moral imaginations, but the moral imaginations of others.

Jesus grew up and was educated in an oral culture. We, too, belong to an oral culture, but it is being squeezed out by an electronic one. Many of our stories are being told in abbreviated form on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Despite that, everyone still loves a story. Maybe one of the following stories might touch your moral imagination in such a way that you will shape it as your own, expand it, and pass it on in your words to someone else:

Every day of the week, except Saturday, wonderful smells wafted up from Moishe’s bakery. Customers came early to make sure they did not miss out on Moishe’s fresh bagels. And every day old Aaron turned up, just to smell the bagels, because he could not afford to buy even one. He stood outside the shop every morning, sniffing the air, with a smile on his face. Moshe started to get annoyed by Aaron’s presence and eventually told him to get out of the way because he was getting in the way of regular customers. Aaron replied by stating that his meagre pension prevented him from buying, and that he came each day because the smell of garlic and poppy seed in the air reminded him of his childhood days, when fresh bagels were within his father’s budget. Some of Moshe’s customers took Aaron’s side, telling Moshe to stop harassing the old man. Others tried to make light of the matter, telling Moshe to take Aaron to TV court – Judge Jackson’s Jiffy Justice. “Not a bad idea”, Moshe replied, “I’ve seen that guy on the box, and he’s pretty clever!” So the following week, Moshe took Aaron to TV court. Proceedings began with the Clerk of Court calling everyone to stand while Judge Jackson took his place at the bench. The judge wasted no time, and immediately called Moshe to state his complaint.
“Well, your Honour”, Moshe said pointing at Aaron, “that man stands outside my bakery every morning, taking up valuable space and stealing the smell of my fresh bagels, and he never buys one. So, I want full compensation for the smells he steals”.
“Well, Aaron, you’ve heard Moshe, the baker’s charge, so what do you have to say?”
“It’s true, your Honour, I do come for the wonderful smells, because they remind me of my childhood days, when my father could afford to buy. Now, in my old age, I don’t have the money.”
“Thank you both”, said Jude Jackson, “I will retire to consider my verdict.”
The judge was back in no time and announced to the assembled court: “This was not an easy decision, but I rule in favour of Moshe, the baker.”
And uneasy murmur went through the courtroom. Judge Jackson banged his gavel, and turned to Aaron: “Do you have any money in your pocket, Aaron?”
“Just a few coins, your Honour”
“Will you please shake them, Aaron?” Aaron did as Judge Jackson requested.
“Moshe, did you hear those coins rattling?” asked Judge Jackson.
“Yes I did, your Honour. But when do I get my compensation?”
“Moshe, the baker, you’ve been fully compensated. The sound of Aaron’s coins just paid for the smells of your bagels.”

Now, before we hurry on to the next story, we might take a few moments to reflect on our own demonstrations of pettiness and narrow-mindedness in our relationships with others.

The second story comes from a retired policeman, reflecting on some of the embarrassing situations in which found himself. He told of seeing a middle-aged male driver being tailgated by a frustrated female driver on a busy arterial road. Suddenly, the traffic lights turned amber, and the man stopped his vehicle. That resulted in a stream of four letter words from the woman behind. She leant on the horn, produced some even more colourful language, and took out her cell phone. Her ranting was interrupted by a gentle tap on her window. She looked up to see a stern-looking Sergeant of Police. The policeman ordered her to move to the side of the road, and then took her to the police station where she was required to surrender her belongings to the duty officer, and then placed in a holding cell.

About two hours later, she was escorted back to the desk by a somewhat embarrassed arresting officer. Her personal effects were returned, and the officer explained: “I’m very sorry for my mistake. You see, I pulled up behind you just as you were leaning on the horn and cursing the driver in front of you. And then I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, the ‘Choose Life’ registration plate holder, and the Greek Christian fish emblem on the rear window. I naturally concluded that you must have stolen the car.”

What’s it like looking into that mirror?

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection

Twelth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2017

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Can you not buy two sparrows for a penny? And yet not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing…So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.”
Matthew 10, 26-33

One of the very clear messages that Jesus gives in today’s gospel is that we really matter to God. If God cares for the sparrows, God will care much more for us, who are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.

I have to admit that I’m really not an admirer of Facebook. That’s because I struggle to use it, and, besides, it takes too much time. However, I discovered recently that the chief operations officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg is rated as one of the most visible and successful women in corporate America. Just three years ago, her husband, Dave, died of a heart attack while they were holidaying together in Mexico. In April this year, a book Sheryl Sandberg co-authored with psychologist, Adam Grant was published. The book is entitled: Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, and is an account of how she and her two children – a 7-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son – dealt with their grief and loss. Early in the book, Sandberg, reflecting on the inability of friends to offer comfort or even acknowledge Dave’s death, had this to say:
“People continually avoided the subject. I went to a close friend’s house for dinner, and she and her husband made small talk the entire time. I listened, mystified, keeping my thoughts to myself. I got emails from friends asking me to fly to their cities to speak at their events without acknowledging that travel might be more difficult for me now. Oh, it’s just an overnight? Sure, I’ll see if Dave can come back to life and put the kids to bed. I ran into friends at local parks who talked about the weather. Yes! The weather has been weird with all this rain and death.
Many people who had not experienced loss, even some very close friends, didn’t know what to say to me or my kids. Their discomfort was palpable, especially in contrast to our previous ease. As the elephant in the room went unacknowledged, it started acting up, trampling over my relationships. If friends didn’t ask how I was doing, did that mean they didn’t care? My friend and co-author Adam Grant, a psychologist, said he was certain that people wanted to talk about it but didn’t know how. I was less sure. Friends were asking, “How are you?” but I took this as more of a standard greeting than a genuine question. I wanted to scream back, “My husband just died, how do you think I am?” I didn’t know how to respond to pleasantries. Aside from that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? (Remember, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at the theatre.)
…Until we acknowledge it, the elephant is always there. By ignoring it, those in pain isolate themselves and those who could offer comfort create distance instead. Both sides need to reach out. Speaking with empathy and honesty is a good place to start.” Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Penguin Random House, New York, April 2017

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection, Uncategorised
The Body and Blood of Christ

The Body and Blood of Christ

I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” John 6, 51-58

I find today’s gospel reading difficult because my early religious education led me to a literal understanding of Jesus’ words: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.” To take those words literally places me squarely in the same camp as the Jews, who could not comprehend the meaning behind them. One of the principal differences between John’s Gospel and those attributed to Mark, Matthew and Luke is that John’s Gospel works through poetry, symbol and metaphor, while the other three Gospels are substantially a collection of stories.

A further difficulty about matching today’s reading from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel with the institution of the Eucharist is that John’s account of the Last Supper ignores completely any reference to bread and wine. Eucharist is all about building community, and John’s point is that the cement of community is hospitality, symbolized by the welcome that is extended to a guest through the washing of his/her feet. For the other three evangelists, close, welcoming community is nourished through the sharing of a meal. For John, genuine community is built and nourished through the ritual of gracious foot-washing. He makes it clear that the way we are in communion with one another, the way we treat one another with welcome, dignity and respect reflects the way we are in communion with God. The challenge for all of us is to match the beliefs and values we say we hold dear with the way in which we actually live. The greater the congruence or harmony between our rhetoric and our behaviour, the more authentic will be our humanity. And our model for that is Jesus himself. There was no credibility gap between what he said and what he did. Jesus engaged with the messy reality of life with integrity and credibility. The challenge for all of us is to do likewise.

In turning our attention to Eucharist, we have to keep in mind that, for Jewish people, sharing in a meal (breaking bread and drinking wine) was a demonstration of intimate relationship with one another and, consequently, a symbol of our communion with God. True hospitality to others reflects our relationship to God. In other words, if what we celebrate when we gather in our parishes for Eucharist on Saturday evening or Sunday does not lead us to treat one another with respect and dignity, does not bring us closer together as a community or parish, then we have little in common with the Jesus we claim to follow.

In today’s gospel reading, John ascribes to Jesus the words: “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven” (John 6, 51). A few verses earlier, John has Jesus say to the Jews who had gathered: “I am the bread of life” (John 6, 48). Very clearly this is poetic language, metaphors used by John to say that Jesus is the way to God. Fully immersed in our humanity through the flesh and blood realities of life, Jesus is pointing out that the way to God is to be found in engaging with and processing the earthy events of our lives. God is to be encountered in the ordinary stuff of life.

One of the real difficulties with understanding and fully participating in Eucharist is that most of us have to move into the uncomfortable territory of letting go of what we learned all those years ago when, as children, we were preparing for our First Holy Communion. If it has to be unlearned, it was poor teaching in the first place. My memory is of being told that the high point of Mass was to receive Jesus, “body and blood, soul and divinity”, into my heart and that this was a private moment between Jesus and me.

Jesus is, indeed, really present in the Eucharist, but it is not in the form of physical flesh and blood. We do not receive the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, or the Jesus who chased the money-lenders out of the temple. Rather, it is the risen Jesus, sacramentally and spiritually present. Even Thomas Aquinas explained that the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not a physical one, but a spiritual one. But that does not mean that his presence is less real. Somehow, we have been brainwashed into believing that the only true reality is material or physical. In the Eucharist we encounter the person of Jesus and all he stood for and proclaimed. Surely that is enough to change our lives. That encounter is a sacramental one, but still real.

When we hear the word of God proclaimed and respond with “Thanks be to God” and “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”, we are committing ourselves to live what we have heard. What’s more, in our western world, we have lost the true meaning of the offertory. Celebration of the Eucharist in every African country involves the whole community. Everyone walks or dances to the front of the church to make his/her monetary gift, and those selected for the offertory procession itself come bearing everything from fruit to canned goods and toilet tissue. These are gifts for the support of the priest and needy people in the area. But the gifts represent the life of the community and the people who make up the community. And when those gifts, represented by the staples of bread and wine, are consecrated and made holy, it is the community that is made holy, and immersed in the life of Jesus. That is why Augustine can suggest that the priest distributing communion might well say to everyone approaching the altar: “Behold who you are, become what you receive” – See, you are the body of Christ, the way to God for others, become the body of Christ and be for others the way to God.

There is ever so much more that can be said about Eucharist. However, let’s not forget that each Sunday we gather as community to encounter the Word of God, Jesus. Jesus Christ is, for us, the way to God. By welcoming Jesus into our lives when the Word is proclaimed and by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ sacramentally at communion, we in our turn become what we receive, namely, the way to God for others.

(For many of these thoughts I am indebted to Frank Andersen, MSC whose book Eucharist: Participating in the mystery, John Garratt Publishing, 1998, transformed my understanding of Eucharist when I read it nearly 20 years ago. I hope I have not done Frank a disservice.)

Posted by superadmin in Sunday Readings Reflection
The Ascension

The Ascension

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1, 1.11


“The Ascension of the Lord is not the marking of a departure, but the celebration of a presence.” That statement by writer, Jay Cormier captures in a nutshell what the Ascension is all about. Yet, we can easily be distracted from this central message if we get drawn into sympathising with the disciples who were paralysed by self-pity and grief. To do that is to miss the whole point. The angel’s message to the disciples is for us, too.

Today’s story from Acts describes how the angel, who appeared to the disciples after Jesus had disappeared from their sight, summed up the situation perfectly and confronted them: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing around, dawdling? Get going, for you have a job to do. Your best friend, who helped you to find real meaning in your lives, has just given you a mission to accomplish. Moreover, he has empowered you to continue his mission of witnessing to the wonderful works of God. So, get a move on!” Luke’s angel is a little more polite than that. But that was the substance of the angel’s message. Yet the disciples took time to digest that message.

Ascension is a difficult celebration in the Church’s calendar because of the way in which Luke talks about Jesus being “taken up to heaven” as though it was literally a physical transfer from one place to another. However, if we were to accept that literally, we would be subscribing to the simplistic cosmology of the ancient Israelites, who believed in a three-tiered universe, with the dead down below in the bottom tier, the divine powers up above in the heavens, and the living between them in the middle tier. Indeed, some biblical poetry (So think “metaphor”!) pictures the might of the universe as something/somebody beyond our knowing, as if it were a throne room in the sky. For Matthew, “heaven” is another word for God. But we have to blame the Medieval mystics for giving us the notion that heaven is a place “up there somewhere” to where we will go after death and see God face to face. Earlier, the Greek philosopher Plato introduced the idea that humans were made up of two parts – a body and soul fused together, and that after death the soul would enjoy a place called heaven. Relics of these ancient cosmologies still survive in the creed we recite on Sundays, which situates the risen Christ “at the right hand of the Father”. And believers and non-believers alike often speak as if God is “up there somewhere”.

Like all great metaphors, the picture is an engaging one: a deity, sitting on a throne, surrounded by supernatural powers, with Jesus, God’s Prime Minister making sure everything and everybody are in their right place, and justice and peace are flourishing. Despite all this imagery, as early as the 5th century, no less a person than Pope St Leo the Great stated that “Christ has ascended into the sacraments”. Today we say that Christ is alive and active in the Christian community, in all of us who live and proclaim the Gospel entrusted to us. That very message is encapsulated in the final few lines of today’s second reading from Ephesians (cf Ephesians 1, 22-23).

I think the real clue to understanding the Ascension is to be found in the three verses of Acts that follow on from today’s first reading. They tell of how the disciples, after Jesus had been taken from their sight, returned to the upper room in Jerusalem and joined together in prayer. That is Luke’s way of telling us that they were bewildered, fearful, and just didn’t know what to do next. They were a leaderless, shattered community. So they went into hiding to give themselves time to decide what to do, hoping that somehow the promise Jesus had made – “you are going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1, 5) – would come true. They found themselves in an in-between time, caught between loss and promise. And that’s an experience we have all had, and we know how uncomfortable and disconcerting it can be. Most of us, for example, have felt the pain of losing a close family member through accident or terminal illness. It’s as though we are in a vacuum, bewildered, hurting, yet trying to hold ourselves together as we strive to get our life back on track.

Others know the in-between time of going away to boarding school or leaving home to take on full-time employment or study in the big city. Securities they have taken for granted have evaporated and the pall of homesickness envelops them.

Still others find themselves no longer needed in their place of work. They are casualties of an economic downturn. They are too old to retrain for something new and too young to retire. They fear they may not get another job. And then there are those whose marriage falls apart, and those who find themselves wondering if they will ever recover from a debilitating physical or mental illness. All these people know what it is to struggle through in-between times.

Implicit in today’s reading from Acts is a recipe for how to pull through: pray, find support from close friends, accept that one can survive without living in luxury, and don’t lose hope. That’s what the disciples did. And living like that is not beyond us either. The essence of it is to live with authenticity and integrity.

Maybe, we can all learn something from the German tennis star, Boris Becker. At the age of seventeen, he had already won Wimbledon. Despite his youth, he had come realise that the German people were beginning to idolise him. In reflecting on that, he made this extraordinary statement: “The German people wanted me to live for them…When I entered my home town people stood and gazed at me as if they were expecting blessings from the Pope. When I looked into the eyes of my fans at the Davis Cup matches last December, I thought I was looking at monsters. Their eyes had no life in them. When I saw this kind of blind, emotional devotion, I could understand what happened to us a long time ago at Nuremberg” (Heather MacLachlan, The Telegraph, London, Nov 26, 2001). Boris Becker wanted to be authentically himself.

The readings for Ascension are a challenge to us to be authentic witnesses to the values we have learned as disciples of Jesus. They are a call to us to involve ourselves in the life of the Christian community to which we claim to belong. Am I able to hear and respond?

Posted by superadmin in News