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Re-Emergence Of The Synod Of Bishops In The Life Of The Church – Michael Whelan SM

Re-Emergence Of The Synod Of Bishops In The Life Of The Church – Michael Whelan SM

On the sixtieth anniversary of the opening
of the Second Vatican Council
we pause to remember!

Historian, Giuseppe Alberigo, offers a good summary of the context within which the Synod of Bishops was re-born in our day:

“Pope John XXIII had decided that the first topic the Council would work on would be the liturgy. This was the aspect of the Church’s life in which renewal had already made the most progress, and the preparatory project for it was the only one that had found a consensus among the bishops, who had already been sensitised by the liturgical movement. So, from October 22 to November 13 (1962), the assembly discussed liturgical reform; votes taken on both the entirety of the schema and each individual chapter always showed a great majority in favour, in spite of the tenacious resistance of a minority stubbornly opposed to any innovation.
“Thus among these people, who had not even known one another before, a convergence of sentiments and viewpoints gradually manifested, giving rise to a completely unexpected and spontaneous majority, a very large number of votes that tended to converge on the major topics of the Council. It was a gradual process, without any planning or management; the Council Fathers were simply becoming aware of their role and of the vast and unforeseen horizons of the Council itself. Their favourable response did not concern the proposed text on liturgical reform alone; it also expressed the conviction that the time of fear, the era of the Church as a secure fortress, were over. The adoption of the vernacular languages, at least for some parts of the liturgical celebrations, was the most evident innovation, if not the most important. It was a way of re-establishing contact with the common people, of proposing the gospel message in a comprehensible way. The discussion brought forth significant elements of theology that had been overlooked until then; that is, the local Church or diocese, gained its centrality as an authentic Christian community in which the profession of the faith transcends the level of the individual to become a communitarian act around the altar of the bishop, who reacquired his dimension of authentic successor of the apostles” (Giuseppe Alberigo, A Brief History of Vatican II, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006, 25-26).


On 1 December 1962 – just one week before the close of the first period on 8 December – the Council Fathers had turned to the schema on the Church:

“It began to seem that the success of the Council would depend strictly upon the Church’s manner of defining itself. This was all the more true in that the liturgical reform had foreshadowed some significant ideas about the Church that corrected the excessively institutional and juridical approach of recent centuries” (Alberigo, op cit, 29).

Cardinal Ottaviani, head of the Theological Preparatory Commission that had prepared the schema on the Church, introduced the schema on the floor of the Council.

Despite Ottaviani’s claims concerning the outstanding competence of those who prepared that schema, six of the fourteen Fathers who spoke that morning, “called for revisions so complete as to be tantamount to outright rejection of the text as it stood. One of the speakers, Bishop De Smedt (1), summed up his criticism in three epithets: the schema, he said, was guilty of triumphalism, clericalism, and legalism” (Ralph Wiltgen S.V.D., The Rhine Flows into the Tiber: A History of Vatican II, Rockford, ILL: Tan Books, 1967, 56-57).

A very specific criticism of the schema was offered by the Maronite Bishop Michael Doumith of Sarba, Lebanon, a member of the Theological Commission. Doumith severely criticised the chapter on the bishops:

“He said that, just as a mother gives her child a toy with a thousand warnings not to break it, so, too, ‘they give us, with a thousand cautions, a concept of the episcopacy.’ He could not erase from his mind, he said, the painful impression that bishops, according to the schema, were no more than functionaries of the Pope” (Ibid).

Doumith’s intervention raised one of the most significant issues at the Council: Does the bishop derive his authority from the sacrament conferred at consecration or from the Pope?


When the Council Fathers gathered for the Second Session on 29 September 1963, they quickly moved to continue the debate on the schema on the Church. This debate began on 4 October 1963. It continued until 16 October. A major focus was how authority is to be exercised within the Church. Strong opinions were held and expressed on the floor of the Council.

The debate seemed to have no end in sight. An intervention was needed. On 30 October 1963 the Fathers were asked to take a straw vote on five questions (2):

“The results of the voting on now five questions put to the fathers were dramatic:
1. Should the schema assert that episcopal consecration is the supreme grade of the sacrament of Orders? The Vote: 2,123 affirmative, 34 negative.
2. Should the schema assert that every legitimately consecrated bishop in communion with the other bishops and the Roman Pontiff is a member of the Body of Bishops? The vote: 2,154 affirmative, 104 negative.
3. Should the schema assert that the so-called Body or College of Bishops in its evangelizing, sanctifying, and governing task is successor to the original College of the Apostles and, always in communion with the Roman Pontiff, enjoys full and supreme power over the universal church? The vote: 2,148 affirmative, 336 negative.
4. Should the schema assert that the aforementioned power of the College of Bishops, united with their head, belongs to it by divine ordinance [and therefore not by papal delegation]? The vote: 2,138 affirmative, 408 negative.
5. Should the schema assert that it is opportune to consider the reinstatement of the diaconate as a permanent grade of sacred ministry, according to needs in different parts of the church? The vote: 2,120 affirmative, 525 negative” (John O’Malley S. J., What Happened at Vatican II, Cambridge, MASS: The Belknap Press, 2008, 183-184).


The foregoing is the context within which the debate on the schema concerning bishops began. Cardinal Marella (3) presented the schema in the conciliar assembly on 4 November 1963. From the outset, the schema was attacked – especially the chapter entitled “Relationships Between Bishops and the Roman Curia”.

Wiltgen records a telling moment:

“Following the example of many Council Fathers, I left my seat halfway through the meeting and went to the coffee shop which the Council Fathers had christened ‘Bar Jona.’ (Coffee shops in Rome are known as bars.) This one was set up in a sacristy, and inside I had to elbow my way through noisy groups of bishops and periti drinking coffee and soft drinks. Archbishop D’Souza, of Bhopal (formerly of Nagpur), whom I met that day in the coffee shop, assured me that criticism of the schema would increase as the days went by. ‘No one has anything to fear from giving us bishops more power; we are not children,’ he said.” (Ralph Wiltgen S.V.D., The Inside Story of Vatican II: A Firsthand Account of the Council’s Inner Workings (pp. 158-159). TAN Books. Kindle Edition). (4)

On Wednesday 6 November 1963, there was a memorable intervention from His Beatitude Maximos IV Saigh. He offered a solution to the overly-centralized government of the Church. His solution was based on the doctrine of collegiality:

“The collegial responsibility of the episcopate for the Church, he said, is not adequately exercised when the Roman Curia alone embodies the collaboration of the Catholic episcopate in the central government of the Church. The patriarch therefore offered a new solution: Since all the bishops of the world cannot be continuously gathered in a council, a limited group of them, representing their colleagues, should have the concrete responsibility for assisting the pope in the general government of the Church as an ‘authentic Sacred College of the universal Church’ (Joseph Famerée, “Bishops and Dioceses and the Communications Media (November 5-25, 1963)” in Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A Komonchak, editors, History of Vatican II – Volume III, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000, 124-125).

John O’Malley notes:

“Maximos had called for an important structural change. His proposal …. was the first effort at the council to create a practical implementation of collegiality. (Emphasis added.) Thus the issue of how to reduce collegiality to concrete reality got put on the table of the commission. How to make collegiality work in practice? This was a crucial moment in the council” (John O’Malley SJ, What Happened at Vatican II, Cambridge, MASS: The Belknap Press, 2008, 191).


On Friday 8 November 1963, the debate became fiery. The seventy-six-year old – and almost blind – Cardinal Frings of Cologne, made his intervention (5). Among other things, he said the Holy Office’s “procedure in many respects is no longer suited to our age, harms the Church and is scandalous to many” (Joseph Famerée, op cit, 127).

Famerée continues:

“Applause broke out in the hall. Frings went on to demand that even in the Holy Office no one be condemned before having been heard and having the opportunity to correct himself. … The number of bishops residing in the Curia should be lessened: The episcopate is not an honorific title. The same for priests: Many curial offices could just as easily be filled with lay people. …  (T)he archbishop had dared to say in plain language, on the platform of the Council, what many of the Fathers (to say nothing of numerous Christians) thought and expressed behind the scenes regarding the procedure of the Holy Office…
“Ottaviani’s intervention was especially awaited, and it was with strong feeling and even a sob in his voice that he gave an improvised response to the accusation made by the Cardinal of Cologne before returning to his prepared remarks. He issued a ‘very indignant protest in answer to the words spoken against the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office, whose president is the Supreme Pontiff’. Applause came from the seats of the Italian and curial group” (Ibid). (6)

Ottaviani went on to say that, in his view, the collegiality of the apostles cannot be derived from the Scriptures. Collegiality, he argued, would diminish the primacy of Peter. (7)

O’Malley observes that this clash between Frings and Ottaviani “dramatized the fundamental issue in the council—how the church was to operate in the future: continue its highly centralized mode of operation, with its top-down style of management and apodictic mode of communication, or somehow attenuate them by broader consultation and sharing of responsibility” (John O’Malley, op cit, 193).


Pope Paul VI repeatedly affirmed his intention to establish a synod – for example, in his address to the Curia 21 September 1964; his address to the Council Fathers 29 September 1963, 21 November 1964 at the closing of the third period of the Council. Finally, in his opening address at the fourth and final period of the Council, Pope Paul VI made the announcement that the Synod of Bishops would be established.

The following day, 15 September 1965, Paul VI issued his Motu Proprio, Apostolica Sollicitudo establishing the Synod of Bishops.
The Motu Proprio is a brief document – about 1500 words. The general purposes of the Synod as set out in that Motu Proprio are:
a) to promote a closer union and greater cooperation between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops of the whole world;
b) to see to it that accurate and direct information is supplied on matters and situations that bear upon the internal life of the Church and upon the kind of action that it should be carrying on in today’s world;
c) to facilitate agreement, at least, on essential matters of doctrine and on the course of action to be taken in the life of the Church.

The immediate reaction to Apostolica Sollicitudo was positive. However, a closer reading caused some concerns:

“Repeatedly stated in this Motu Proprio was that in every particular the Synod was subject ‘immediately and directly to the power’ of the pope. It was strictly an advisory body with no authority beyond what the pope conceded to it. …
“Whatever the merits of Apostolica Sollicitudo, it was an expression of papal primacy, not of collegiality, a word never mentioned in the text. It was a preemptive strike by the center. No syllable in it could give a sleepless moment to Bishop Carli (8) and his colleagues. The body described in Apostolica Sollicitudo could hardly have been further from what Maximos had proposed the previous year. With one stroke the text cut collegiality off from grounding in the institutional reality of the church” (John O’Malley, op cit, 252-3).


Even though Pope Paul VI does not explicitly mention collegiality in his Motu Proprio, we cannot escape the fact that the Synod of Bishops was – in large measure – re-born out of the overwhelming desire for collegiality expressed by the Fathers of the Council. If the Synod of Bishops does not provide an experience of authentic collegiality, it will be seriously deficient.

Pope Francis has made us aware of the deeper possibilities of the Synod with his emphasis on “synodality”. He sets out the vision and the challenge clearly in his Address at the Commemorative Ceremony for the 50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, October 17, 2015:

“A synodal church is a listening church, knowing that listening ‘is more than feeling.’ It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. Faithful people, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: we are one in listening to others; and all are listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), to know what the Spirit ‘is saying to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7)”.



1. Bishop De Smedt (1909-1995) was Bishop of Bruges, Belgium. He was a close friend and co-operator with Joseph Cardijn.

2. This straw vote was initially scheduled for 16 October 1963 but was postponed. The postponement pointed to both the procedural complexities of the Council as well as the deep theological divisions, especially in the understandings of the Church. See Alberto Melloni, “The Beginning of the Second Period: The Great Debate on the Church” in Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A Komonchak, editors, History of Vatican II -Volume III, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 64-105.

3. Cardinal Marella (1895-1984) was born in Rome, ordained priest 1918 and made cardinal by Pope John XXIII in 1959. He work in the Vatican diplomatic corps and the curia. He had been Internuncio in Japan during World War II.

4. Ralph Wiltgens SVD published The Rhine Flows in the Tiber: A History of Vatican II, in 1967. Wiltgen has updated that original book, now published as The Inside Story of Vatican II: A Firsthand Account of the Council’s Inner Workings.

5. Frings was Archbishop of Cologne 1942-1969 and was known as a strong opponent of Nazism. Pope Pius XII made him a cardinal in 1946. Cardinal Frings’ peritus – the 35-year old Joseph Ratzinger – helped write Frings’ speech.

6. It is worth noting that Frings records in his memoirs of the Council that, the next day, Ottaviani embraced him and said, “after all, we both want the same thing!” (Ibid).

7. One of Ottaviani’s strong supporters, curial Cardinal Browne, “warned that the right of the college to ‘co-govern’ the entire Church along with the pope lessens the pontifical power of governing and contradicts the definition of the plenitude of power at Vatican I” (Famerée, op cit, 132).

8. Bishop Luigi Maria Carli (1914-1986). Ordained priest of Comachio, Italy 1937, bishop of Segni, 1957 and archbishop of Gaeta, 1973. Carli was a member of the minority that formed the “International Group of Fathers”. Archbishop Lefebvre was also a member of this group. Their purpose was to lobby passionately for positions held by the minority.

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Suggestion Sheet 3: Aspects of Renewal

A PDF Download of this Suggestion Sheet can be found here


The Church exists because of the initiative of God. It is sustained by the Spirit of Christ and our cooperation. It bears similarities to all other human organisations but is, in the end, unique, essentially different from all other merely human organisations. It exists to bear witness to, and be an instrument of, God’s salvific will. Its work in the world, like its renewal, is ultimately by the grace of God. It may help to think of a primary level (Spirituality), a secondary level (Community) and a tertiary level (Communal expressions and needs) in the Church and the renewal process.



Spirituality is primary because it is essentially about our relationship with God, self, others and world; that fourfold relationship is the heart and soul of humanity; spirituality situates our lives within the Trinity via the Paschal Mystery; it gives ground, energy and direction to everything else; it keeps us focused on the Spirit of Christ and the Kingdom; it helps us to judge everything against the Person and Teaching of Jesus; spirituality will express itself in some sort of communal way – to discover my true self is to discover that I am a relational being, to be me is to be in relationships.



The Church is a community of disciples, gathered by Word and Sacrament; life-giving community grows out of and feeds back into solid spirituality; it lives in and on the Spirit of Christ – it is not just any merely human group; by its very nature Christian community will be a worshipping, serving and evangelising group.



We might think of this tertiary level as manifested in four interdependent types of expressions and needs:


  • Worship
  • Ritual
  • Symbol
  • Music
  • Presiders
  • Sacred space


  • Poor
  • Sick
  • Aged
  • Hospitality
  • Visitation
  • Education


  • Authority
  • Roles
  • Responsibilities
  • Committees
  • Accountability
  • Policies/procedures


  • Finance
  • Management
  • Plant
  • R & M
  • Insurance
  • Legalities


In an ideal renewal process, all three levels of Church life will be fully addressed. Different people and groups have different gifts to bring to the renewal process.

The primary level holds the key to renewal. Advances can be made at the tertiary level – even spectacular advances – but if they are not supported by a well-grounded spirituality it is probably better if they do not happen. On the other hand, if there is a genuine spirituality present – and this will be evident in some form of genuine community life – renewal can proceed, eg, amidst inefficient organisation, bad music and very little money, for example.

The tertiary level, being mostly concrete and immediate, presenting jobs to be done and problems to be solved, easily attracts the most attention in the efforts for renewal. Needs and success can clearly be seen and measured here. There are tangible rewards. Efforts will only bear fruit in the long run, however, if this tertiary level work is well grounded in and expressive of primary level work. Clearly it is preferable if those doing the work for renewal at the tertiary level are also putting in effective effort at the primary level and the secondary level.

In the end, renewal is not a question of jobs to be done – though jobs need to be done – nor is it a question of problems to be solved – though problems need to be solved. A reductionism that reduces renewal to jobs to be done and problems to be solved is ultimately destructive – despite early positive signs to the contrary. Such reductionism is especially destructive when it is done amidst the rhetoric of spirituality and community but without the reality of spirituality and community. If we are serious about renewal, we must live the Paschal Mystery as generously as we possibly can. The reality of the Cross must never be far from our minds – especially when we are assessing successes and failures.

For the most part renewal will proceed in hidden and incremental ways: “the march of the ants”. Successes will sometimes look like failures and failures will sometimes look like successes. The key will be people with dispositions such as constancy and fidelity, generosity and big-mindedness, patience and forgiveness, courage and wisdom, which allow God to do what God will do, in God’s way and God’s time.

Like a tree that sinks its roots before and while it spreads its branches, so those working in renewal must grow deep in the Spirit of Christ, individually and communally, before and while they spread their branches.

In Catalyst for Renewal we believe genuine conversation can serve the work of renewal admirably. It requires – and in turn fosters – respect and care, listening and learning, life-giving relationships and communion in the Spirit of Christ.


(CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEETS are published by Catalyst for Renewal Incorporated, PO Box 139, Gladesville 2111)


Reflect on the following references from Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975):


  1. Anyone who rereads in the New Testament the origins of the Church, follows her history step by step and watches her live and act, sees that she is linked to evangelization in her most intimate being:
    • The Church is born of the evangelizing activity of Jesus and the Twelve. …
    • The Church remains in the world when the Lord of glory returns to the Father. She remains as a sign.
    • The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself. She is the community of believers, the community of hope lived and communicated, the community of brotherly love; and she needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe, to her reasons for hoping, to the new commandment of love. She is the People of God immersed in the world, and often tempted by idols, and she always needs to hear the proclamation of the “mighty works of God”(41) which converted her to the Lord; she always needs to be called together afresh by Him and reunited.
    • The Church is the depositary of the Good News to be proclaimed.
    • Having been sent and evangelized, the Church herself sends out evangelizers.


  1. What matters is to evangelize human culture and cultures (not in a purely decorative way, as it were, by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots), in the wide and rich sense which these terms have in Gaudium et spes,(n.53) always taking the person as one’s starting – point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God.


  1. Between evangelization and human advancement – development and liberation – there are in fact profound links. These include links of an anthropological order, because the people who are to be evangelized are not abstract beings but are subject to social and economic questions. They also include links in the theological order, since one cannot dissociate the plan of creation from the plan of Redemption. The latter plan touches the very concrete situations of injustice to be combatted and justice to be restored. They include links of the eminently evangelical order, which is that of charity: how in fact can one proclaim the new commandment without promoting in justice and in peace the true, authentic advancement of humanity?


  1. We must not ignore the fact that many, even generous Christians …. in their wish to commit the Church to the liberation effort are frequently tempted to reduce her mission to the dimensions of a simply temporal project. They would reduce her aims to a human-centred goal; the salvation of which she is the messenger would be reduced to material well-being. Her activity, forgetful of all spiritual and religious preoccupation, would become initiatives of the political or social order. But, if this were so, the Church would lose her fundamental meaning. Her message of liberation would no longer have any originality and would easily be open to monopolization and manipulation by ideological systems and political parties. She would have no more authority to proclaim freedom as in the name of God. This is why we have wished to emphasize … ‘The need to re-state clearly the specifically religious finality of evangelization. This latter would lose its reason for existence if it were to divwerge from the religious axis that guides it: the Kingdom of God, before anything else, in its fully theological meaning”.


  1. Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses. …. It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus – the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity.


  1. In the long run, is there any other way of handing on the Gospel than by transmitting to another person one’s personal experience of faith?


  1. The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. It is he who explains to the faithful the deep meaning of the teaching of Jesus and of his mystery. It is the Holy Spirit who, today just as at the beginning of the Church, acts in every evangelizer who allows himself to be possessed and led by him. …. Without the Holy Spirit the most convincing dialectic has no power over the heart of man. Without him the most highly developed schemes resting on a sociological or psychological basis are quickly seen to be quite valueless. We live in the Church at a privileged moment of the Spirit.




  1. What good thing has happened in your parish in the last year? Why do you call it “good”?
  2. Where do you think the main energies for renewal ought to be directed? Why?
  3. Would it be possible to change structures in the Church without renewing the Church? Discuss this.
  4. Would it be possible to renew the Church without changing structures in the Church? Discuss this.
  5. Do you think “we live in the Church at a privileged moment of the Spirit”? Discuss this.
  6. What does it mean to say “the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church”?
  7. What does it mean to “evangelize human culture and cultures”?
  8. What does it mean to say “the Church must begin by being evangelized”?
  9. How might the mission of the Church be “reduced to a simply temporal project”?
  10. Get a copy of Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi and read it meditatively. Discuss it with someone.



(CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEETS are published by Catalyst for Renewal Incorporated, PO Box 139, Gladesville 2111)



Suggestion Sheet 2: Thinking

A PDF Download of this Suggestion Sheet can be found here 


The cultural anthropologist, Edward Hall, makes a provocative observation about modern western culture and the type of thinking that tends to characterize us:

The psychoanalyst Laing is convinced that the Western world is mad. …. However, it is not man who is crazy so much as his institutions and those cultural patterns that determine his behavior. We in the West are alienated from ourselves and from nature. We labor under a number of delusions, one of which is that …. we are sane. We persist in this view despite massive evidence to the contrary. We live fragmented, compartmentalized lives in which contradictions are carefully sealed off from each other. We have been taught to think linearly rather than comprehensively …. Given our linear, step-by-step, compartmentalized way of thinking, fostered by the schools and public media, it is impossible for our leaders to consider events comprehensively or to weigh priorities according to a system of common good …. (E. T. Hall, Beyond Culture, Anchor Books, 1977, pp.11-12).

The English philosopher, lawyer and political figure Francis Bacon (1561-1626) proposed the theory that knowledge is, in the end, about gaining power over nature. “We can,” Bacon said, “put nature to the rack”. Bacon proposed that we gain power over the natural order and in this way provide the necessities for comfort and wellbeing. Bacon’s book, The New Atlantis, (1627), envisaged a scientific Utopia. Bacon’s philosophy gave impetus to the natural sciences and a way of thinking and knowing that characterizes our Western way of education and living to this day. We tend to think of knowing as gaining control over facts and information. To describe reality is to “harness the facts” – just “the facts” – and present them with “objectivity”.

The Englishman in Nikos Kazantsakis’ novel Zorba the Greek, reflects on an experience with a butterfly. In his reflection we find something of the limitations of the rationalistic approach to life in general and to the environment in particular. We also find there intimations of more creative possibilities:

I remembered one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree, just as the butterfly was making a hole in the case preparing to come out. I waited a while, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened, the butterfly started slowly crawling out and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole body to unfold them. Bending over it I tried to help it with my breath. In vain. It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.

That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.

I sat on a rock to absorb this New Year’s thought. Ah, if only that little butterfly could always flutter before me to show me the way. (N. Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek, Touchstone Books, pp.12-121.)

In the biblical tradition “to know” is to be in some kind of significant relationship with the person or thing known. Thus Jesus says “I know mine and mine know me” (John 10:14). He is not talking about facts or abstract information. He is talking about a certain intimacy of relationship. This intimacy can only be fostered and facilitated, never achieved by conquest. The Jewish philosopher, Abraham Heschel represents this biblical tradition when he notes:

The teaching of our society is that more knowledge means more power, more civilization – more comfort. We should have insisted in the spirit of the prophetic vision that more knowledge should also mean more reverence, that more civilization should also mean less violence. ….Knowing is not due to coming upon something, naming and explaining it. Knowing is due to something forcing itself upon us. Thought is a response to being rather than an invention. The world does not lie prostrate, waiting to be given order and coherence by the human mind. Things are evocative. When conceits are silent and all words stand still, the world speaks. We must burn the cliches to clear the air for hearing. Conceptual cliches are counterfeit; preconceived notions are misfits. Knowledge involves love, care for the things we seek to know, longing, being-drawn-to, being overwhelmed. (Abraham Heschel, Who Is Man?, Stanford University Press, 1965, p.100 & 109.)

Blaise Pascal’s comment is well known to all of us, though not always accurately quoted:

The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing; we feel it in many things (Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Trans, J. Warrington, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1973, n.224).

Give some thought to the way you think. How you think is probably as important as what you think. It will affect your ability to enter into good conversation. Observe other people and try to understand the way they think. Have conversations about this with others.

What difference do you think it might make to the way you approach the issues pertaining to Church renewal?

See the reverse side of this sheet for further stimulating ideas on thinking.

Suggested Reading

  1. Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery, Vintage Books, 1971.
  2. Smith, Beyond the Post Modern Mind, Crossroad, 1982.

M Whelan, Without God All Things are Lawful, Society of St Paul, 1995.

(CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEETS are published by Catalyst for Renewal Incorporated, PO Box 139, Gladesville 2111)



(These categories are descriptive rather than definitive. They are given to stimulate thought and conversation.

For good adult conversation – especially in the context of Church renewal – Foundational Thinking is

generally preferable to Ideological Thinking and Issues Thinking – though the latter is

most definitely required in certain concrete situations.)


Foundational ThinkingIdeological ThinkingIssues Thinking
Begins from the standpoint of wanting to search for the truth;Begins from the standpoint of already knowing the truth;Begins from the standpoint of wanting to solve the problem;
Seeks context, recognizing all relevant factors;The ideology is the template for addressing any factor;Context is typically bypassed except where it is useful in solving the problem;
Is subtle, able to make relevant distinctions;Is unsubtle, disinclined to make distinctions, paints with broad brush;Subtlety and distinctions have little or nothing to do with it;
Asks honest questions, probes; in particular asks “what is happening?”Makes definite and clear statements;Maybe asks clarifying questions;
Unveiling the truth is every-thing;“winning” is everything;Solving the problem is everything;
Listening in order to learn is of the essence;Out-maneuvering the other in order to defend your position is of the essence;Functional and practical co-operation is of the essence;
Language is generally unencumbered by extraneous agenda, words chosen to facilitate connection and conversation;Language is generally loaded, words chosen to defend or promote the ideology and or demolish the opposition;Language is generally detached and technical, words chosen to convey necessary information;
Never resorts to mockery or sarcasm, always focuses on the ideas, questions and issues;At home with mockery and sarcasm, prone to ad hominem argument;Mockery and sarcasm may emerge when the problem solving is frustrated, product oriented;
Respect and care for the other as co-searcher, though non-emotive;Anxiety about the other as threat, emotive;Acceptance of other as helper in solving the problem, non-emotive;
Willing to leave the matter incomplete, agree to disagree;Determined to bring the matter to a close with a victory;Keen to find the solution to the problem;
High tolerance for disagreement;Low tolerance for disagreementDisagreement irrelevant so long as the problem is solved;
High tolerance for ambiguity and paradox;All is clear, no tolerance for ambiguity or paradox;Little tolerance for ambiguity or paradox;
High regard for principles and the logic they demand;High regard for the ideology and the logic it demands;High regard for the matters of fact and realpolitik;
Assumes that the truth will set us free;Assumes that the ideology will set us free;Assumes that the solution will set us free;
Able to root a conversation in the depth dimension;Interaction remains essentially superficial;Interaction remains essentially superficial
Presupposes life experience and some wisdom;Presupposes cleverness rather than wisdom and probably lack of life experience;Presupposes skills of one kind or another;
Requires depth of emotional maturity and significant sense of personal security;Generally implies emotional immaturity and lack of significant sense of personal security;Maturity and sense of personal security have little or nothing to do with it;
It probably helps to be humble;It probably helps to be proud;Humility does not matter;
Is self-transcending.Is egocentric.Get it fixed!

Suggestion Sheet 1: Groups Guidelines

A PDF Download of this Suggestion Sheet can be found here


In July 1994 a small group of Catholics gathered in Sydney to discuss their role in the Church and the world.  A variety of factors brought us together.  One seemed to be of particular significance – a strong desire to be part of a Church that is good news for our world.

It seemed to us that many are feeling frustrated in their attempts to participate effectively in the life of the Church.  Many have stopped trying to participate.  None of us particularly wants to leave the Church.  We cherish its tradition.  We also share both a faith in the Incarnation & God’s promise to dwell with us, and a concern that the Catholic Church should play the life-giving role in society which is its privilege and responsibility.  The Catholic Church’s effectiveness as a sign of God’s love and goodness seems to be diminishing at this time – a development we cannot simply blame on a ‘materialistic world’.  With the Second Vatican Council we acknowledge that “believers themselves bear some responsibility (for this situation)” (Gaudium et Spes, n.19).

We share Pope Paul VI’s perception that “we live in the Church at a privileged moment of the Spirit” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, n.75).  We want to listen intelligently to the signs of the times, as Pope John XXIII called us to do, and respond generously to the call of the Spirit.  We seek to participate in the life and mission of the Church as Christian faithful, accepting both the rights and responsibilities that come with our baptism.  We see a special and highly significant role for the Second Vatican Council and the work of renewal that was begun there.  Pope John Paul II summed it up nicely in his encyclical, Tertio Millennio Ineunte: “Now that the Jubilee has ended, I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning” (57).

The times in which we find ourselves see us all facing questions and issues that demand the most serious attention.  We must all participate in the best way we can in the processes whereby we will address those issues and questions.  Those processes cannot and must not be left in the hands of a few from whom we will then be expected to silently accept answers, explanations and decisions.  We all must, to the best of our abilities and opportunities, join with the Church in her struggle to find new expressions of the Gospel at this time.

We are mindful of the temptations of perfectionism, of expecting more of the Church and her human representatives and structures than is realistic.  Our desire is to work with and in the institutional Church, freely, honestly and compassionately.  We desire to be part of that growing energy within the Church that is inspired by and subject to the Spirit of Christ.  That Spirit blows where she will, revealing herself through the Sacred Scriptures, through the actual institutional life of the Catholic Church, through the historical, social, political and cultural reality we have inherited, through other religious traditions and through the issues and questions of our own day.

The heart of such an endeavour has to be the Paschal Mystery.  Like her Founder, the Church lives the death and resurrection mystery in every age.  The Church – along with each of the Christian faithful – must submit willingly to the dying that alone can bring life.  If we evade the death we will not know the resurrection.  In Him, with Him, and through Him, we pass over from death to life.  Apart from Him we are nothing (cf. Jn. 15:5).

In this spirit we named our group Catalyst for Renewal.  In accord with our mission statement, we will do what we can to develop forums of conversation.  In those forums we will encourage adults who share our concerns and intentions to engage in lively debate, to listen respectfully and intelligently to each other, to learn from that experience and thus participate more effectively in the renewal of both Church and society.

Our first forum for conversation was Spirituality in the Pub and we are continuing to develop that forum. We have also begun to hold a series of Catalyst Dinners at which conversation is promoted. A series of Reflection Mornings for Friends and Volunteers has also been introduced. In 1997 we invited two Maryknoll priests – Bill Frazier and Larry Lewis – to Australia to conduct a series of adult education courses. Our journal The Mix is now received by more than 1600 people.

Become part of the conversation. We are the decisions we make. The shape of the Church in future generations will be determined as much by our decisions – or lack of them – as it will be determined by the Holy Spirit.

Those choices we make might demand much of us. They might in fact cost us everything. So be it. Our Paschal Lord is the example. Let us make the choices thoughtfully, freely & generously in the spirit of abandonment to the Eternal Mystery.

Like Jesus, our desire is to do the will of the One who sent us (cf Jn. 4:34). We can be at peace then with the outcome. “For us there is only the trying, the rest is not our business” (T. S. Eliot).

What future do we want? What choices shall we make? What sort of Church shall we pass on to the next generations?


From time to time The Mix will carry a CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET as an insert. The purpose is to assist our Friends and others to become actively involved in the process of renewal by either initiating a forum for conversation or participating in a forum for conversation that is already established.

On the reverse side of this sheet are some thoughts about groups. You might be able to meet with one or more others and set up a little group. This could be focused on, for example, the Sunday Readings, a chosen book, a bible study program, prayerful time together considering designated subjects and so on. Upcoming Suggestion Sheets will offer creative ways to meet and engage in good conversation.


We would also love to hear from you if you have some good suggestions for conversation. Where are the signs of hope? What good things are being done? Let us know and we will let others know!

(CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEETS are published by Catalyst for Renewal Incorporated, PO Box 139, Gladesville 2110)




To provide a forum within which adults can grow in their faith and learn from:

the Spirit working in “two or three gathered” in His name;

speaking of their own lived experiences and considered reflections;

listening to the experiences and considered reflections of others.

Suggested Group Rules

The success of the group presupposes that all members:

take responsibility for the group’s success;

care for the others in the group;

endeavour to be there consistently  and on time;

prepare material conscientiously;

be willing to listen and speak;

maintain the confidentiality of material discussed.


Generally it is best if leadership of the sessions is shared. If the group is worth having all must contribute something to its life.

It is also generally the case that if there is not one or perhaps two to take responsibility for getting things done, things do not get done. Watch that those one or two do not get overburdened.

Power struggles can be disastrous for the life of the group. These generally hinge around personality clashes or differences of understanding the purpose of the group. Power struggles must be dealt with openly and honestly.

Good group leaders tend to be invisible

Hints For Participating Fruitfully

Consider the group as having a certain “energy” which must be kept moving. The more the group members share that “energy” or pass it around, the better will the group be. Grace builds on nature ‑ the “Energy” of God with our “energy”.

That flow of “energy” can be inhibited or locked up ‑ e.g. by talking excessively, moody silence, failing to listen sensitively, cynical or cutting comments, restless body movement, forming sub‑groups or alliances, depending too much on the facilitator for promptings, arbitrations or answers.

That flow of “energy” can be released and moved ‑ e.g. by thoughtful and honest comment, sensitive listening, paying attention to the one speaking, encouraging remarks, good humour, gently challenging evasions, allowing people to disagree with you or share a contrary opinion, deliberately taking up the “energy” respectfully then letting it go.

Focus on the learning possibilities in the group. Even a “bad” group experience is an opportunity to learn.

If the group’s “energy” or your own seems to be chronically inhibited or locked up, address this issue ‑ reflect on what is happening, discuss it with another member of the group or the facilitator or simply raise your concern publicly in the group. Do something about it!

When you see that another member of the group has been distressed, is angry or otherwise has “unfinished business” when the discussion concludes, don’t leave that person alone. See that they have some opportunity to express their feelings to someone. However, respect their privacy should they choose not to pursue the matter with you.

It is not the end of the world if someone leaves a group, or the group disbands or you find that participation in the group is no longer lifegiving for you so you decide to leave. Do what you must do in faith.

Suggested Reading

Eugene Gendlin, Focusing, Bantam Books, 1986. (Personal listening and awareness)

John Heider, The Tao of Leadership, Bantam Books, 1986. (Developing your skills as facilitator)

 (CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEETS are published by Catalyst for Renewal Incorporated, PO Box 139, Gladesville 2110)

Statement of Conclusions – Twenty Years on: Recovering the Mystical Heart of Catholicism

Statement of Conclusions – Twenty Years on: Recovering the Mystical Heart of Catholicism

by Fr Michael Whelan SM

During the days of 17-20 November 1998 – on the sidelines of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ ad limina visit and the Special Assembly for the Synod of Bishops for Oceania, in Rome – representatives of seven Dicasteries and fifteen members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference met. This meeting was at the request of Pope John Paul II. The Catholic media organization, Zenit, wrote at the time, that “similar meetings held with other Episcopal Conferences have proved to be equally beneficial as expressions of ecclesial communion”.

A document from that meeting – Statement of Conclusions – was published on 14 December 1998. The text of the statement is 10,420 words. Significantly, explicit references to “priest” and “priesthood” occur 88 times. There is one reference to the “baptized” and that is in the context of the “priesthood of the baptized”. Zenit explained the purpose of the meeting and the nature of the document as follows:
(T)hey discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the Church in Australia. In particular, this statement of conclusions examines the role of the Bishop, the clergy, and consecrated persons, as well as the sacraments, liturgy and Catholic education. In Australia, and throughout the entire world, there is a crisis of faith that is rooted in an attitude of tolerance and relativism. Because so many have lost confidence in their ability to know the truth, they have also lost their faith in God, and more particularly, in Christ. In response to this loss of faith and the moral problems that necessarily follow, the bishops must rise to their threefold vocation of teaching, sanctifying and governing. The document explains these three roles and why they are so necessary. It goes on to examine the identity, formation and spiritual life of the priest, which is of utmost importance for the church. It discusses the decline of vocations in Australia and offers some solutions, especially regarding the good example of consecrated religious. In examining the nature of the Liturgy, it calls for a more thorough liturgical catechesis for both priests and lay people. Priests must not introduce changes to the liturgy of their own initiative, but most subordinate themselves to the mind of the Church. In addition, priests must encourage those who no longer have a sense of personal sin and their need for Christ’s redemption to return to the sacrament of Penance.

Catalyst for Renewal organized a Public Forum in Sydney Town Hall on 22 April 1999 in response to the Statement. More than 2,000 people came to that Forum. In fact, the Town Hall security people closed the doors because the venue was filled to capacity. An unknown number were thus locked out. And all this on an evening of very inclement weather.

The then Archbishop of Melbourne – George Pell – was asked in a media conference in which he introduced the Statement of Conclusions in Melbourne on 19 March 1999, “What is the biggest threat, in your opinion, to the Catholic Church today?” The Archbishop replied: “Oh, that we’ll just merge into the background. We’re a minority church, fewer than 30 per cent of the people, and we’ll just take on the colours of our society, and that we’ll become the bland leading the bland.” The Archbishop went on to say that, “as a result of the Statement of Conclusions, for the foreseeable future the Church in Australia will never be the same again.”

Historical influences
Pope Pius XII reminded us of the importance of history in understanding the Church. In 1949, talking to a group of seminarians in Rome, the Pope said:
“The mystical Body of Christ, following the example of the physical members which comprise it, does not live and act in the abstract, outside the constantly changing conditions of time and place. It is not, and can never be, separated from the world which surrounds it. It is always of its century; it goes forward with it day by day, hour by hour, continually adapting its ways of doing things and its attitudes to those of the society in the midst of which it must act.” (Pius XII, “Speech at the Anagni Seminary,” April 29, 1949, in Discorsi e Radiomessaggi XI, p. 50; and R. Rouquette in Études, April 1951, p. 68).

To assist with our reflections tonight, I would like to briefly recall just three particular events of history. These events offer significant points of reference within which we can situate both the Statement of Conclusions and our current situation as Catholics in Australia.

1. The first event was instigated by the Roman Emperor, Constantine, with his Edict of Milan in 313 CE. Ostensibly an edict of toleration, the Edict of Milan had radical and far reaching effects for the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church – as Christianity had become known since the 2nd century. Through Constantine’s Edict, bishops and their clergy became integral to the daily running of the Roman Empire. As such they held much power within both the Empire and the Church. In fact, they gained increasing power as the 4th century unfolded. By the end of that century, Catholicism/Christianity had become the state religion.
Fr Yves Congar OP wrote in his journal on the day the Second Vatican Council opened, 11 October 1962:
“I see the weight, that has never been renounced, of the period when the Church behaved as a feudal lord, when it had temporal power, when popes and bishops were lords who had a court, gave patronage to artists and sought a pomp equal to that of the Caesars. That, the Church never repudiated in Rome. To emerge from the Constantinian era has never been part of its programme.” (Yves Congar OP, My Journal of the Council, trans. Mary John Ronayne OP and Mary Cecily Boulding OP, Liturgical Press, 2012, 88).
One of the major tasks of the Second Vatican Council – implicitly at least – was to facilitate the complex and difficult journey out of Constantinianism. Sixty years on, we are still beginning that journey.

I will mention just two parts of Catholic life that manifest what I am calling Constantinianism. The first is liturgy:

The effect of the Constantinian benevolences toward the Church are immediately visible in the liturgy. After Constantine’s conversion there came a dramatic shift from the simplicity of homes to the splendour of imperial basilicas. These roofed structures were rectangular in shape and divided inside into three or five naves marked by rows of columns. At the far end was the apse where the emperor had his throne. Taken over by Christians, the domestic dining room gave way to the large public halls where there was ample room at the nave for the assembly and enough space in the sanctuary for the table, the ambo, the bishop’s chair, and the seats for presbyters and ministers. The first Christian basilica was the Lateran palace, which Constantine gave as a gift to Pope Sylvester. The emperor ordered the construction of new basilicas on the Vatican hill where the apostle Peter was buried, at the Ostian Way where the apostle Paul had been martyred, at the Campo Verano where the deacon Lawrence was buried, and in several other places outside the city.

When Constantine decreed in 321 the observance of Sunday rest for the empire, the celebration of the Eucharist acquired a more solemn form. The atmosphere and architectural ambience of basilicas demanded, at any rate, a more splendid form of celebration. The prayer formularies were rhetorically enriched in consonance with the ambient of the imperial hall (Anscar J Chupungco, “History of the Liturgy Until the Fourth Century” in Anscar J Chupungco, editor, Handbook for Liturgical Studies – Volume 1: Introduction to the Liturgy, Collegeville, Minnesota, A Pueblo Book, 1997, 107-108). This essay is highly recommended, along with the others in this volume on the history of the Liturgy.

The second part of Catholic life that was profoundly affected by Constantinianism is that of the priesthood. The eminent medievalist, Jean Leclercq, wrote in a 1969 conference paper:

“The change which affected the priesthood at that time (ie in the 5th century) was itself a consequence of an even deeper change: one which affected ecclesiology as a whole. Mentalities passed from a conception of the ‘Church, community of Christians’ to one which accepted the ‘distance between the lay people and the Church of the clerics’. In the first state there was ‘an organic union between pastors and faithful’ in matters touching liturgical celebrations, councils and other activities of church life. In the second state the idea that predominates is that ‘the whole Christian life and the religious state depend upon the priests, their fidelity, the purity of their life, and their learning’. The ‘different stages of the progressive distancing which took place between the priest and the faithful’ seem to have arisen from a definition of the Church as ‘consisting mainly of priests’” [Jean Leclercq, “The Priesthood in the Patristic and Medieval Church,” The Christian Priesthood, edited by Nicholas Lash and Joseph Rhymer, Dimension Books, 1970, 73].
Today’s clericalism is in large measure a legacy of the shape of the priesthood given to the Church in the Constantinian era. In the same essay, Leclercq refers to the “clergification of the Church” and the “clericalisation of the clergy” that became established in the 4th century and remains pretty much the fact as we begin the 21st century.

2. The second event was instigated by Pope Paul VI with his encyclical, Humanae Vitae in 1968. Just as the Edict of Milan had significant unintended consequences, so Humanae Vitae – ostensibly about birth control – had significant unintended consequences. Specifically, the encyclical provoked widespread questioning among Catholics internationally as to the authority the Church holds in our lives. A most serious question, with profound ramifications, was raised: Would it be possible to follow an alternative path to that laid down in Humanae Vitae and still come to the sacraments in good faith?
A large number of Catholic theologians in the United States protested the encyclical’s teaching on birth control. This became known as “The Washington Case”. In April 1971, the Holy See published a Statement of Theological and Pastoral Principles by way of response. The Statement says in part:
“Conscience is the practical judgment or dictate of reason by which one judges what here and now is to be done as good, or to be avoided as evil. ….. Particular circumstances surrounding an objectively evil human act, while they cannot make it objectively virtuous, can make it inculpable, diminished in guilt or subjectively defensible. In the final analysis, conscience is inviolable and no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his or her conscience, as the moral tradition of the Church attests”.
The Australian Bishops wrote to Pope Paul VI on April 24 1972 and voiced their concern. They said there were “a number of interpretations of Humanae Vitae by episcopal conferences offering the faithful a less difficult course in situations where duties and obligations clash than would seem to be provided by the encyclical”. Several Australian Catholic doctors, on November 13 1973 also wrote to Pope Paul VI seeking clarification on these pastoral matters.
In September 1974, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference offered a guiding statement, having taken into account the ongoing debate and discussion worldwide, as well as the guidance from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In part that statement said:
“It is not impossible, however, that an individual may fully accept the teaching authority of the Pope in general, may be aware of his teaching in the matter, and yet reach a position after honest study and prayer that is at variance with the papal teaching. Such a person could be without blame; he would certainly not have cut himself off from the Church; and in acting in accordance with his conscience he could be without subjective fault” (See Nicholas Kerr, editor, Australian Catholic Bishops’ Statements since Vatican II, St Paul, 1985).
The critical question of conscience – and with it the question of fidelity to the Church and the exercise of authority within the Church – had come to the fore. How could the rights of conscience be reconciled with the Church’s teaching as found in Lumen Gentium, #25? There we read that the teachings of the Church demand “loyal submission of will and intellect”. (It should be noted that, even in the Council documents there is tension on this matter – compare for example Lumen Gentium, #25 with Gaudium et Spes #16.)
Father Joseph Ratzinger – later Pope Benedict XVI – puts it more bluntly in his 1969 reflections on Gaudium et Spes #16:
“Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary, even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. …. Conscience confronts (the individual) with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official Church”. (Herbert Vorgrimler, editor, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II – Volume V, Burns & Oates, 1969, 134.)
In his August 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II sums up the relationship between the individual and Church authority: “The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience” (#64).

The teaching on conscience found in Gaudium et Spes #16, the Holy See’s response to the “Washington Case”, Joseph Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II, is not new. This has been part of Catholic teaching, at least since the time of Pope St Gregory the Great (540-604), confirmed by St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), but largely forgotten under “the weight” of Constantinianism.
I would place the Catalyst Public Forum on the Statement of Conclusions in the same category as Humanae Vitae, as a part of the ongoing clarification of authority within the Catholic Church and the rights and responsibilities of individual Catholics.

3. The third event has been instigated by the sexual abuse crisis. Ironically, one of its unintended consequences might be the loosening of the hold that the Constantinian mentality has within the Catholic Church. Huge damage has been done to the authority of the Catholic Church. The consequences of a significant loss of trust would be hard to over-estimate. Catholics are being forced to find new ground for their Catholicity or abandon it altogether. This is both danger and opportunity.

The danger is twofold. In the first instance, as Church authorities attempt to recover the trust of people both within and outside the Catholic Church, there is a danger that excessive emphasis will be placed on law and doctrine and conformity. This would tragically confirm the Constantinianism. Sadly, there is strong evidence that this is precisely what is happening in some parts of the Catholic world at the moment. The second danger is that, thinking of the Church as just another multi-national corporation, we will yield to systems analysts, sociologists, psychologists, management consultants and the like and force changes on the Church that are more destructive than constructive. Sadly there is also strong evidence that this is a reality today as we approach the Plenary Council.

This does not present us with an either/or choice but a both/and choice. Let me briefly explain what I mean.

The Mystical Heart of Catholicism
In the Church, we need to constantly pay close attention to developing our understanding of the Incarnation and the doctrines pertaining to that central mystery; we also need to constantly pay close attention to developing good laws and good attitudes to our laws; we also need to constantly pay close attention to developing institutional structures, ensuring that they serve the Gospel we intend to embody. But more than these essential processes and grounding them is the recovery of the mystical heart of our faith. Without this, the rest will be pointless – maybe even destructive.

Alan Watts wrote more than 70 years ago:
“A Christianity which is not basically mystical must become either a political ideology or a mindless fundamentalism.” (Alan Watts, Behold The Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion, New York: Vintage Books, 1947/1972, xiii).
The oft-quoted words of Karl Rahner echo those of Alan Watts:
“The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he/she will not exist at all.” (Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Volume XX: Concern for the Church, London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1981, 149). 1

Google the word “mysticism” and you will get more than one million hits. This suggests there is a spectrum of definitions and understandings and usages of the word today. However, a fair definition of mysticism is found on Wikipedia:
“Mysticism is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight. Mysticism usually centers on practices intended to nurture those experiences. Mysticism may be dualistic, maintaining a distinction between the self and the divine, or may be nondualistic.”

The mystical heart of Catholicism is found in the experience of being one with all in Jesus Christ. St Paul sums it up in expressions such as the following:
“God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:18 – NIV).
Everything in our doctrines and laws and institutions points to this, nurtures this and is in turn enlivened by this fact of our lives. Our life as Church can be summed up in that one word: Reconciliation! We are “baptized into Christ” (see Romans 6:3). We find our identity in Christ.
“If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 – NIV)
To say he is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (see John 14:6) is not a theological abstraction but a lived reality. When we have awakened to the mystical heart of our Catholicism we can say with a simple truthfulness, with the conviction of experience: Father, Son and Holy Spirit have made their home in me (see John 14:24). We have some inkling of the truth expressed by St Paul: “I live now not I but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19).

Our communion in Christ allows us to live the tensions of both/and. In Him, and only in Him, we can find an ultimate reconciliation of all that seems contradictory, incomprehensible, beyond proof, imperfect, incompetent or inadequate. Perfectionism is idolatry. In Him we can live the tensions of the “not yet” and the “as yet” unattainable. Aspirations are not necessarily expectations.
In Him, kenosis becomes fruitful, full of promise rather than threat. The victory does not come at the achievement of an ego project or a clever syllogism or even an algorithm. It comes as grace. The kingdom is gift and it may not look like a victory.
In Him, our perspective is radically transformed. We begin to sense something of God’s logic. We begin to see the kingdom coming to birth amidst the multiple other kingdoms vying for ascendancy. “In God’s kingdom there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 – NIV).

I conclude with a brief meditation. About thirty five years ago, the monk, Carlo Carretto, returned to Italy from the Sahara Desert, after many years living among the Bedouin. He wrote a document entitled, “I Sought and I Found.” There he tells of his inner journey and his struggles with God. He concludes the document with a letter to the church. It is born of a mystical heart. The letter begins:
“How much I must criticise you, my church and yet how much I love you! You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe you more than I owe anyone. I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence. You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness. Never in the world have I seen anything more obscurantist, more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful. Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face – and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms! No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you. Then too – where should I go? To build another church? But I cannot build another church without the same defects, for they are my own defects. And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church. No, I am old enough. I know better!”  (Messenger, Jan-Feb., 1989, 15. The piece originally appeared in the U.K. Catholic Herald. Carlo Carretto died on 4 October 1988 at the age of 78.)

1 Sr Jocelyn Kramer OCD forwarded to me the following comment on this quote from a German friend: “According to my information Rahner first used this quote in a talk in 1966 and subsequently repeated it in many talks. There are two different written versions in his collected works: (1). The longer one appeared in 1971, and it does not say ‘the Christian of the future’ but ‘the religious person (literally ‘the devout person’) of tomorrow will be a mystic or he will not exist at all’. Rahner then goes on to explain that by mysticism he does not mean an esoteric phenomenon, but ‘a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence’. Then he says that the source of religious conviction is not theology but the personal experience of God. It’s a long and very intricate passage in German, with Rahner’s typically complicated, multi-clause sentences. It was published in: Karl Rahner, Schriften zur Theologie, Einsiedeln 1971, vol. VII, 22. (2) The shorter version is the one that is now more widely spread. It reads: “The Christian of the future etc.’ I suppose by this time Rahner had become aware of the fact that his original expression ‘der Fromme’ (‘the devout person’) was beginning to sound obsolete and likely to put readers off. It is found in: Karl Rahner, Schriften zur Theologie, vol. XIV, Zurich 1980, 161. You might find a reference to the English translation on the internet.”

Posted by Gay Walsh in Archives, News, Slider

A Forum with Dr Anna Rowlands – not to be missed!

SATURDAY, 25th MAY, 2019

St Hilda Associate Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Practice. Deputy Director the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University, United Kingdom.

1st Session: “Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Gillian Rose – Prophets for Our Crisis-Ridden 21st Century”. Followed by Q & A.

2nd Session: “The Other – A Realistic Understanding of Catholic Social Teaching” followed by Q & A.

Booking details, times etc will be confirmed nearer the time. SAVE THIS DATE. NOT TO BE MISSED.

Posted by Bob Birchall in Forums

Save the Dates – Coming Up

You are invited to Three Sessions of Q and A in the Crypt:

Weaving our Conversations into Possibilities.

The Crypt, St Patrick’s Church, Grosvenor Street, Sydney
1.30—3.00pm (Doors open 1.00pm)

Sunday, March 31st – Stephanie Lorenzo, Voices of Faith & TBA “Women Dare to Dream – Share Your Dream”

Sunday, 23rd June – “Ongoing Response to Child Sexual Abuse”

Sunday, 22nd September – “Plenary Council 2020 Update”


Posted by Bob Birchall in Forums
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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