Friday, August 24, 2007

Beware of Aussies Bearing Grenades: Down Under's Winter of Candor

Summer’s last gasp may be nearing in the global north, but the southern winter that's seen a number of Australian bishops moving forward with what’s been termed “the fight they always wanted to have” is about to heat up even more, and from an unexpected quarter.

To bring everyone up to speed, in recent months a high-profile apostolic visitor from abroad was reportedly dispatched to a rural diocese where, faced with a priest shortage reaching dire proportions, the ordinary used a pastoral letter to muse on the ordination of women and married men as a means to replenish the numbers; in an interview last week, another senior prelate lamented the church’s tendency for being too removed from its own and characterized “radical right-wing Catholics” as “taking the place of God” and being driven to “cut” their opposition’s “head off” (whilst simultaneously defending Humanae vitae); and Bishop Pat Power, the Canberra auxiliary for whom ribbing established teaching is usually akin to breathing, noted in an open letter that “many loyal and committed Catholics want a more open and thorough examination of the issues around the ordination of women.”

Even for all that, though, the controversy is poised to ratchet to a new level. In a new book slated for release on Sunday, the Vatican’s response to clergy sex-abuse is to be blasted by the prelate entrusted with the task of handling the crisis’ fallout in the Australian church.

While the continent-nation’s market of ecclesial polemics has been largely dominated by Power – Oz’s answer to the retired Detroit auxiliary Thomas Gumbleton – on the left, and its senior churchman, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, on the right, the retired Sydney auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson hasn’t been known for his outspokenness. Yet the Rome-trained canonist’s reputation for caution and balance, which sealed his 1994 selection as the Australian church’s lead point-man on the scandals, makes the tone and content of Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus all the more seismic.

In the 14-chapter volume – whose introduction has already been released – apart from admitting publicly for the first time that he was a victim of sexual abuse as a child and that the experience of overseeing the Australian hierarchy’s response to the crisis was the first time he found himself dealing internally with his experience as a victim, the author’s product is said to read significantly more like a detached canonical paper than an intensive personal memoir.

Especially after coming to terms with his own abuse, the bishop wrote, “my problems with the church’s response to the revelations of sexual abuse ran deep and reached up to the highest levels of the church, for I was one of many people crying out for strong and compassionate leadership on this matter and trying to do my best without the support of that leadership. I felt that here was the perfect opportunity for the papacy to fulfill its most basic role of being the rock that holds the church together, but this did not happen, and the church fractured.

“I found it impossible,” he said, “to accept that I must give ‘submission of mind and will’ to most words written by a pope, but a failure to give leadership in a crisis seemed to count for little.

“I felt that the demand was being made that I give my submission to the silence as well as to the words,” he says, “and I could not do this.”

“It is hard to imagine a more total contradiction of everything Jesus Christ stood for,” Robinson writes of the incidents of abuse by church personnel and hierarchical attempts at cover-up, “and it would be difficult to overestimate the pervasive and lasting harm it has done to the Church.”

“I am convinced,” he said, “that if the pope had spoken clearly at the beginning of the revelations, inviting victims to come forward so that the whole truth, however terrible, might be known and confronted, and firmly directing that all members of the church should respond with openess, humility, honesty and compassion, consistently putting victims before the good name of the church, the entire response of the church would have been far better.

“With power go responsibilities,” he goes on. “The pope has many times claimed the power, and must accept the corresponding responsibilities.”

“Within the present structures of the Catholic Church,” the bishop concludes, “it is the pope alone who has the power to make the changes that are necessary.”

Chalking up the church’s customary response to abuse to a grade of “messiah complex” incorporated into clerical culture, he writes that, the resulting “mystique” attached to the priesthood “was in large part responsible for the practice of transferring offending priests to new appointments in a way that, say, a lay teacher in a Catholic school would not have been treated.”

The double-standard, he said, “was not a healthy idea and it must now be confronted.”

Beyond its core focus, the book appears likely to set off doctrinal alarm bells with the bishop’s less-than-certain explorations on whether Christ actually intended that the church take on a permanent hierarchical character mirroring that of the apostles; whether Pius XII’s 1950 ex cathedra definition of the Dogma of the Assumption was “wise and prudent,” and repeated critiques of the current understanding of the Petrine ministry and its perceived lack of reliance on collegiality, including the author's statement that “the authority of a papal document depends first and foremost on the power of the arguments it contains rather than the authority of the person signing it.”

While he says in his introduction that confronting abuse requires “looking well beyond celibacy,” though it is technically a discipline and not a defined matter of teaching, Robinson goes on to write of the Latin-rite’s required disposition for clerics that “to start with the statement that the requirement of obligatory celibacy cannot and will not be changed or even examined, as both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have done, is to lose credibility before the discussion even begins.

“Some may speak all they wish of the benefits of this celibacy for the church,” he says, “but others will not stop asking, ‘How many abused children is celibacy worth?"'

That said, the bulk of the work – which draws heavily from the Scriptures and includes meditations at the end of each chapter – addresses aspects of ecclesiastical culture, from the author’s doubts on the value of forming priests in the traditional milieu of seminaries, to his estimation of the Vatican’s “tendency to upgrade the solemnity and certainty of every statement” and a distaste for “bishops who are not attached to a local church,” as in the prelates of the Roman Curia.

After responding to a victim’s question at a 1996 press conference that “Rome” could’ve been more helpful in dealing with the crisis, Robinson said that he was reported to the Holy See, and his comments eventually passed along to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“I felt personally hurt by this criticism of the only truthful reply I could have given to a room full of victims,” he recalled. “[B]ut it also led me to the conclusion that an authority that had to be defended in a manner as heavy as this must have had serious doubts about its own response to abuse.”

Matters, he wrote, got to the point where, “I eventually came to the point where I felt that, with the thoughts that were running through my head, I could not continue to be a bishop of a church about which I had such profound reservations.” Once viewed as a potential successor to Sydney’s Cardinal Edward Clancy, only after resigning early at age 66 in 2004 – with “ill health” the reason given at the time – did he approach the book project.

“Granted the present structures of the church,” he writes, “what we must cry out for is a pope who will say publicly, ‘Yes, I am genuinely serious about confronting both abuse and the response to abuse, and I will ruthlessly change whatever needs to be changed in order to overcome both of these problems. Please help me to identify all contributing causes.’”

“There has never been a perfect church and there never will be,” the introduction closes. “I must always work within an imperfect church, and must never forget that I am myself an imperfect member of that imperfect church, contributing my problems and failures as well as my assistance.

“Sometimes, however, circumstances can arise where there is only a fine line between accepting that I must work within an imperfect church and becoming complicit in the harm that those imperfections are causing to people.”

Responding to a reporter’s question earlier this week about an investigation of alleged abuse at a Turin school run by his Salesian order, the Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said that media coverage of the inquest was “shameful” and "a false way to present the Church, as if you presented a dark fragment of the great Sistine Chapel.”

"Sometimes it seems like there is a plan [to the press coverage]," the Vatican’s second-in-command told Vatican Radio in an interview. As secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 12 years under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Bertone played a leading role in the Holy See’s response to the abuse crises which, during his tenure at the dicastery, also rocked the church’s strongholds in Ireland and the US.

To see the Salesian school “always” in newspapers and on television in response to the allegations “is absolutely something to condemn," the cardinal – an alumnus of the institute – said. On his trip to Nashville earlier this month, Bertone responded to a reporter’s question on the American handling of the issue by noting that while “of the 44,000 priests in the United States, the percentage of those who have been involved in this in these scandals is very small,” the “business created” by the revelations (a term seen to refer to victims’ attorneys) was “really unbearable,” he said.

Robinson’s book will formally be launched on Sunday in the crypt of a Sydney church. A slate of high-profile appearances in the Australian media will follow.