BRISBANE Archbishop Mark Coleridge described the Church as “a law unto ourselves”, and said Pope Francis and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse were catalysts for cultural change.
Archbishop Coleridge was a panellist on the third day of the Royal Commission hearing in Sydney discussing Catholic Church structural and cultural issues, including accountability and transparency.
Archbishop Coleridge said the Church must put a “culture of concealment” behind it.
“The Catholic Church in Australia has at times looked the other way, been a law
unto itself, and seen that it does things its own way,” he said.
Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald asked whether it was too harsh to say the Church in Australia still had not embraced the notion of transparency as good practice.
“I think we have made some advances in the area of transparency, but clearly there’s a great deal of work to be done,” Archbishop Coleridge said. “I think that’s probably true, that we haven’t yet embraced adequately a transparency that is appropriate and even necessary for an unusual community of communities like the Catholic Church.”
Data released on Day 1 of the hearing revealed that 4444 people had made child sex abuse complaints to Australian Catholic authorities between 1980 and February 2015.
It identified 1880 alleged offenders, made up of priests, lay people and religious brothers and sisters.
Archbishop Coleridge said there was recognition among Australian bishops that cultural change was needed and the Church could not put up a sign saying “business as usual” after the Royal Commission.
He said the election of Pope Francis and the Royal Commission had been catalysts for the changing mindset.
“Pope Francis has said that a church that has taken on board serious cultural change is a church which would not only see the faces of those who have been abused but would actually see through their eyes,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
Another panelist on Day 3, University of Sydney law professor Patrick Parkinson, who has been involved in child protection for nearly 30 years, told the commission that Church structure undermined the Church’s capacity to respond to child sexual abuse.
He said mandatory celibacy, combined with emotional and sometimes geographic isolation was causative and explained some of the shocking data.
Prof Parkinson said there was a need to find a way to engage the laity in the organisation and spiritual running of the Church.
People in the public gallery were asked to stop commenting as Archbishop Coleridge talked about bishops not being able to ask priests about their sex lives before allegations of misconduct arose.
He said it would be up to someone like a spiritual director to ask those questions if a priest was not functioning effectively.
“I have no right to ask those questions or, if I do, to expect an answer,” he said.
He made the comments after saying he wasn’t naive enough to think that most priests remained completely celibate.
The Day 3 panel also heard from Catholics for Renewal president Peter Johnstone.
Catholics for Renewal is a group of committed Catholics set up to respond to what they saw as the dysfunctional governance of the Church and its inadequate response to the sexual abuse of children.
Mr Johnstone said the governance of the Church was dysfunctional.
He said it failed to measure up against principles of good governance including accountability, transparency, leadership, listening and aligning the leadership of that organisation with its mission.
He expressed concern that bishops could take decisions in secret without any accountability.
Several times during the panel discussion, Archbishop Coleridge mentioned the significance of a national plenary council planned for 2020, which he said would have the legal teeth to make decisions that would bring about Church change.
“It needs the approval of the Pope just to make sure that it’s in tune with the communion of the universal Church. But, it’s not just a gabfest. It is a decision-making body,” he said.
“My hope is that the plenary council, preparing for it, celebrating it and then implementing it, will be a moment of serious cultural change in the Catholic Church, creating a more synodal, a more communal, a less clerical Church and one that is attentive to the voices of people like those who have suffered sexual abuse.”
Mr Johnstone said leadership change was needed for cultural change to occur and he recommended that the 2020 plenary council be preceded by a series of synods where bishops across Australia listened to the people.
Governance and management consultant Dr Maureen Cleary said the institutional Church had a lot to learn from women religious institutes, which had run a majority of Church-based services.
She said the Royal Commission had shown the clergy had been deficient in keeping up with their own knowledge and formation.
She referred to former Adelaide Archbishop Leonard Faulkner’s successful efforts to share his executive power with lay and religious women, noting that in the Church good things happened because of the presence of good people who were not trapped by clericalism.
Archbishop Coleridge said he adopted a policy of, where possible, preferring to appoint a woman to an executive role in Brisbane archdiocese and that he had built up good relations with religious women.
He said Brisbane archdiocese had made genuine attempts to introduce accountability mechanisms for clergy, referring to the appointment of a Vicar for Priests, priest in charge of clergy, life and ministry as evidence of this.
Truth, Justice and Healing Council chief executive officer Francis Sullivan said the release of data this week into the extent of child sexual abuse in the Australian Catholic Church had been both “a statistical and spiritual ground zero for millions of people around Australia and around the world”.
He said the data has had a devastating impact on the survivors of abuse, on ordinary Catholics and on the broader community.
“The numbers are shocking, tragic, indefensible and an indictment on both the men who perpetrated the abuse and the leaders at the time who covered up these crimes and turned their heads,” Mr Sullivan said.
“While words are important, the commitment of the Catholic Church in Australia to correcting the appalling failures of the past can only be measured through actions and continued vigilance.
“We must continue to acknowledge the past, to accept responsibility, to understand the damage that has been done to survivors, to make the changes and to work tirelessly to ensure the abuse never happens again.”