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Crisis talks tell Vatican officials about state of the Church in Australia

Abuse hearing: Senior counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Gail Furness speaks at a hearing in Sydney on February 6. The commission was one of the topics of discussion when Australian Church representatives visited Rome recently.
Photo: CNS/AAP

BRISBANE Archbishop Mark Coleridge has delivered a sobering assessment of the Catholic Church in Australia, “shaken to the core” by the sexual abuse scandal and now facing its “biggest crisis”.

Archbishop Coleridge and fellow Australian Church leaders have just returned from Rome where they held summit talks with senior Church officials over how to address the fallout of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, and how the Church will adopt a new approach – one that will look at how to include women in positions of “governance”.

“The people in Rome really wanted to hear from us face-to-face what we judged to be the state of the Church in Australia at this time,” Archbishop Coleridge said of his meeting with Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who was formerly apostolic nuncio in Australia.

“And as I said to them at the meeting, we are facing the greatest crisis that the Catholic Church has faced in Australia in its relatively brief history.

“The word ‘crisis’ itself means we are under both secular and sacred judgment and we have to respond to that judgment.

“There was no surprise in that for the people in the Vatican because they’ve been dealing with crises for a very long time.”

The Australian contingent also consisted of Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference president Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart and Justice Neville Owen, who chairs the Truth, Justice and Healing Council that has co-ordinated the Church’s engagement with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Archbishop Coleridge said officials were paying “extremely close attention” to the Australian situation.

He said clericalism was at the heart of their discussion about the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse – the fact that Church decision-making was in the hands of too few – “the ordained, all of whom are male and most of whom are celibate”.

Archbishop Coleridge said adopting a new Church approach meant including “women and even some young people in the process of governance – those making the decisions, not just implementing them”.

“It’s to draw upon all the gifts of the Catholic Church, and women make up at least fifty per cent of the Church, and have astonishing gifts,” he said. “So how do we allow the gifts to flourish for the building up of the Church in new ways and the new situation we face?”

In light of the crisis, Archbishop Coleridge said a plenary council to be held in 2020, would be an opportunity for the Church in Australia – “a very important moment” to review its mission including how to give more responsibility to lay people.

It would be the first plenary council held since 1937, when no women, religious or lay people took part.

“It’s clear then that the Church here is passing through a time of deep, painful and permanent change – which is why the bishops have decided for a plenary council, which was also discussed in our meeting in Rome,” Archbishop Coleridge said. “The plenary council will have to make bold decisions about the future.

“Now, that may mean asking questions about what to let go, because at times our structures and strategies of the Church in Australia are based upon the facts of other times.

“And even though they might have worked brilliantly once upon a time they don’t work brilliantly now.”

Archbishop Coleridge described the plenary council as a “process and a journey”, not just an event, and one that was in partnership with the Holy See.

“At the meeting in Rome one of the key questions was ‘how can we in Rome work more effectively with you in Australia to bring the Church beyond the crisis into something better and stronger?’,” he said.

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