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Turning dialogue into action – summit about tackling abuse needs to be more than just words

Difficult decisions: “There might be certain things that work well in Australia, but might not work necessarily in places like Africa or Asia.”

BRISBANE Archbishop Mark Coleridge has appealed for concerted Church action and cultural change ahead of the summit on clerical sexual abuse Pope Francis has called for February 21-24 for the presidents of bishops’ conferences around the world.

 “There will be many words spoken in discussion, in prayer and so on, but if those words don’t give birth to action and this meeting is just a one-off then it will become the kind of window dressing that many people, including survivors, fear it will be,” Archbishop Coleridge said as he prepared to fly to Rome as Australia’s representative amongst more than 100 bishops.

“I don’t expect for a moment that we’ll do all this in four days.  

“The meeting will have to be part of a long journey with many steps into the future, and I’ll be keen to see what actions are proposed beyond the meeting.  

“We’ll ask how we might forge a culture which is more accountable, more transparent and more inclusive – and therefore safer for all.” 

Survivors of abuse will be present at the summit, and Archbishop Coleridge said listening to their voices would be “critical”.

“I’ve been listening to survivors for over 25 years; it’s been one of the most difficult and decisive experiences of my life,” he said.

“I’ve never listened to survivors in an extraordinary context like this; and here I’m bound to hear new things from them and to learn in new ways.”  

Archbishop Coleridge said in preparation for the meeting he had provided organisers with a comprehensive account of how the Church in Australia had addressed the issue of child sexual abuse and cover-up, including the experience of a five-year Royal Commission “that produced a massive report with a parade of recommendations”.

“Our response to abuse and its cover-up began long before the Royal Commission saw the light of day; but it provided a mighty impetus for awareness and action,” he said. “It provides key elements of a roadmap into the future.

“In preparation for this meeting, we’ve provided to people in Rome an account of what we have learnt, what we have done and what we have still to do.”

Archbishop Coleridge stressed the importance of listening to the experiences of other bishops and respecting the diversity that existed in the Church from culture to culture.

“There might be certain things that work well in Australia, but might not work necessarily in places like Africa or Asia,” he said. “At this meeting those of us who have been through the mill and are still going through the mill shouldn’t start lecturing others about what it all means and telling them what they should be doing.  

“We have our story to share, yes; but we’ll need to be humble enough to listen to others and to resist the tendency to indulge in what’s called over here ‘ideological colonisation’ which can be a failing of the West.  

“That’s certainly how I’ll approach these days in Rome – speak, yes, when the time comes, but listen first.”

Archbishop Coleridge said it had taken him a long time to see that if the Church was to comprehensively deal with sexual abuse and cover-up, cultural change was needed.

“For me over the years, it’s been a journey from seeing abuse as a sin to seeing it as a crime and then finally seeing it as a culture – by which I mean that abuse and its cover-up were aggravated and probably caused by cultural elements in the Catholic Church,” he said. 

“It took me a long time to see that and to see therefore the need for cultural change if we are to go to the root of the crisis and not just treat the symptoms.  

“In Rome we’ll reflect upon the cultural changes needed in the Church and how they might be brought about.”

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