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Ethicist hoping workshop in Rome will pave a theological response to abuse crisis

Taking action: Professor Hans Zollner, whois president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Gregorian University, is one of the organisers of a three-day workshop on the Church’s child abuse crisis next month in Rome. Photo: CNS

A LEADING Australian ethicist believes the Church has a long way to go in resolving the child sexual abuse crisis – and he’s hoping a high-level workshop in Rome will strengthen a theological approach to the issue.

“We’re only on the cusp of responding to this crisis,” Dr Dan Fleming, a moral theologian working for St Vincent’s Health Australia, said. 

Dr Fleming (pictured below) is one of four Australian theologians picked to attend a three-day workshop at Rome’s Gregorian University in March, focusing on understanding and responding to the crisis.

“I see good and hopeful work in some places, the distance between rhetoric and action in others, and an eerie silence and unacceptable lack of resolve in others still,” he said. 

“I hope that the theological work undertaken in Rome will support a more comprehensive response.

“I hope the gathering will address a huge gap in analysis and response to this crisis, and contribute constructively to ensuring that the Church is a safe place which upholds and demonstrates its commitments to the dignity of all people, and its special concern for the most vulnerable.”

Another Australian attending the Rome workshop, Sydney College of Divinity executive officer Dr Neil Ormerod, said the Church’s sexual abuse crisis represented “a failure of mission”.

Dr Ormerod will present a paper on how the Church’s mission should be guiding “the reform that we need to undertake”.

“We either suffer the pain of ongoing scandal, or we suffer the pain of transforming the Church in the way it needs to go, towards greater accountability, changing cultures and power,” he said.

“It’s a choice – one of those paths is redemptive and the other will just be repetition.

“My focus is how the institution and cultural problems we are experiencing represent a failure in the Church to attend to its mission.

“Institutionally, a lack of transparency and accountability; at a cultural level we can look at issues of clericalism, that Pope Francis has spoken so much about, and at the personal, moral level … well, that is a very profound mystery about the relationship between sin and grace and freedom.

“It’s an issue of how are our people formed morally and spiritually.”

Organisers of the three-day workshop, including Jesuit Father James Keenan, a professor from Boston College; and Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a professor who is president of the Centre for Child Protection, in the Gregorian University, have invited more than 70 leading ecclesiologists and ethicists from around the world – including lay women and men, religious and priests.

The meeting has been called a “laboratory” to emphasise active engagement of all participants in advancing theological thought, reflection and leadership in response to the crisis, with a view to supporting the global Church in its response. 

Five topics will be considered – sin and crimes; the image of the Church; priesthood including the sacrament of orders; sexuality and vulnerability; and the Church and the world.

Dr Fleming said the Church had a rich tradition promoting human dignity, with “every person created in the image and likeness of God, without exception”.

“And yet, we have this whole history of horrifying abuse and its cover-up: how can that happen?” he said.

“How is (it) that we can claim a tradition of human dignity on the one hand, and then – by act or omission, and the complicity of inaction or cover-up – destroy lives through abuse on the other? 

“One of the conclusions that is emerging for me is that we’ve almost had two belief systems functioning – an explicit one, which upholds this vision of human dignity as key to who we are and what we believe, and an implicit one, which upholds other things as more important (perhaps the reputation of the Church, the fear of scandal, or whatever).

“In a catastrophic way, I think we’ve let these implicit beliefs take over.

“This is why I think the problem needs to be addressed theologically – these are matters of belief, as much as they are matters of law and justice.

“And I think (Brisbane) Archbishop (Mark) Coleridge is exactly right to draw parallels with Matthew 25 on this point (‘just as you did to the least of these, you did also to me’) – here we discover that a key criterion for our faithfulness is the way in which we respond to the vulnerable. 

“This cannot be ‘set aside’ until other matters have been dealt with – it should be core to our faith. 

“And we’ve failed in this regard, which means we’re called to the kind of acknowledgement, repentance and change that is necessary to demonstrate a commitment that this will never happen again.”

Drs Fleming and Ormerod will be accompanied by Australian delegates Fr Richard Lennan, a professor of theology at Boston College, and Fr James McEvoy, a lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University, Adelaide.

Three of these theologians, Fr Lennan,  Fr McEvoy and Dr Ormerod, have already contributed essays on the topic of abuse in special issues of the prestigious Catholic journal, Theological Studies – Fr Lennan on the ecclesiological impact of the scandal; Fr McEvoy on the theology of the child; and Dr Ormerod on the impact that the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has had on the Church.

Dr Fleming and Fr Keenan will edit a book comprising presentations delivered at the Rome workshop.

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