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Leading Catholic figure Francis Sullivan calling for changes after sex abuse crisis

Francis Sullivan: “We need to dream of an engaged, vibrant and relevant church that is reflected not just in its outreach but more importantly in its manner, disposition and basic humanity.”

LEADING Catholic figure Francis Sullivan has criticised Church authorities for a “glaring lack of moral leadership” over the child sex abuse crisis and has called for the Church to change its “terms of engagement” if it is to remain relevant and engaged in Australia.

“Unless we break the shackles of entitlement and cronyism, become inclusive and more representative in our decision-making we risk losing any claim to renewal and reform,” Mr Sullivan, former chief executive officer of the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, told the biennial Catholic Social Services national conference in Melbourne on February 27.

“In a society that regards religion as just another lifestyle choice at best, we need to resist trying to pump air into old tyres that have run their course.

“We need to dream of an engaged, vibrant and relevant church that is reflected not just in its outreach but more importantly in its manner, disposition and basic humanity.”

In a keynote speech to the conference, Mr Sullivan lamented the state of the Church in Australia, and pinpointed a way forward, particularly for Catholic social service agencies aiming to serve the most vulnerable.

“If the Church is not primarily missionary then it will become ossified as a propositional institution, out of touch and out of time,” he said. “Taking the side of impoverished and disenfranchised people is not an option for Gospel-inspired organisations. It is a mainstay of the mission.”

Mr Sullivan (pictured) is qualified to speak out after five years leading the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council during the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse. 

Prior to that, he was secretary-general of the Australian Medical Association following 14 years as chief executive officer of Catholic Health Australia.

In his keynote address, he spoke of the reputational damage suffered by the Church after the royal commission, and by service organisations with no direct link with the abuse scandal.

“The sex abuse scandal made it abundantly plain that when the institution is threatened it closes ranks, manages its risks and does not act and speak out of its heart but strategises out of its head,” he said.

“Only a heart-driven Church will have any chance of relating beyond its increasingly narrowing base.

“Secondly, the scandal revealed just how ‘victim friendly’ the institution really is. It was rare to hear of occasions where victims were believed rather than tolerated. 

“To hear where victims were assisted to make their case rather than interrogated in order to be found wanting. 

“To hear where the Church authorities were transparent and pastoral rather than cautious and reliant solely on legal and insurance advice. 

“It was also rare to learn of cases where the Church authorities sought confidential compliance from victims rather than overt reporting to the police.

“Only a Church that walks along with victims and risks becoming a victim with them can resonate the spirit of Jesus and the dream of the Gospel.”

Mr Sullivan spoke of the “brand damage” and “a loss of trust” that had resulted from the revelations of the royal commission, despite the good works carried out by Church social service, health care, pastoral support and education agencies.

“These organisations have no direct link with the sex abuse scandal but now they are in line to pay the consequences,” he said.

“That said, I believe the bigger concern is the risk that leaders will ‘circle the wagons’, seek to regroup and then substantially continue on without any significant change. And that change is primarily about our heart.”

Mr Sullivan warned culture change should not fall to “those inside the Church bubble”, and he identified the main change mechanisms: “sensible power-sharing” between clergy and laity, the promotion of women into governance roles and the democratising of administrative functions such that local parishes and communities are trusted to design and oversee ministries to meet very local needs.

He also spoke of  “the signs of our times” calling the Church to rediscover within its tradition this more pastoral approach. 

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