BRISBANE Archbishop Mark Coleridge has described the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church as “a global emergency”, and a Vatican summit this week “requires a global response”.
For Archbishop Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, and finding himself under a global media spotlight in Rome as the summit begins, the urgency of the abuse crisis requires concrete, immediate action.
“The time for words is long, long past,” Archbishop Coleridge said, fronting journalists assembled in his hotel.
He will join more than 200 Catholic bishops from around the world at the summit from February 21-24 to address the issue of clergy sexual abuse.
The experience of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is fresh in Archbishop Coleridge’s memory.
It uncovered widespread abuse at the hands of priests and cover-up within the Church hierarchy.
“I think the Church has failed lamentably and therefore we have to cop whatever criticism comes our way, deal with it in a way that doesn’t cause paralysis and paranoia but does prompt us to action,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“I bring to the meeting my experience of meeting with victims over about 25 years which has been one of the most decisive and difficult experiences of my life, and it’s convinced me that until you’ve sat across the table from a victim of abuse and copped the rage and the grief … you don’t know what you are talking about.”
Archbishop Coleridge speculated that some decision-makers in Rome may understand abuse “theoretically but not viscerally”.
“And it has to be understood viscerally,” he said.
Archbishop Coleridge said “concrete action” needed to address issues of law, accountability of bishops and the formation of priests and religious persons.
Firstly, the law:
“We will have to look at the alignment of canon and civil law in places like Australia and if there is a tension that has to be dealt with,” he said.
Accountability of bishops:
“Traditionally bishops like me have only been accountable to the Holy See. Now, that system has not worked …” he said.
“The practical question is what is a workable mechanism to ensure proper accountability for bishops, particularly bishops who have been derelict in this issue of child protection.”
Formation of priests:
“They are real, practical questions that we have come to in Australia, and in other countries, through bitter experience,” he said.
“I will speak, because we certainly have our story to tell, but I will listen before I speak.”
Zero tolerance for abuse:
“No priest … at least in Australia, who has been found guilty of abuse would ever be returned to public ministry … permanently and totally,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
In addition to participating in the meeting, Archbishop Coleridge will have a personal moment in the spotlight, delivering the homily during the final Mass, ahead of Pope Francis’ remarks closing the summit.
“My homily will be in general, precisely upon power,” he said.
The homily was to be delivered in Italian (Archbishop Coleridge is a fluent speaker) but has been changed to English, perhaps because of the intense, worldwide interest in the summit.