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Francis Sullivan's Address at the Diocesan Assembly - Saturday 3 June 2017

francis sullivan


Sometimes the facts do more than speak for themselves. They cut through the confected edifice of an institution more obsessed with its image than its ethos.

Such is the case with the Catholic Church and the scandal of the sexual abuse of children by priests and brothers.

The Royal Commission has revealed that over a period from 1950 till 2010,

4440 individuals alleged abuse by 1880 perpetrators in more than 1000 Catholic Church institutions.

Since it is well known that most people never come forward to tell of their childhood sexual abuse and that only 1 in 6 ever tell anyone, the extent of abuse in the Catholic Church is far higher than the reported figures.

This is a scandal and a hypocrisy unparalleled in the history of the Catholic Church in Australia.

It has cut to the very heart of the Church, demoralised its followers and threatens to erode its public voice for generations.

Already allegiance to the Church is waning, attendances are down to record lows and the public voice of the Church is increasingly shrill and irrelevant.

The days of the all powerful Catholic Church are well past. And with it the influence as a moral persuader has been damaged, if not irreparably for at least a generation to come.

The mere fact that I can stand here this evening and say these things and have the sense that they resonate with so many of you in this room speaks volumes for the present state of things.

Confronting the Church about its sex abuse history is like questioning your parentage.

It is an affront to image, respect and integrity. It calls for a candid and at times threatening conversation.

For decades in Australia the Church has been outright dishonest about the history of abuse of children.

Firstly there was silence and complicity to cover up the facts, the perpetrators and the way victims were managed.

The Royal Commission’s data report on the Catholic Church actually shows that in some years the percentage of alleged perpetrators within the ranks of some male religious orders numbered as high as 40 percent.

Amongst other things this means that these men were in positions of influence, maybe even on leadership teams, where decisions were taken about managing cases of abuse and the perpetrators themselves.

This only led to corruption of processes, concealment of facts, secrecy and a lack of accountability by the leaders.

The plain truth of the matter is that it has taken the courage of victims and their families to out the Church. Only when victims have gone public has the Church sprung into any obvious action.

Of course the knee jerked, tried and true reaction was to blame the victims and the secular press.

The allegations were vexatious and the media was on a campaign to weaken the influence of the Church.

There are still voices like that in parts of the Church and they have their media barrackers as well.

Next came the lawyers. True to their profession they ran interference to safeguard their clients. Aggressive litigation tactics, paltry cash settlements and suffocating confidentiality agreements were par for the course.

The might of the Church was used to silence the victims and keep them from the courts.

The less the police were involved the better.

Since those days there have been the brave and good souls within the Church who have placed on the public record the mismanagement and cover ups. They have pushed for victim focused protocols on complaints handling and compensation. They have pushed for public apologies from officials and for more accountability and transparency.

But it was all a bit half hearted. Still the Church leadership sought to present the scandal as being the result of the ‘bad apples’ in the bunch. There was never any unconditional recognition that the leaders themselves had been complicit and concealed the facts from the authorities and the public.

Fast forward to the Royal Commission.

The glare of public scrutiny has laid bare the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.

Church leader after church leader has had to admit that there was cover up, the active moving of perpetrators from parish to parish, job to job and that decisions were taken in secrecy far removed from the police and official authorities.

In short, bishops and religious leaders had to admit that the image of the Church meant more to the leadership that the welfare of children.

You couldn’t get a more morally bereft and ethically corrupt circumstance for a religious organisation.

So, where to from here?

Now is a time to become a listening Church.

The easy way, even the more familiar way is to become divisive. We risk playing the ‘blame game’ with the past. We can become stuck over the anger we have with the way things were or with what may still be the case. We can point to a church and its culture that has over managed and controlled not only its operations but its people.

These were days when clericalism ran unchecked. Where power was abused and those in positions of influence and authority misused their privileged status.

We can all relate to the days when clerics were never questioned, where bishops and advisors were tolerated but never challenged and where the ‘pecking order’ between lay people and the clergy was clear and immutable.

However, there is another more healthy approach.

The sex abuse scandal actually is our pathway to save the Church from itself.

First and foremost the scandal is not about the Church. It is about the victims. Responding to victims properly should be our only goal, not restoring the credibility of the Church. If the credibility of the Church is our concern then once again the Church’s interest and image has become the priority. No, the way forward is to unconditionally be with and to stay alongside the victims. This is the Jesus option. It must be ours too.

In practical ways it requires a pastoral disposition of simplicity, sincerity and silence.

There is no need to over complicate the relationship with victims. They need to sense our sincerity of heart and notice that we are not trying to fill any awkwardness with words, platitudes or empty promises.

I think this is what a listening Church is about. One that is present and attentive, quiet and affirming. One that is open to the change that is knocking at its door. One that actually has its doors permanently open!

We need to accept that many victims not only were disbelieved by the Church, they also felt discrimination and rejection. The might of the Church turned victims into vandals. The powerful interests in the Church scandalised the victims and made out that their claims for justice would ruin the Church and as such had to be resisted on moral grounds alone.

A more corrupt scenario would be hard to find.

Sure there will be some commentators and interests who will persist in casting the Royal Commission as a political hachett job on the Church. In my mind they have lost the plot.

Any sensible strategic planning exercise does not quibble with perceptions but understands that ‘perceptions are reality’.

The Church has to face head on how it is perceived and why its credibility has been so damaged. A self inflicted wound no doubt that can only be cured with self imposed medicine.

The cultural factors that entrench power and privilege and limits participation in the exercising of authority are at the heart of the problem.

The Church in Australia is still structured like a medieval realm. Only men can occupy positions at the top and only men can make the most important decisions around personnel appointments and succession to rule.

Overly strict and restrictive applications of moral codes can condemn people rather than liberate them. This only builds resentment, rage and disengagement.

A rigid church /state engagement has become too brittle and far too uncompromising when a more reasonable stance is not only legitimate for the Church to adopt but is equally more prudent.

Sadly though at this time there are still those who choose the barricades rather than in the words of Pope Francis being a field hospital. That is in the thick of things, accepting the mess and uncertainty because the casualties are more important that than the war.

The Catholic Church in Australia very much needs to soul search. It needs to be open and inclusive. Most of all it needs to be relevant.

In our spiritual tradition we are counselled to ‘let go’, even to ‘let die’, our ego constructed identities. The true self is far more humble, receptive to change and engaged with the search for goodness and truth.

I think that this can become our framework to move along in the abuse scandal.

Firstly, it requires an acknowledgement that for our Church it cannot merely be ‘business as usual’. Neither can we allow the Church administration to ‘contain’ the impact of the public inquiries out of a fear that those who remain loyal to the Church will become demoralised or worse.

We have to humbly examine how we are being perceived by those damaged in their encounters with the Church.

That is, we need to be open to the way we are arrogant, self righteous and judgemental.

Also our openness goes to the dispositions and attitudes we bring to those who disagree with us, or have issue with us and that can seem irrational, unjustified even spiteful.

Secondly, we need to be a vulnerable Church. Let’s stop being in the ‘giving answers’ to life mode and become more a resource to do life. Let’s genuinely engage others on their terms, not ours. That means with no ideological agenda. No ‘capture mentality’ dressed up as evangelism or religious education.  Rather, let’s try and articulate a contemporary spirituality that is based on the emerging consciousness of Christ in our times.

To take on such a disposition the Church leadership needs to stand shoulder to shoulder with lay people, gazing in the same direction seeking the same results.

There is no time to retreat into identity politics and conservative versus liberal camps. Neither is it helpful to pitch Church leaders against the rest.

The truth is, this is not just a leadership issue. It is our issue. Our leaders need to be responsive and open. We need to be discerning and open.

Our leaders need to let go of what is not working, we need to embrace change that can work.

Our leaders need to seek a Church that is relevant, we need to respond to the call of faith.

Our leaders need to step up and we need to stand with them shoulder to shoulder.

Most importantly, we need to be a listening Church. These are dangerous times for our Church.

Many have left already. Among those who stay there will be calls in some quarters to ‘just settle down and regroup’. Others will try and rally the troops to ‘ show that the Church is far more than the evils revealed at the Royal Commission’. Even others will want to circle the wagons and ‘wait for better days’.

None of this will work.

Any genuine healing for our Church requires open dialogue and recognition of the pain experienced at all levels within the faithful, both those present and those who have drifted or run away.

We need to have the courage to discuss what has for too often been kept off the table. We need to embrace pain and discomfort as the opportunity for healing and growth.

And having the courage to live with uncertainty, even silence, as new ways, directions emerge will be essential.

This is not a new call. The very fact that it is not a new call is telling in itself.

That said, our time to be imaginative and open to the promptings of the Spirit has well and truly arrived. Let us take up the challenge of Pope Francis and be a Church that is engaged, inclusive and messy.

A Church that listens before speaking. Understands before judging and seeks to be relevant rather than set apart.

Francis Sullivan
3 June 2017
Fairy Meadow  

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