The editor of Catholica, Brian Coyne, presents this report of the inaugural Australasian Clergy Abuse, Reparation & Prevention Conference held in Sydney last Friday.
Healing the victims of clerical sexual abuse and
by Brian Coyne
As an observer of the inaugural Australasian Clergy Abuse, Reparation & Prevention Conference held last Friday the overwhelming sense I came away with was this was an important symbolic step in giving back to the victims of clerical abuse a sense of control in their lives. No, that's not quite correct — nobody was "giving" them anything — what was critically important about this Conference is that it was victims of clerical sexual abuse claiming back for themselves some measure of control. It wasn't a large gathering — 50-60 were registered — but it was important because it represented what might be termed an "emerging leadership" amongst victims. Most of the most public voices on behalf of victims were represented there. What has also significant about this conference is that the victim's leaders are now reaching out in the community and attracting the moral and financial support of people in the corporate world and government to become a more effective and powerful voice of advocacy on behalf of victims.
In one sense this was not a Conference where anyone learned anything new. It was more an opportunity for networking — and not just locally but on an international canvas. The Conference was addressed by a number of speakers who have flown in from the UK, Ireland and the United States. For a full list of Conference speakers and their subject areas see the Conference program HERE.
The Conference had a major input from women — and unfortunately my report is not going to reflect that because I want to concentrate on the addresses by Bishop Geoff Robinson and Fr Tom Doyle as I have a sense they are the ones, as "insiders of the institution", who probably still carry weight to influence internal opinion at the leadership levels in the institutional Church. Both of them though made the point strongly in their addresses that ultimately more power does have to be handed over to women if the scandal and damage caused by clerical sexual abuse is to be brought to an end.
The Conference was held at the historic Mint Building in Macquarie Street, Sydney. At lunchtime the delegates to the conference moved next door to the grounds of the old Convict Barrack's for the launch of Forget Me Knot Day where they were joined by many more people. There were a string of addresses at both the conference and at the launch from people "sharing their stories" of how they lives had been affected by the abuse they had been subjected to.
The scandal of clerical sexual abuse is that it is one of the worse negations that it is possible to contemplate of the Christian mission of the Church to be protecting the most vulnerable and powerless in society. It has led to an enormous crisis in the insitutional churches for two reasons: the first is the abuse itself. That was bad enough in itself but the damage was extended, and the crisis deepened, by the responses of authorities who, instead of acknowledging the criminal behaviour, and helping the victims, endeavoured to cover it up and protect their own prestige or the prestige of the institution. In so many cases the victims of the abuse were "caste out" and their sense of shame and hurt exacerbated. As many of the speakers at the Conference testified, the institution has yet to provide an adequate response that will return the institution and its leadership to a place of respect.
Pope, cardinals don’t need prayer; they need to listen!
One detects in the global air a profound change taking place in society as the extent of the scandal has spread to all continents of the world. The key advocates for reform and change are becoming more direct and vocal in their criticisms of the institution and its leaders. Gone are the days when Bishops, Cardinals and even the Pope could shelter behind the traditional courtesies that were extended to men of the cloth. Coinciding with his appearance in Sydney, Fr Tom Doyle, has this week had published in National Catholic Reporter one of the strongest criticisms yet of the direction being pursued by the current Pope and his advisers [SEE: "Pope, cardinals don't need prayer; they need to listen"]. Fr Doyle's criticism has been matched by a column written by Eugene Cullen Kennedy critical of the forthcoming convocation of the world's cardinals called by Pope Benedict to "reflect and pray" about sex abuse [SEE: "Sex abuse doesn't top cardinals' agenda – literally"].
The increasing impatience of commentators like Fr Doyle and Dr Cullen Kennedy is reflected by other writers now on the international canvas. Will it be powerful enough to change the culture at the highest and deepest levels of the institutional churches? Don't hold your breath. As both Bishop Geoffrey Robinson and Fr Tom Doyle in the video clips from the conference included on this page suggest, the culture that has led to this crisis has been centuries in the making.
The firming perspective of Bishop Robinson...
Bishop Robinson's address to the Conference is largely the text from a forthcoming book to be published in the U.S. looking at the abuse crisis. For understandable reasons we are unable to bring you the full address here. To this writer though, the address marked a firming of the resolve and the thinking of Bishop Robinson in his efforts to help force a more mature and intelligent response from the institution. As we see with his co-keynote speaker Tom Doyle's comments in NCR in recent days, the "gloves are coming off" in the criticisms of who and what is responsible for this crisis which today not only brings shame to the bishops, the cardinals and to the pope but to every person who has been baptised as a follower of Jesus Christ who taught us to have especial care for children.
Let me try and summarise what Bishop Robinson had to say. He is putting forward a check-list of twelve major points that he believes need to be addressed by the institutional church (in his case the Catholic Church but, as he says, some of the points also extend to other institutions in society who have been tainted by similar scandals). His focus is not so much on "saving the Church, or his fellow bishops from further scandal" so much as a three-position focus: (i) on returning victims of abuse to a position of healing and equilibrium where, if possible they can resume their lives without constantly being dragged down by what was done to them. (ii) His focus is in preventing, as far as humanly possible, abuse happening again but, if it does, there are mechanisms in place to respond to the needs of the victims as the first priority. (iii) Running through what he has to say I think one can detect this continuing deep love for Jesus and his message and a desire to return the institution to the point where it is again an effective agent in the world from preaching the true "good news" of Jesus Christ.
Here, in summary form, are the twelve areas that Bishop Robinson suggests need to be addressed:
The foregoing are my words rather than Bishop Robinson's seeking to explain in a short space the arguments he will be presenting in the forthcoming book. (His address on Friday, I suspect, was itself a considerable condensation of the text that will appear in the book — particularly as he moved towards the end of his address.)
Here is the small 3m 57s segment of his half hour address which gives a flavour of his presentation.
Fr Tom Doyle's address...
Fr Tom Doyle gave an even longer address to the Conference which partly traced the history of the unfolding the clerical sexual abuse scandal and ended with some perspectives on the present situation and words for advice that might be useful as the leaders of these various initiatives in Australia seek to chart a pathway into the future. I've selected this short 5m 40s segment from his address as it is reflective of the changing tone of criticism directed at the leadership of the institutional church. Drafted on the other side of the Pacific Ocean to where Bishop Robinson resides, I suggest is reflects something of the convergence of thinking that is emerging around the world since the inadequate responses to the situation in Ireland that began before Easter this year.
Brian Coyne, 15 Nov 2010
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