The Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse is soon to report back on its findings regarding the Catholic Church in Australia. You may have been surprised, appalled, stunned or mystified by the presentations of some senior clergy and religious at the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse and by the evidence of those who were betrayed by clergy, religious or lay workers. I remain extremely surprised and shocked by some of the stories that emerged.
I have some familiarity with the operations of the Church from around 40 years of working as a layperson in several dioceses in Catholic schooling and in associated senior executive positions. I offer five points for enlightenment to people who might be struggling to understand how the show works. These insights do not excuse the lack of action or the appalling misjudgements that have been made to date. Neither are they a complete description of the Church.
It is feudal 
This is the foundation of all the governance processes. Say what you will about the authority of Rome on certain matters, the reality is that a diocesan bishop is fairly much a law unto himself. He can seek advice as he chooses, share information as he desires and be highly competent or totally incompetent. Overall he is fairly unaccountable for his administrative competencies or how a diocese functions. Accountability is more rigorous with doctrinal matters. Even a local Finance Committee can feel limited when a bishop decides on a certain course of action – that is if the diocese has much in the way of resources.
There is no contemporary role description and no key result areas on which to monitor a bishop’s performance. It can be challenging to find a clear chain of reporting or accountability in a diocese. It can be pretty vague in some places compared with most contemporary organisations. The appointment process of a bishop can appear as fairly clandestine. Some observe it is based upon patronage more often than overall competency. There is no interview process and a known vacancy is rarely filled expeditiously. It can sometimes take over twelve months! One Queensland rural diocese is still awaiting an appointment and it has been over two years since the previous bishop died after a known battle with cancer. There seems to be little forward planning at central governance levels in Rome. The result is that the people of a diocese rejoice when they get a good appointment and batten down the hatches if they get an inadequate appointee.
This flows through to the appointment and the operation of the clergy in local parish settings or their appointment to other executive roles in a diocese. While many of the clergy have good pastoral skills or may have exemplary skills in spiritual development of others, most have little training in administration or in managing what is essentially a small to medium size business, their parish. Some develop such skills via their parishioners – if they are open to this. Some bumble their way through. Very few do relevant post-graduate study. Even trying to get a written response from most clergy to a survey, checking minutes of a meeting, returning phone calls and so on can be a gargantuan task – even for a bishop.
It is family
The best analogy I can give is that many dioceses operate a bit like a family business that has grown without adequate structures and the necessary skill sets being put in place. The bishop is the patriarch but is not the founder. More often than not he has been appointed from outside of the diocese’s “inner clan” and may be still finding acceptability as the boss by some of its members.
The ordained clergy are the “inner clan” and act in the main like the “older uncles” in a family business. Some have more interest in the show than others, some are fantastic and are the ones that keep the show afloat, while others feel that they should have more power than they deserve. Several are on the family payroll because they could not get a job elsewhere. A few avoid family gatherings at any cost. Many of these older uncles present a jaundiced view towards some of the progeny who will replace them in time. They complain that the gene pool has reduced in size and quality and they now have to work hard in the family business long after their schoolmates have retired.
Formalities and structures of meetings, formal agreements and so forth might not be as well developed or processed, similar to a family business that operates feudally more than collaboratively or effectively. Some dioceses resemble the family business that was once successful but has lost its way. The family look externally to lay blame rather than recapturing its core business and redefining its place in contemporary society. This can be true of the broader Church.
Many of the women in the family have little direct influence as in many male dominated family businesses. Some have prodigious indirect influence through benevolence or an innate ability to make sense to the inner clan’s psyche. This is similar to the influence of a matriarch, a respected older sister or aunt. The lay people who support the operations of the family are valued for their expertise and qualities but can also be marginalised by the inner clan expeditiously and without warning. Their advice can be used selectively, or simply ignored without any consequences for so doing.
Finally, the inner clan members often tolerate one another more than directly engaging with one another. They often relate within sub-groups or factions for support or about some aspects of the family business. Only a few may know the full extent of stuff that is “in the family closet”.
It is reactionary
Many lay people see this lack of active monitoring of clergy in parish settings, with its unaccountable culture, to be surprising. A feudal construct creates layers of authority and those lower down have less influence. A diocesan priest does not take vows. At his ordination he makes a promise of obedience to his bishop and the bishop’s successors. In theory he is accountable to the bishop. In reality the bishop needs the priest to work in an increasingly diminishing and ageing work force. There is a serious workforce supply issue. A priest needs to be genuinely accountable to the bishop AND the parish community. It would help if there were a role description with clear processes of accountability.
An organisation that is responsive would have addressed the issues surrounding the work force many years ago. It is not a new issue. The decline in the numbers entering seminaries in Australia commenced in the 1970’s.
Responsive Church leaders would have been proactive when clergy complaints were received. But what do you do when you have a work force issue and you have few replacements? You give the person the benefit of the doubt – again and again it would appear. Otherwise you have to address the real issues about the quality of some clergy and the capability of all of the ordained to be ‘on mission’. Bishops have been generally timid in addressing Rome with these work force supply issues. Rome appears as immovable. The cycle continues.
The other side of the work force issue is that you need to have a clear idea of what the core business is about and what your role is in supporting or promoting this core business or mission. Very few dioceses could articulate a clear direction for the future with an accompanying business plan and associated accountabilities. Some look fondly to the 1950’s as if this era was normative in Australian Church life without understanding society of that time and society now. Many dioceses appear to be in survival mode, with some of the country ones very stretched financially.
It has been preoccupied with sexual repression
Imagine you are part of an outfit that comes across as covering up for, or not acknowledging fully, promiscuity among some of your key workers. These workers also happen to have taken a promise to be celibate. Imagine you are perceived as presenting an uncompromising view towards others about their sexual expression and identity.
What does this look like to outsiders? Are there double standards here? Is there one set of rules for clergy and another for lay people? I suggest that this is what many lay people observe – at least from conversations shared with me over many years.
There appears to have been a curious naivety or prudery among some senior Church officials of earlier times that has engraved a blind spot about clergy impropriety into the leadership culture. Could they not believe it was happening? These leaders themselves were celibate and presumably found the lifestyle suited them. They must have wondered how their colleagues could not have experienced this similarly. I suspect that some of these leaders had a very aesthetic approach to life and were bewildered when faced with accusations about clergy abuse. They might not have understood human sexuality at all. Or had they, through their spiritual exercises, repressed any such thoughts or feelings? Maybe they had a low libido?
I also wonder, but have no evidence for this, if they might have seen sexual abuse of children as a lesser of two evils – at least it was not sex with a woman with all of the possible complications associated with that! I fail to grasp how they did not see it as a criminal activity and indicative of a repressed or inappropriate sexual expression. How could this not be an indicator of the abuser’s commitment to celibacy? Was this ever discussed?
I still suspect some Church leaders today have not realised the depth and strength of broader community feelings and the anger directed towards them and their predecessors on this account. Some have, however it can still be mystifying to talk about this with some other Church leaders. Some still don’t appear to appreciate the viewpoint of double standards, or the links to an immature understanding of or inappropriate expression of sexuality by offenders. This is not an argument for or against celibate clergy. In some ways that is a distraction. It is an argument for real accountability of Catholic clergy, bishops and other leaders to their communities.
If they wish to be heard above the white noise, Church leaders will need to learn how to present views about human sexuality and the Church’s mission in a more positive vein and to place their point of view far more humbly and contritely to the broader community.
I hope they can.
Otherwise they might find themselves stranded within a feudal, bureaucratic, reactionary and struggling family business that is dominated by an inner clan that communicates with an ever-diminishing audience.
‘The mission’ deserves better than this.
Finally, it is about negotiating authority
What I have learnt over my time working full time in Church related organisations is that you need to find out where the authority lies. The Church is not this big corporation with the dioceses, parishes or religious congregations as branch agencies. Each has its own level of authority, distinctiveness and autonomy.
Thus, for example, when a complaint is received was the alleged offender a member of the clergy in a diocese and accountable to the bishop? Or were they a member of a religious congregation and accountable to the congregation leader (e.g. A Marist Brother or a Sister of Mercy)? Or were they a lay employee of one of these bodies?
This is where it gets very complicated for an outsider. An unfortunate interpretation is that the “system” is playing games when, for example, an approach is made to a bishop and he rightly says that you need to contact the congregational leader who might reside in another state. The alleged offender may not come under the bishop’s direct jurisdiction or authority. You can feel that you are being messed with but you need to understand the system itself – and that can be hard, especially at distressing times.
Similarly, the Royal Commission appears to have had difficulty trying to work out the authority of an Auxiliary Bishop (a bishop appointed to assist an Archbishop in a larger Archdiocese). An Auxiliary Bishop only has the degree of authority or responsibility that an Archbishop chooses to give him. In many cases he has less real authority or influence than a Parish Priest. In other instances he might have significant delegated responsibilities.
My maxim overtime in most matters became: who has the authority here, do they know that they have the authority, how well are they using or avoiding this authority, what assistance do they need, how do we move things forward to get an outcome that is respectful to all and in keeping with Jesus’ Mission. I offer Luke’s Gospel (4:17-20) as a succinct way of outlining this Mission.
He stood up to read and the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.”
The eyes of all will be on the Catholic Church in Australia very soon when the Royal Commission places it authoritative gaze upon the outcomes of its deliberations.  How well current Church leaders, lay, ordained and religious, treat this as a line in the sand moment and refocus attention upon the above mission will be a testament to their courage, resoluteness and engagement with core business.
One outcome that is clear, to quote Mark Coleridge, the Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane: “It will not be business as usual.” Let’s hope so.
That would be in keeping with Isaiah, Jesus and Luke.
Otherwise no one will be liberated from these unforgiveable experiences, least of all Church leaders and the many who need release from their captivity and oppression.
Damien F Brennan
30 January 2017