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Dysfunctional Church stares into the abuse abyss

November 28, 2012 ·  , Michael Kelly November 26, 2012


Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities begins: ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’ If we take St Paul seriously, the worst of times can be the best of times for Christians. In his biblical account of faith, he sees adversity, trial, rejection and hardship as the nodal points for growth. ‘We have no other boast but the Cross.’

This time in the Church in Australia is tragic. The intervention by Cardinal Pell in mid-November highlighted an all too familiar pattern of defensiveness that generated plenty of heat, lots of ‘I told you so’ observations from his critics and no advance in understanding that this is a time of unmatched shame for the Church.

Fortunately, other voices among the bishops — and not just retired ones  — have weighed in with appropriate contrition and compassion.

While countless Catholics, me among them, feel nothing but shame and sorrow at both the abuse of victims and its insensitive and selfish handling by authorities in dioceses and religious congregations, it is far from clear how best an ordinary Catholic could and should respond to this spectacle of culpability.

Many I have talked to in recent weeks are dismayed, questioning why they should ever again bother to identify as Catholics. Kristina Keneally posed the dilemma that faces informed Catholics seeking to raise children in the faith. Many employed by the Church find it hard to imagine the next step to take.


May I make three suggestions.

First, from adolescence I have been guided by the advice of an old Jesuit who responded to my description of the pettiness, fear and cowardliness of some members of the Jesuit community I was in at the time. ‘You’re a strange sort of Christian if you are overwhelmed by the scandalous deeds of others,’ he told me.

That brought me up short. He wasn’t denying the dilapidated humanity, absence of faith and hope, and outright lovelessness in what I had told him. He just fronted me with the brutal reality everyone has to face at such a time. In a succinct way he was asking me: After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

That leads to the second response I would propose. The only reason Christians can look on human depravity and not succumb before it is that their faith is in a crucified Lord. Without it, we would be well advised to agree that nihilism is the only adequate way of thinking about and responding to our own and others’ evil.

From the first page of the Old Testament, God is proclaimed as one who makes something out of nothing. And the black hole that is the horror of sex abuse is a ‘nothing’, an abyss of darkness into which we stare, undermining any confidence we might have had in anyone’s good intentions.

The evidence of depravity in the Church should only surprise the naïve. But whether we are naïve, jaundiced or just bewildered, each of us has to reckon with our experience, absorb the pain and pray in our powerlessness for the transforming power of God to do what we can’t do ourselves.

But there’s something else that needs to happen beyond our personal search for meaning in this mess. Catholics are part of something social — the community of faith. Admirable and desired as a personal change of heart may be, it remains incomplete unless it extends to how ordinary Catholics live where we live — in the Church.

You don’t have to be a business consultant to know that the Church internationally and locally leads a confused life with an incoherent sense of identity and purpose, poorly led and frequently mismanaged. Rome is regularly told by the rank and file across the Western world that it is out of touch with the membership, and local bishops are seen and often behave as branch managers of a poorly administered, centralised multinational corporation.

Just look at the most outstanding instance of ‘disconnect’ in Church governance in the last year — the sacking of Bill Morris as bishop of Toowoomba. Morris was sacked on evidence that amounted, in the Opinion of a retired Queensland Supreme Court Judge, to ‘hearsay and gossip’. The Australian bishops promised to engage robustly with the relevant Vatican officials about the matter, but found that the officials weren’t open to discussion.

Such parlour games are seen for what they are, and show that incoherence, mismanagement and incompetence are right through the organisation. There won’t be healing of the community of faith until there is systemic change that fixes the culture in which mismanagement thrives and transparency is lacking.

It is about time for the Australian Church’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As sure as the sun rises in the east, it will bring as much of ‘the Cross’ as the Royal Commission will. But then, as St Paul told us, that is the way we grow in faith.

Fr Michael Kelly SJ, founding publisher of Eureka Street, is the Bangkok based executive director of UCA News and was, in the 1980s, executive director of the Jesuits’ Asian Bureau Australia.


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