Text of article by Archbishop John Bathersby in Brisbane Courier-Mail, Monday 22 April 2002
On Thursday I returned from an Archdiocesan Priests' Assembly at Caloundra. Planned several years ago as a lead up to the first Archdiocesan Synod in 2003, the Assembly attracted the largest gathering of Priests since the Assembly of 1983. Numbers were almost the same, boosted this time by a significant number of Order-based Priests. Despite a scarcity of young Priests, and a disproportionate number of older ones, the gathering was filled with hope and optimism. Falling Church attendance and worldwide sexual abuse scandals hung like a cloud over the discussions but did not destroy a sense of optimism about the Church's future mission.
Nevertheless the recent resignation of Catholic Bishops over sex scandals in America, England, Ireland, Germany, and elsewhere has certainly shaken the confidence of Priests and people alike, leaving us all wondering what on earth has gone wrong. A prominent Catholic lay man said to me recently: "Archbishop it will take the Catholic Church twenty years to recover from this scandal". I thought his timeframe optimistic. At the same time there is an enormous willingness today by Bishops, Priests, and Lay people to tackle the Church's challenges effectively, especially those of sexual misbehaviour. Unless that problem is faced openly Church attendance will continue to decline and Church witness will fail, despite the good work that the Church has done and continues to do in the midst of society at a religious and social level. The problems of the Church are not the problems of a few but the problems of all.
Sexual misbehaviour is by no means a simple problem. It is complex and multi-faceted, one part, I believe, of a larger problem that demands urgent attention. Effective disclosure of criminal behaviour, adequate and generous treatment of victims, intensive screening of and adequate preparation for ordained ministry and religious life, comprehensive education about and prevention strategies in families, and effective protocols, are all needed if there is to be an adequate response to this most horrible of crimes.
But perhaps a greater need, and I can only speak from a Roman Catholic point of view, is for the Church to have a good look a itself, not only the adequacy of its structures and the integrity of its Ministers, but most importantly the soundness of its theology. It seems to me that the problem of the Church is not so much one of predatory sexuality but of power, which has a subtle tendency to convince religious leaders that they are free of the constraints that binds lesser mortals, because of their elevated calling. Sadly such delusions often lead to inappropriate exploitation in areas of sexuality. To try to overturn such attitudes the Church must return to its origins, to Christ and the style of leadership He advocated for His followers. His most significant gesture, found in the Gospel of John, shows Him washing the feet of His disciples. It is a most powerful symbol for Church, and indeed all leaders, but sadly one that although recoginzed is often neglected.
A tension between service and power was present even among the Apostles and seems to have existed in the Church ever since, not at all helped by the Christian conversion of Constantine in the fourth century. The recent Second Vatican Council tried to remedy the situation when it proposed a theology of Church as "communion" and "people of God", where leadership was not over and above the community but rather at its heart. It is a lesson that Church people find difficult to understand, because once inappropriate power is grasped it is extremely difficult to relinquish. Nevertheless there are significant signs of hope and the Presbyteral gathering at Caloundra during the week was such a sign. Until one learns the servant model of leadership espoused by Christ the Church will continue to be afflicted by problems that undermine its mission of good news.
For me that is the very heart of the problem that confronts the Church today, whose probing by the media no matter how aggressively should not be resented but welcomed. After all, the Church does claim the high moral ground of good news, and some of the news coming out of the Churches at the present time is decidedly not good. If the Church wishes to engage the world, as I believe it must, then it needs to come warts and all and should not resent disclosure of its dark side. For too long some Church people have used inappropriate models of leadership whose weaknesses are only now becoming manifest, sadly in the most sensitive area possible, the violation of children.
For me that is the crux of the problem, partially revealed by the close attention of the media at the present time, in which I believe the Holy Spirit is not absent. Until the Church moves closer to the ideal chosen by Christ and elaborated more recently at the Second Vatican Council, then it must do everything in its power to overcome present problems with all the honesty, transparency, and resources that it can muster. To do anything less is to betray the mission of Christ who came that all people, especially the little ones of the world, might have life and life in its fullness.