[Editor’s note: This is part one of Christopher White and Inés San Martín’s conversation with Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, president of the Australian bishops’ conference and the man tapped to deliver the homily closing the Feb. 21-24 Vatican summit on the protection of children.]
ROME — If a high-stakes summit this week on the clerical sexual abuse crisis is to succeed, a leading Australian prelate says, it will require a “Copernican revolution” in Catholic culture with survivors, not clergy, directing the Church’s response.
“The time for words is well and truly past,” said Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane. “What we need now is action.”
For Coleridge, president of the Australian bishops’ conference, reckoning with the fact that the culture of the Catholic Church aggravated, and could perhaps even be a cause of abuse, makes this week’s meeting all the more urgent.
In addition to participating in the meeting, he’ll have his own moment in the spotlight when he delivers the homily during the final Mass, ahead of Pope Francis’s remarks closing the summit.
In an interview with Crux on Tuesday, Coleridge described what his hopes are for this three-day meeting, as well as its limitations, and a small preview of his homily to the 190 participants in this week’s meeting.
What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
Crux: Going into this summit, what are your expectations for what you’d like to take home to Catholics in Australia?
Coleridge: I think the most crucial thing is that this summit meeting be geared to action. The one thing we’ve come to see in Australia is that the time for words is well and truly past. What we need now is action. Action that is taken on board by the universal Church, action from the Holy See, and action from the Holy Father, because there are certain things that the pope as universal pastor and as supreme legislator, only he can do.
It’s not just part of the Church that is called to Church, I think it’s the whole Church. What we’re dealing with is a global emergency that has to be addressed globally.
Now, at the same time, it’s got to be addressed in a way that’s sensitive to the vast cultural differences that make up the universal Church, so that we in Australia and countries that have been through the agony of recent times, such as the USA and Ireland, we have to be careful that we don’t just charge in and say we know what the problem is, we know what the solution is, you sit back and listen to us.
We have our story to tell in Australia. In many ways, it’s unique to us, but there are elements of it that are not unique to us and to the universal Church. We are humbly and tenaciously determined to tell as much of our story that we can tell during this meeting, but equally, in this area of child protection, you realize the more you think you know, the more you need to know; the more you’ve learned, the more you need to learn.
Part of the humility that this meeting will require is that for us in Australia, for all that we’ve been through and are going through, to listen to others. Again, the story of the USA is not our story. There are common elements, but it’s a different story, and we can learn from them, and also the Church in Ireland, but also the churches of Asia and Africa.
We can learn from them all, so I think an important part of this experience of the meeting will be the sharing of stories and listening humbly to each other and asking what in this is a learning for us. In the end, all of that listening and learning will have to lead to action. To think that a three-and-a-half day meeting is going to provide a fully articulated program of action to deal with the global emergency is at best naïve.
The fact is, we will need a fairly clear itinerary into the future and what follows from this meeting is a crucial question. I’ll be very interested to see what the concrete steps into the future are that will be proposed, because if it’s just a one-off meeting a lot of words, not only will it not help, it will do considerable damage.
Even so, given your experience, what do you think the Australian Church can offer the universal Church on this issue?
For me personally, and I think for the Church in Australia, the journey of discovery, which has been an agony of a kind, has been going from seeing child abuse as sin, to seeing it as crime. That itself was a very significant step forward, and that sounds amazing when I say it now, but I have to say it was true.
But then to go from seeing it as crime to go from seeing it involved culture in the Church, took me years, probably decades even to begin to see it, that we are in fact dealing with cultural evidence in the Catholic Church that may or may not have caused abuse and its cover-up but certainly aggravated it but I don’t exclude the culture as a cause either.
If that’s true, the challenge becomes more daunting, more urgent to tackle the cultural factors, and we all know that changing the culture is the most difficult thing of all. I think we can speak out of that story of the journey of discovery that this is about the culture of the Catholic Church, and in particular, the culture of clerical life.
The other thing we can talk about and offer the other churches that will be at the meeting is the need for a kind of conversion that is a Copernican revolution really, that is to see things through the eyes of victims and to hear things from their ears.
This again takes a long, long time, and I can’t claim in my own life that it’s complete at all, nor in the life of the Church of Australia, but once you start to ask the question of how someone who has been abused sees this or hears this or judges this, you start to come to very different concrete conclusions about what needs to be done.
We are so far beyond mere administration, and good procedures and good protocol — they’re important, but if they don’t lead to this kind of conversion with the victims truly at the center, then all the administration in the world will end up aggravating the situation rather than doing something creative in order to remedy it.
You’ve been tapped to give the closing homily during the final Mass. When were you asked to do this, and what themes can we expect to hear?
I was asked last week by the organizing committee. I was surprised, honestly. One presumes that any liturgy that the pope presides at, he will preach. In fact, he’s going to speak at the end of the Mass, so they were looking for a preacher. I presume they were looking for someone from Oceania, someone from Oceania that spoke reasonable Italian, and someone that had reasonable exposure to child protection, which I have had, and that therefore, I fit the profile.
I was honored by the invitation to be with such a gathering, and in the presence of the pope, and in the Sala Regia, which has its own extraordinary profile, is a wonderful thing for me. I have a sense of humble service of the gathering and what I might bring to bear as speaker of the word of God, clearly it’s not my wisdom that’s required.
I have taken the readings of the seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time in year C and pondered them long and hard, and I have already written the text. It may change between now and then, it is possible.
What I have to offer is brief, because the Holy Father will speak at some length at the end, drawing almost totally on the three readings of the day, but also trying to gather up some of the crucial elements of this meeting. In fact, it becomes a reflection on power in the Church, and I was led to that by readings. It wasn’t as if I started with that as the theme and then moved to the readings.
The process of listening to the world of God is a big and complex thing, and the experience led me to the theme of power, and that’s at the heart of what I will say. For more details, you’ll have to stay tuned!