[Editor’s note: This is part two 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. Part one was published yesterday.]
ROME — Arguably few countries in the world have faced the scope of the Catholic clerical sexual abuse crisis as has Australia. The president of the country’s bishops’ conference believes that the only way to understand the drama is to speak with survivors, whom he compared to Jesus crucified.
“Unless you see that what’s happened to the abused has happened to Christ and that therefore, they’re Christ crucified in their needs, all the external commands in the world won’t do it,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge told Crux on Tuesday.
He’s currently in Rome participating in a Feb. 21-24 Vatican summit on the protection of children, called for by Pope Francis to address the crisis at a universal level.
Among other things, he said that it’s a “noble ambition” to see the meeting as a turning point, but at the end of the day, “only time will tell.”
Coleridge believes that informing bishops on how to respond is important, but he also wants to see mechanisms of accountability for when they don’t.
Coleridge also spoke with Crux about the situation in Australia, the trickle-down effect of the abuse crisis and the role lay people, particularly parents, will have to play for children to be protected.
What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
Crux: If accountability is the result from this meeting, do you think we can count it as a success?
Coleridge: I don’t think it’s certain first of all, and I think it’s a noble ambition that I hope is true, but I’m just a little hesitant at this stage to say it will be a turning point. It could be a turning point, only time will tell.
Bishops have to know — that’s certainly true — but if they know and fail to act in defense of victims, then we need a mechanism by which they’re called to account, so we come back to action. Episcopal ignorance has been a factor in the past, and even with the canons of the Church, bishops who are not canon lawyers have claimed, ‘I didn’t know that that’s what the canons of the Church required.’
There are certain things that a bishop has to know and that raises the question of formation for episcopal leadership. Until recent times and even now, it is so haphazard the preparation of men for episcopal leadership and the professional development required for bishops so that they do know. It can’t just be a three and a half day meeting with the presidents of conferences; there are 5,000 plus bishops around the world. It has to be, how can we form them better to exercise their episcopal leadership which so many of them have failed to exercise. If a bishop knows what is required and fails to do that, what are the consequences of that and how are those consequences enacted.
We need a mechanism of episcopal accountability that, in my view, includes both the local level and a universal element. The local Church must be involved in that, but in the end, the Holy See must be involved. The question is how, and I hope that’s one of the questions addressed at this meeting.
For years we’ve been told that the most important role in the Church belongs to women, because they’re the ones who transmit the faith to their children.
They’re also the ones who do most of the work in parishes. Somewhat, it’s a matriarchal church.
There are three women speaking, two of whom are mothers.
That’s better than none, as we would have had a few years ago …
How can we expect a trickle-up effect when mothers, parents, dads, are not convinced that their children will be safe if they take them to church?
The point is thoroughly well taken. The lack of parents, and particularly mothers, in these processes, in the past as well as now, is one of the glaring deficiencies. And it’s a point that’s been made to me by people who are themselves parents. People like my private secretary, who’s the father of five.
When I hear that there are 12 women in this gathering of 190, I’m surprised that there are three of them who are speaking. That’s not a bad strike, three of 10. But the question is the character the Holy Father wanted the meeting to have.
It also underscores what I said before that there will need to be many steps beyond this one. And those steps that lie beyond, in an itinerary that is much fuller, will have to include not only women, but parents of children because had the people making the crucial decisions had themselves been parents rather than celibate in the past, it’s hard to believe that the decisions wouldn’t have been different. If you have your own children, you see with other eyes.
Will a bishop who came to Rome thinking this is not a problem in my diocese go back home and say, “the Vatican told me this?”
Those of us who think we have nothing to learn, I believe are barking up the wrong tree big time. My hope is that all of us will in someway be touched by the Holy Spirit, experience some sort of conversion and therefore a genuine commitment.
Unless you see that what’s happened to the abused has happened to Christ and that therefore, they’re Christ crucified in their needs, all the external commands in the world won’t do it.
I come back again to the personal conversion that can only come if you’ve sat down with victims and survivors. If you haven’t seen them and heard them, and caught their rage and their grief, you don’t know what you’re talking about.
One of the things about the people in Rome is that they’re gifted people, but until you’ve sat down with a victim, you can’t have that process of conversion. And so was my own path, until I sat down with victims and listened to them, I had no idea of what I was dealing with. I have some sense of it now, but I don’t claim to have a full grasp, how could I?
At this point, how far along are you on reform and healing in Australia?
That’s a difficult question to answer because the more you do, the more you see there needs to be done. I’ve been grappling with this for twenty-five years, and I still consider myself a beginner. I have no sense of coming to Rome for this meeting as an expert even though I’ve seen a lot, learned a lot, suffered a lot, and done as much as I’ve been able to do as a bishop.
We have come a long way. The journey has been extraordinary when I look back to the mid-nineties, but I still have the sense that we’re only at the threshold of really grasping the nettle. That’s one of the reasons why I think there’s a need for a certain humility when approaching this meeting. Anyone who claims to be an expert in this field I think is on very thin ice.
I’m confident that the Royal Commission, for all that it was agonizing for us, has been a huge learning process for us. I think that any hint of denial or defensiveness is behind us, and I think there’s common determination among the bishops and the major superiors really to listen to victims and to undergo that conversion that sees with their eyes and hears with their ears. We have put into place, I think, sound protocols, but unless there is that conversion of heart that is tied to cultural change, my fear is that we will treat the symptoms but not the cause. Treating the cause is much harder work and it will take much longer.
In Australia, the plenary council will touch on some of these cultural questions. The plenary council was not convened because of sexual abuse or the Royal Commission, but what is absolutely clear is that the great questions identified by the Royal Commission intersect with the great questions that will have to be addressed by the plenary council, which is about the future of the Catholic Church in Australia.
In many ways, the abuse crisis and particularly the Royal Commission’s addressing of it, is about the future of the Catholic Church in Australia. The credibility of the bishops and trust in the bishops have been mightily undermined and this has its effects on the location of the Catholic Church in Australian society, and the kind of influence we can bring to bear. It insists that we become a humbler, perhaps smaller church, not a worldly church in perhaps the sense we have been.
We’ve come a long, long way, but to say that anything is behind us is a serious error in judgment, perhaps worse than that. It’s far better to say that the real journey is ahead of us and will extend far beyond my time as archbishop of Brisbane and as president of the conference. There is no quick fix, because it deals with culture and it deals with conversion of the heart. If a cultural thing is difficult than conversion of the heart is more difficult still, but without that conversion, I doubt that there will be cultural change and if there is not that, my fear is that we’ll treat the symptoms and not the cause.