The government and the Catholic Church both face difficulties when commending values. The difficulties will dog events during the next week in which both institutions are on public display the bringing down of the budget and the meeting of the Australian Catholics Bishops Conference.
LighthouseIn each case the difficulty has its roots in defects of governance: a lack of leadership, authority, transparency and inclusiveness. When the government appeals to values with respect to the Australian community or education, its appeal is commonly assumed to mask electoral self-interest and internal party conflict. That underlying its rhetoric is a lack of transparency, inclusiveness and authority is taken for granted.
When representatives of the Catholic Church appeal to values in public life, in sexuality and in education, their appeal is often thought to mask hypocrisy the assertion of high values that it does not practice and amnesia about its record of betrayal of the principles of good governance in its exercise of authority. The revelations of the royal commission into child abuse hangs over the bishops' meeting.
Both the government and the Catholic Church will be tempted to carry on business as usual, postponing any concerted attempt to deal with the issues of governance they face until the election and the handing down of the findings of the royal commission respectively.
I believe that to delay would be a mistake, especially in the case of the Catholic Church. Even before the royal commission's report is made public there is enough known about the extent, causes and right responses to sexual abuse in the church, and sufficient work done on protocols and safeguarding children to enable an initial response by the whole Australian church.
The question Australians, including many Catholics, ask is whether the bishops and other public representatives of the Catholic Church have the stomach for the changes in governance needed to address the factors that led to child abuse. Delaying action until swamped by the harsh criticism that can be expected from the royal commission will make that action appear too expedient, too little and too late.
What should that action look like? Given the pressure of time, it will need to be symbolic. The details of effective action to respond to the crimes of sexual abuse of children, to respond to its victims, to deal with perpetrators and to safeguard children in future will need to be attended to at a local level. That is where the hard work needs to be done.
What is possible for bishops gathered together in a reasonably short span of time is symbolic action that embodies seriousness in recognising the harm done and the need for response by the whole church. Some of these actions are suggested by the report to the bishops by Catholics for Renewal.
"This delegation would show how seriously the Australian Catholic Church takes the harm done to the victims of sexual abuse, and show its concern that the universal church should learn from its experience."
A significant action would be to send a delegation of bishops and laypeople to Rome to impress on Pope Francis the benefit of the royal commission in establishing the extent and lasting effects of sexual abuse by clergy and religious on children in Australia, to press the importance of addressing the aspects of Catholic culture that promoted sexual abuse and its cover up, and to insist that local clergy and laity should have a strong voice in the selection of bishops.
This delegation would show how seriously the Australian Catholic Church takes the harm done to the victims of sexual abuse and the evil of crimes and cover up that have involved. It would show its concern that the universal church should learn from its experience. It might also respond to the suspicion that the bishops are no more than mouthpieces of the Vatican.
It would also be appropriate for the Bishops to appoint a forthcoming day of repentance and reconciliation in every parish church in Australia, acknowledging the evil of sexual abuse and its concealment, and committing to care for victims and safeguarding of children. Apologies and pledges have been made piecemeal. A Sunday before Christmas dedicated in every Australian church to repentance would express a common mind and will.
Defects in the use of authority associated with clericalism have been criticised both by Pope Francis and by the royal commission. Remedying these will require continuing detailed attention in the formation of clergy and in decision making within the Catholic Church. But given that there will be an Australian Plenary Council in 2020, the bishops could mark the preparations for it by committing throughout Australia to gatherings in which the bishops can listen to lay people speak of their hopes for the Catholic Church. Such meetings would embody a consultative form of leadership.
Such initiatives as these are small things, symbolic in naming priorities and attitudes, but also a brick in building good governance. In it the royal commission will continue to act as a lighthouse warning of past wrecks and promising safe passage.
By Andrew Hamilton consulting editor of Eureka Street
From: Eureka Street, 4 May 2017