Philippa Martyr: Barking up the wrong pulpit

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Francis Sullivan attends a seminar on safeguarding children in Rome in 2017. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

Francis Sullivan’s passion is undoubted. His grasp of the real issues facing the Church isn’t.

Francis Sullivan recently expressed concerns in the US National Catholic Reporter that fallout from the Pell case would derail the Plenary Council.

The Plenary Council has little authority to make changes

I suppose my first concern is that Francis believes the Plenary Council is important enough to make changes to the Church in Australia. Really it has very little authority, and its report has to go to Rome for final ratification. The suggestion that it could be derailed by an unrelated High Court decision seems over-dramatic.

Much more interesting is that it’s currently rumoured that the Plenary Council is costing the Church in Australia millions of dollars.

I’m surprised that Francis hasn’t demanded instead that the Plenary Council’s full financials be published and asked why this largely cosmetic exercise is absorbing money that could be used to compensate clergy abuse survivors.

An unfounded connection to Cardinal’s acquittal

My second concern is that Francis said he thought Cardinal Pell’s acquittal on all charges was “opportunistic for forces who always want to use the imagery of religion as a bulwark for their own personal ideologies.”

It’s difficult to trace Francis’s conceptual leap from a unanimous decision made by the High Court of Australia (not a very religious organisation) to a conspiracy against the rather smaller potatoes of the Plenary Council.

I read a lot of weird Facebook pages, and I also read the comments. There are people out there who believe George Pell is in cahoots with unseen, immeasurably wealthy forces who got him acquitted by underhand means – everyone from Rupert Murdoch to the lizard people.

It’s surprising to find Francis on the margins of this eccentric fringe, especially as he added in his interview that “I worry that the type of issues that the Church needs to be able to demonstrate that they are relevant and they are contemporary on, aren’t going to get [brought] up now.”

Setting a precedent

The High Court overturned an unsafe conviction which set a precedent for abandoning the presumption of innocence and disregarding the evidence of multiple witnesses. It’s hard to see any relationship between this and whether the Church is relevant and contemporary, but clearly some relationship exists for Francis.

Yet he must surely be aware that a small percentage of clergy abuse cases involve unprovable and sometimes false allegations. The website bishop-accountability.org tracks the rate of unproveable allegations at around 18 per cent, and false allegations at around 1.5 per cent.

I believe Pell’s accuser was abused, and possibly even by a priest, but not by George Pell in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Accepting this should strengthen our confidence in the legal system to handle historical sexual abuse claims without convicting innocent people.

A golden opportunity

It’s a real shame that Francis missed a golden opportunity to address some very serious issues relating to the clergy abuse crisis in Australia. The epicentre of Catholic clergy sexual abuse has been pinpointed by several independent large-scale studies.

It consists of predatory ephebophilic homosexual clergy, often repeat offenders, who were appointed and then protected by weak or personally compromised superiors in chanceries, seminaries, schools, and parishes.

It’s been painfully easy to trace, over and over, predator clerics who rose to senior positions and compromised others along the way, creating friendly networks and making themselves indispensable in the process.

Cardinal George Pell is pictured in a June 29, 2017, photo. CNS phoyo/Remo Casilli, Reuters

In 2016 George Pell testified under oath to the Royal Commission that when he became Archbishop of Melbourne, he was handed a mess of clergy sexual abuse cases that had been largely ignored and minimised by archdiocesan agencies and his predecessor Sir Frank Little. He also testified that Bishop Ronald Mulkearns and other senior clergy lied to him about the Ridsdale case.

This is even before we allow for the obvious administrative bungling and incompetence in the case of John Ellis, a complainant against the Archdiocese of Sydney, whose case made up much of Pell’s cross-examination at the Royal Commission in 2014.

This is the kind of issue Francis should now be shouting about from the rooftops. How many other well-meaning bishops have been hamstrung by people in their own offices who were personally compromised, or who were covering up for their mates?

So I’m disappointed with Francis’s response, but not surprised, because it’s been consistent with what I’ve seen of his agenda for Church reform.

On 27 February this year, for example, Francis was keynote speaker at the Catholic Social Services national conference in Melbourne.

Power-sharing between clergy and laity

He called for ‘power-sharing’ between clergy and laity, women in Church governance, and ‘democratising’ Church administration so that local communities could oversee ministries for local needs.

Putting women in Church governance will not stop abuses. Francis should talk to the increasing numbers of people who are reporting historical spiritual and sexual abuse at the hands of religious sisters.

Creating a lay-led Church will not stop abuses. Sullivan should also talk to the increasing numbers of lay people who have been victimised and bullied – by other lay people – out of diocesan and Church agency employment in Australia.

Putting women in Church governance will not stop abuses, says Dr Martyr. Francis should talk to the increasing numbers of people who are reporting historical spiritual and sexual abuse at the hands of religious sisters. Creating a lay-led Church will not stop abuse either. PHOTO: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz

I believe Francis is well-intentioned. But I think he’s taking advice from the wrong people – and some of them, I suspect, have enabled abusers in the past.

They’re using a classic ‘look over there’ tactic that has distracted him completely from the real epicentre of clergy sexual abuse – which he never mentions.

These largely elderly people are still hoping that the tired and enfeebled Church of their imagination – amorphous spirituality, women priests, and total sexual autonomy – will suddenly blossom into being.

They aren’t coping well with the realities of their choices: self-induced demographic winter, dying parishes, and the exodus of the few remaining practicing Catholics under 40 to traditions that the Boomers discarded.

It’s a shame that someone like Francis has chosen to use his position to cast doubt on an important legal decision that has implications for all Australians, not just for the Church and George Pell.

I know he’s trying to help, but this isn’t helping.

Related

Precisely which Church? A response to the Plenary Discernment papers
Monica Doumit: True import of the Pell case