June 28, 2017

Royal Commission: uncovering truth must be primary focus

Photo: CNS

Photo: CNS

When was the last time you went without TV or the internet for 24 hours? I would imagine that many of us would struggle to remember.

In our age of information overload, it is easy to get swept up by the waves of conflicting data. In this context, there is an undeniable competition among information providers, who aim to sell their stories by grabbing our attention in any possible way.

As a side-effect, many stories are either sensationalised or published without sufficient evidence, because it is far more profitable to sell first and retract later.

And when the dissemination of information is deliberately conditioned by a desire to be attention-grabbing and evocative, that is to say, without giving due care to describing all the facts, then it is not surprising that we fall into the temptation of drawing impulsive conclusions.

Stirred by anger (and sometimes justified anger) we react rather than respond, we cast judgment before appealing for justice.

If you have been following the news headlines lately, a familiar name has been surfacing: that of our previous archbishop, Cardinal Pell, regarding his possible involvement in the child abuse scandal.

When the Royal Commission was established in 2013 to investigate institutional responses to the abuse of minors, the Church welcomed this move and has tried to co-operate ever since. But while the Commission is still working towards an informed conclusion, recently there has been an outcry, because the cardinal was unable to present himself in person at the Royal Commission due to ill health.

In the meantime, many have decided to declare in the public forum their personal opinions as the final judgment, rather than wait for the Royal Commission’s authoritative verdict.

Unfortunately, with all these highly charged emotions added in the fold, a flurry of unsubstantiated finger-pointing is now distracting our quest for a thoughtful resolution. In the midst of such chaos, we are again left to wonder what we were trying to achieve when it began.

So the question is, why was this inquiry called for in the first place? Was it because we were genuinely interested in truth and justice, or did we simply wish to sacrifice something (or someone) to appease an angry public?

We can only hope that our society has enough integrity to see that truth has to be the foundation of any genuine response to the abhorrent crime of child abuse.

If we are aiming to seek justice for the victims and prevention in the future, then clearly, uncovering the truth has to be our primary focus.

When that is done, then we can finally talk about judgments and due justice, because proper evidence will help us to do exactly that, not raw emotions.

On the other hand, if we somehow get caught up trying to find a scapegoat to direct our anger, I doubt that the blood of one high-profile official will ever be enough to restore authentic peace and justice or provide any real healing for victims.

Speaking of evidence, Google tells us that, comparatively, the rate of abuse by Catholic clergy may actually be smaller than the common perception.

But when it comes to media coverage and the public’s reaction, our failings are by far the most oft-mentioned and highlighted.

Perhaps it is not at all surprising, considering what the priesthood represents.

It is because priests are in essence ‘other Christs’, that is, shepherds after our crucified Lord. As one commentator put it, it is a priest’s destiny to be crucified for his flock, rather than to sacrifice the sheep for himself – this is the heart of the issue.

So one priest who commits such a deplorable crime is one too many, because he has been ordained not to harm, but to look after our Lord’s sheep. Hence, the sin of a shepherd always causes a greater scandal, because much has been given and entrusted to him, especially to look after the weak and the vulnerable.

Perhaps, as some secular voices like to attest, the solution is to get rid of the priesthood altogether. Or perhaps not, especially if our true intention is to eradicate evil. Quite recently, a film called Calvary portrayed this very issue.

A good and faithful priest was sacrificed for someone else’s past sin. However, in the end there was no real closure, no peace in the death of a good man, who became the wrong target for anger and revenge.

The movie also pointed out the necessity of the ministerial priesthood, despite its collective image being tainted by some. Personally, when I first began to discern my call to be a priest, I remember one my friends objected by commenting, ‘because they are paedophiles’.

Ironically, that same person recently asked if I could be the celebrant at his wedding. In other words, the priesthood is necessary because of our need for Christ and it cannot simply be declared useless because of the offending minority.

In the past, my acquaintance was most likely concerned, because no one in their right mind would board a seemingly sinking ship.

But indeed, when we look in the Gospel, our Lord Jesus was with his apostles inside a sinking ship as it struggled against the threatening waves. Mind you, life is not easy on this turbulent ship.

Just as all of you would, I also get quite discouraged and upset every time I hear the news of scandal in our Church. But then I am reminded that it is still better to be inside a sinking ship with Jesus, rather than to be smooth-sailing without him.

And when the burden of inexcusable evil drives me to the point of despair, Christ mercifully calms my interior storm, and asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

In the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent, when Peter saw his glorified Lord he wanted to remain in that state of ecstasy. But a voice from heaven resounded, “This is my Son, the Chosen one. Listen to him.”

Eventually, Peter would come to understand, that the Cross would be the necessary step before the glory of the Resurrection.

So please pray, first and foremost for the victims who suffer the effects of the terrible sin of abuse.

And also pray for your shepherds, including this unworthy one, that we may be priests after the heart of Christ, to faithfully carry the cross and humbly lay down our lives for the sheep.

This is an edited version of the homily given by Fr Emmanuel Seo, assistant priest of St Mary’s Cathedral, on 21 February.

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