Catholics for Renewal


Editorial 1 2016


Spotlight on our Church


The film ‘Spotlight’ has just been released, named after the team of award-winning investigative journalists at The Boston Globe that exposed extensive clerical child sexual abuse in Boston - a ‘must-see’ for all who care about the dysfunctional governance of our Church.

The spotlight on child abuse is not the only spotlight being shone on the Church in 2016, looming as a very significant year for Church renewal.

Catholics for Renewal discerned at an early stage that the Church cannot be renewed without major change to its dysfunctional governance, a patriarchy and indeed an exclusive aristocracy of aged celibate men, without accountability for their autocratic decisions and mostly out of touch with many of the people of God - an institution bearing little resemblance to the Church envisaged by Christ. Clericalism, a culture that inappropriately exalts and excuses the ordained, is central to the problem. There are signs however that the renewal process is beginning. There are also signs of continuing pressures against renewal.

During this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis will release his post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family, expected in March. Francis sees the Year of Mercy as keeping Vatican II “alive” as “a true breath of the Holy Spirit.” The secular equivalent might be “back to basics”, the basics for the Church being a focus on Christ’s mission of love. Instead, we have an institutional focus on patriarchal regulations that have little to do with that mission, a failure to protect the most vulnerable, and the exclusion of women from the Church’s governance solely on the basis of gender.

Within Australia during 2016, Catholics for Renewal will be advocating for bishops of the Church to adopt a Vatican II respect for the sensus fidei fidelium (the sense of faith of all the faithful). We will seek the commitment of all Australian bishops to establishing synods and diocesan pastoral councils, as encouraged by Vatican II and every pope since then, and other means of listening to the people of the Church. We will also approach the Pope’s legate in Australia, the Apostolic Nuncio, regarding means of involvement of the laity in the selection of their diocesan bishops, their pastoral leaders. By the end of 2016, as many as 10 Australian bishops will have reached the age of 75 and will have offered their resignation in accordance with canon law. Their careful replacement, in consultation with their communities, is critical to the Church’s leadership and renewal.


Clerical Child Sexual Abuse

At the end of another confronting and shameful public hearing for the Catholic Church the heavy sense of failure pervades our community.  . . . in every case study ineptitude, maladministration, cover ups and corrupt practices have been revealed. This miserable history cannot be denied, nor can it be rationalised away. The very fact that a faith-based institution would perpetuate such evil is incomprehensible.[1]

These were the words of Francis Sullivan on 17 December 2015 after further hearings of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Sullivan is the head of the Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, appointed three years ago by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference; hopefully, the bishops are listening to him as he begins to recognise the enormity of the institutional failures. Sullivan says, “The very fact that a faith-based institution would perpetuate such evil is incomprehensible”; Catholics for Renewal believes that such evil is regrettably explained as the result of dysfunctional governance and a culture that in many areas has displaced Christ’s mission for the Church.

Meanwhile, the Holy See is continuing to prevent bishops from meeting a grave moral obligation to report criminal paedophiles to civil authorities. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child reported in 2014:

Due to a code of silence imposed on all members of the clergy under penalty of excommunication, cases of child sexual abuse have hardly ever been reported to the law enforcement authorities in the countries where the crimes were committed.[2]

The Holy See is at best ambiguous in its requirements of pontifical secrecy. Bishops are required to treat all cases of clerical paedophilia as ‘pontifical secrets’ reporting only to the Holy See; an exception has been made for those few jurisdictions in which a State law demands criminal reporting – it would seem relevant that this exemption avoids prosecution of bishops as well as protecting children. Let’s be clear: this canonical requirement means that bishops are only authorised to provide evidence of abusing paedophiles to the police when legally required to do so by civil law; in the absence of such a civil mandate, these criminals may be free to abuse other children, a continuation of the cover-up!

As late as this week (7/02/2016), it was reported  that a Vatican training document for new bishops asserts that “it is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects to authorities, the police or state prosecutors.”

The Church needs to be called out on this matter and not allowed to get away with the added obfuscation, that  "though they must be aware of local laws, bishops’ only duty was to address such allegations internally."

This shows a reprehensible failure to accept a clear moral duty on bishops to ensure that other children are protected from these criminals; a failure to require reporting, not to mention the continuing protection of paedophiles, makes the Church complicit in further consequential abuses.

Francis Sullivan issued an Australian response (11/02/2016) to this news on behalf of the Australian Truth Justice and Healing Commission:

          “While bishops might not be obliged in all circumstances to report abuse, they are morally obliged to              give as much information as possible to the police to ensure cases of abuse are dealt with in an                   efficient and timely manner to help ensure the offender is taken out of circulation and to limit the risk             of further abuse.”

It is of little comfort that the Australian church correctly points to the moral responsibility of bishops to report paedophile clerics to the police when the Vatican directs bishops throughout the world to act against this moral obligation under the binding provisions of the ‘pontifical secret’.

Catholics for Renewal has written to Cardinal Sean O’Malley as President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors protesting against the Church's immoral protection of paedophiles from the law, resulting in continuing exposure of children to abuse. The Cardinal has, after many follow-ups, included our correspondence in the planning for the current Plenary Meeting of the Pontifical Commission, “in order that the full body can discuss the matters presented in the correspondence.” It is a matter of considerable urgency that the Holy See should leave no doubt as to the responsibility of bishops to ensure that clerical paedophiles are reported to the police.

The film ‘Spotlight’ is recognised widely as providing a factual record of the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse and the institutional cover-up in Boston USA, a record scandalously repeated in Australia and throughout the world. All Catholics should subject themselves to the unpleasant duty of viewing this film and reflecting on the imperative of Church renewal. There have been many considered reviews of the film; the review by Jesuit priest Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ, director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting, is linked here at the website of the Melbourne Archdiocese. As Fr Leonard observes, “Whether we like it or not, now we are all in the spotlight – and there is nowhere to hide.”


Where to from here?

Clerical child sexual abuse is the most horrible illustration of the Church’s dysfunctional governance, one of many grave consequences of an institution’s reputation becoming more important than its mission, in the case of the Church a mission of love and faith. Dysfunctional governance is inevitable in any organisation that has unaccountable decision making, lacks transparency, fails to engage its members, lacks gender balance in its magisterium, and values its reputation above its mission.

Catholics for Renewal believes that 2016 offers great promise for progress in essential reforms to the Church’s dysfunctional governance, a view that seems to be supported by at least one Australian bishop, as reported in the New Zealand Catholic a year ago:

Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge told more than 100 priests of Auckland diocese that there is a “whirlpool effect” in the Australian Catholic Church, and the two powerful cross-currents at work are: the Royal Commission, and Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. “A strange point of convergence [between the two cross-currents] is … what is often called clericalism. [Clericalism] is somehow central to the cultural difficulties, or the cultural phenomena that enabled abuse to happen,” he said. “Somehow, we thought the law doesn’t apply to us.”

Coleridge went on to say:

“Both the Royal Commission and Pope Francis seem to me to be summoning us to be what, in fact, we’re called to be. How odd that the Royal Commission is doing that,” he remarked. “The only way forward is the kind of authenticity that the people sense in the Pope and to which they do respond.” Archbishop Coleridge said what is needed is a change in the Church’s culture. “If all you do is to change policies, practices and procedure, we are only going to find the same things because we haven’t gone to the root of it. The hardest thing to bring about is cultural change,” he said.[3]

We hope that Archbishop Coleridge’s brother bishops will share his view of the “whirlpool” when they consider our proposals in 2016 for greater engagement with the laity and greater involvement of the laity in the selection of bishops, not to mention more fundamental reform to the institutional Church’s governance and culture, particularly the inclusion of women in the magisterium.

[1] Francis Sullivan in TJHC Blog 17 Dec. 2015 sourced 3 Feb 2016 at:

[2] Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding observations on the second periodic report of the Holy See, 25 February 2014, 10

[3] “Australia Archbishop links Clericalism to Abuse,” New Zealand Catholic, Sept 2014 , sourced 2 Feb 2014 at:


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