Abp Mark Coleridge on Sex Abuse

An unusually long, astute and searching pastoral letter from Mark Coleridge, archbishop of Canberra and Goulborn in Australia, on sexual abuse.  He lists several factors (among others) behind the abuse:

Ø  One factor was a poor understanding and communication of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, shown particularly in a rigorist attitude to the body and sexuality.  This was mediated in part through the formative influence of Irish Catholicism in the life of the Church in Australia.  We owe the Irish an immense debt of gratitude for what they have given us, but for complex historical reasons the Church in Ireland was prey to the rigorist influence that passed from the Continent to Ireland – often under the name of Jansenism – and found fertile soil there.  It then passed into the Irish diaspora of which Australia was part.  This rigorist influence led to an implicit denial of the Incarnation, which had people thinking they had to deny their humanity to find their way to the divinity.  The irony of this is that the Incarnation stands at the very heart of the Catholic sense of a sacramental universe.  Jansenism grew from Catholic soil, though it was tinged with Calvinism too.  But there was nothing incarnational about Jansenism, and the Catholic Church rejected it, even if its influence has been hard to erase, with traces remaining still.  Catholic teaching on sexuality offers deep insights and rich resources which we will need to explore in new ways as we seek to deal with the current crisis.


 Ø  Clerical celibacy was not in itself a factor, but – like any form of the Christian life lived seriously – it has its perils.  When clerical celibacy works well, it is a unique source of spiritual and pastoral fruitfulness in the Church; when it works badly it can be very damaging all round.  It becomes especially risky when sundered from the ascetical and mystical life which it presumes: this is a large challenge, especially perhaps for secular clergy in the bustle of their daily lives.  The discipline of celibacy may also have been attractive to men in whom there were paedophile tendencies which may not have been explicitly recognised by the men themselves when they entered the seminary.

 Ø  A further factor was certain forms of seminary training which failed to take proper account of human formation and promoted therefore a kind of institutionalised immaturity.  Seminaries were not always seen as schools of discipleship, since faith was taken for granted in a way that looks seriously questionable now.  Seminary formation was not tied to a vision of life-long formation, so that a man once ordained was thought to have completed all the formation he would need for his priestly ministry through life.  This was fateful, given that paedophile tendencies, usually latent at the time of seminary training, often emerged only after ordination.

 Ø  Clericalism understood as a hierarchy of power, not service, was also a factor.  It was a fruit of seminary training that was inadequate at certain points, and it is almost inevitable once the priesthood and preparation for it are not deeply grounded in the life of faith and discipleship.  Clergy could be isolated in ways that were bound to turn destructive.  The authority proper to the ordained could become authoritarian, and the hunger for intimacy proper to human beings could become predatory.  It is hard to believe that the Church’s response would have been so poor had lay people been involved from the start in shaping a response.  In more recent years, lay men and women – not all of them Catholic – have been much involved in shaping the Church’s response, and that is one reason why we are now doing better.  The task belongs not just to the bishops and priests but to the whole Church, with all working together in this fraught situation.

 Ø  A certain triumphalism in the Catholic Church, a kind of institutional pride, was a further factor.  There is much in the Catholic Church, her culture and tradition, about which one can be justifiably proud, as one can be of her achievements in this country; and Easter is always a motive for triumph of the right kind.  But there can be a dark side to this which leads to a determination to protect the reputation of the Church at all costs.  Through the radical social and cultural changes of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church was seen to have risen above the maelstrom of history and not to be afflicted in the way other Churches and Christian communities were.  At least in this country, our institutions in areas such as education, health and welfare were mighty contributions to society as a whole; and this gave the impression that we were a Church that went from strength to strength.  Others may suffer decline, but we did not.  What mattered was to present well in public in order to affirm to ourselves and to others that we were “the great Church”.  Such hubris will always have its consequences.

Read the rest here.

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Stephen SCHEWE
8 years 8 months ago
Thanks for printing this.  Archbishop Coleridge gets it.  it would be good if you can follow up on how he will be addressing the cultural problems in his own diocese with clerical power, seminary education, and rigorist attitudes towards sexuality; those ways could become best practices for the rest of the church.  What would it take for others in the leadership, particularly in the U.S., to acknowledge Coleridge's wisdom and deal with the implications of his analysis?
8 years 8 months ago
I suggest all read the entire article or homily by Archbishop Coleridge.  There is a lot of interesting insights that are not in the brief post by Father Martin.  I have not read about this topic in detail as many others who post here have but it is the best description of the issue that I have seen.  There is penchant here to blame the Church hierarchy solely for what has happened and here is a document by a member of that hierarchy which I believe shows a good and honest understanding of the problem and offers ways to correct things so they do not happen again.
Carolyn Disco
8 years 8 months ago
Coleridge is on the right track, a welcome analysis as far as it goes. But after reading his full statement, I am left with a nagging sense of an over-intellectualized analysis that is far too benign about the criminal negligence and viciousness of the hierarchy’s response. The government investigations give a much clearer picture of the reality. And, please, no more parsing of definitions for pedophile vs ephebophile. So what!
From the Phila DA report:
? The Archdiocese official in charge of abuse investigations described one abusive priest as “one of the sickest people I ever knew.” Yet Cardinal Bevilacqua allowed him to continue in ministry, with full access to children – until the priest scandal broke in 2002.
? One abusive priest was transferred so many times that, according to the Archdiocese’s own records, they were running out of places to send him where he would not already be known.
? When the Archdiocese did purport to seek psychological evaluation of a priest, the primary tool for diagnosis was “self reporting” – in other words, whether the abuser was willing to admit that he was a pedophile. Absent such a “diagnosis,” the Archdiocese declined to treat any priest as a pedophile, no matter how compelling the evidence.
? Even when admitted, the abuse was excused: an Archdiocese official comforted one sexually abusive priest by suggesting that the priest had been “seduced” by his 11-year-old victim.
? An Archdiocese official explained that the church could not discipline one especially egregious abuser because, as the official put it, he was not a “pure pedophile” – that is, he not only abused little boys; he also slept with women.
Where is Coleridge’s demand for bishop accountability? Non-existent. “…the blame-game in any of its forms cannot take us far along the path of healing, reconciliation and reform that lies before us.” 
Sorry, Bishop, no justice, no healing or reconciliation. Promotion to higher office is not a meaningful consequence for criminality.
James Lindsay
8 years 7 months ago
Interesting that the Archbishop would say all this. It definitely bespeaks of a climate change in the hierarchy and a trust in the current pontiff. It is a cause for hope.


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