Americans looking for a signal as to the kind of men Pope Francis hopes to put in leadership in dioceses like Chicago might turn their attention to Sydney, where Bishop Anthony Fisher, O.P., 54, was just announced as the next archbishop of Australia’s only cardinalatial seat.
Bishop Fisher, a Sydney native and Dominican priest with a law degree and a doctorate in bioethics from Oxford, is a protégé of George Cardinal Pell, who left the seat of Sydney earlier this year to become Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy in Rome. Before becoming an auxiliary in 2003, Fisher taught at Australian Catholic University and served as the director of the international John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.
Fisher is perhaps best known in Australia for organizing Sydney’s very successful 2008 World Youth Day. But during those days the bishop also drew strong criticism when he described some victims of clergy sexual abuse and the Australian media as “dwelling crankily on old wounds” while “most of Australia was enjoying delighting in the beauty and goodness of these young people.” (One of the victims in question had committed suicide in January of the same year. Her sister was also abused. Their parents were hoping to meet with Pope Benedict.)
Today, as he begins his transition from bishop of Parramatta to archbishop-elect of Sydney, he spoke directly to the needs of victims: “Victims of abuse and all young people must come first – no excuses, no cover-ups. The church must do better in this area, and I am committed to playing a leading role in regaining the confidence of the community and of our own members.”
The nation of Australia is in the second of a five-year government-sponsored Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse. Its investigations have cast the decisions of a number of Catholic prelates, including Cardinal Pell, in a problematic light. (In his most testimony before the Commission, Cardinal Pell compared the responsibility of the Church to that of a trucking company: “If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her, I don’t think it’s appropriate…for the leadership of that company to be held responsible.”)
Speaking today Fisher said, “The Catholic Church is going through a period of self-scrutiny and self-examination. I hope it will emerge from this purified, humbler, more compassionate and spiritually regenerated.”
Given his close relationship with Cardinal Pell, the appointment of Fisher was expected in many quarters. But the choice is not without controversy: Fisher is being put in charge of Australia’s only cardinalatial seat after running his own diocese for only four years. And given his youth he will likely have that seat for over twenty years to come. The consequent impact he will have on the Catholic Church in Australia is enormous.
Also, Cardinal Pell’s perceived-tendencies towards defensiveness and policy pronouncements over pastoral care made him at times a divisive figure within the Australian Church and in the broader national community. The fresh-faced Fisher will need to show that he is his own man, one with greater sensitivity and a sense of collegiality.
On Vatican Radio today, Fisher spoke of his mission as archbishop: “I think we have a wonderful treasure in the Catholic Church, in our teaching, in what we’ve received from Christ to hand on to people, but we always do that, as Pope Francis keeps reminding us, with mercy, with love, with compassion for the people to whom we’re bringing Christ’s healing words and I very much hope to do that for Sydney.”
Moral theologian Father James Keenan, SJ, describes mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” At a time when the Church in Australia is under considerable duress, and both the nation of Australia and city of Sydney face serious issues of their own (including the shocking arrest Wednesday of an Australian citizen who was supposedly planning to capture and kill Sydneysiders for ISIL), the people of Sydney hope Archbishop-elect Fisher will show a great commitment to the same.