In a conversation about sexual abuse in the United States and Australia, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, told America that “until there is a genuine restoration of trust, no apology is going to land.”
“We have to accept now,” the archbishop continued, “restoring trust will only come over time if in fact we do the things we say we’re going to do.”
The Catholic Church in Australia was under inquiry by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse from 2013 to 2017, when a final report was issued. Similar to findings of the Pennsylvania grand jury in the United States, the Royal Commission brought to light instances of abuse, as well as cover-ups by bishops and religious superiors.
“The dominant mood probably is a sense of bewilderment, really, because this is a crisis the like of which we haven’t faced in our history,” the archbishop said in a video interview with executive editor Tim Reidy.
Archbishop Coleridge noted that there were advantages to having a national scope with the inquiry and response. He said the national approach was vital in preventing a “fragmented and at times contradictory response” to “an area as vital as child protection.” However, the archbishop stressed that the national nature of the response also had “enormous challenges” because with seven distinct jurisdictions “Australia in the singular doesn’t exist.”
The impact of this investigation continues to be felt in Australia. Cardinal George Pell, who came under particular scrutiny by the Commission, is currently facing charges of sexual abuse, the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to be prosecuted. Archbishop Philip Wilson, the archbishop of Adelaide, was convicted of concealing sexual abuse this July.
To Archbishop Coleridge, the Royal Commission with “its secular eye upon the life of the church was extraordinarily important and helpful,” but it “didn’t do God and couldn’t do God” the way the church now must.
“You may become and may have to become, like us in Australia, a smaller church—in other words: a humbler church, a purified church, a church that is able to listen and not just speak.”
One issue that has come to the fore as a result of the revelations of sexual abuse is the seal of the confessional. Under Catholic teaching, a priest cannot report any information disclosed during the sacrament of reconciliation. As Archbishop Coleridge explained, right now in several Australian jurisdictions there are laws in place that require reporting, such that may make it impossible for priests to follow both church and state law.
“My own sense is that it’s law being proposed or passed by people who don’t understand the way the sacrament happens on the ground,” Archbishop Coleridge said. “If I as a priest confessor have someone come to me and confess anonymously to having abused a child...I don’t know the identity of the perpetrator. I don’t know the identity of the victim, and yet I am supposed to go to the police.”
In Archbishop Coleridge’s eyes, there are many more effective ways to protect children from sexual abuse than changing church teaching about the seal or priestly celibacy, another issue the commission recommended the church to revisit. The archbishop stressed the importance of changing the church’s culture and listening to survivors.
“Here, I’m echoing Pope Francis because he talks about a synodal church as a listening church,” he said. “We need that combination of passion and commitment to act. But patience, given that it will take time.”
To that end, the church in Australia is calling a plenary council to begin in Adelaide in 2020. According to organizers, this council is “the highest formal gathering of all local churches in a country,” which while striving to hear the voices of lay people, “will actually determine church legislation in Australia.”.
When asked about how to restore trust among Catholics, Archbishop Coleridge said, “The only thing that I can see that will restore trust is action...a willingness to act no matter what the cost.“
Speaking about the U.S. church, he said, “You may become and may have to become, like us in Australia, a smaller church—in other words: a humbler church, a purified church, a church that is able to listen and not just speak.”