‘We dare not fail’: Australia’s top bishop on the church’s sex abuse crisis

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, president of the Australian bishops' conference, speaks to journalists Feb. 22, 2019, during the Vatican meeting on the protection of minors. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

The Catholic Church in Australia has again come under the spotlight with the news of the conviction of Cardinal George Pell for historical sexual offenses that carry a maximum 50-year prison term. The sentence could be handed down as soon as tomorrow.

On Monday, America interviewed Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, who had come to Rome for the summit on the protection of minors, held Feb. 21 to 24.

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While much of the interview concerned the summit, we also talked about the dramatic situation of the church in Australia. Although we were both aware that the Cardinal Pell case could take a decisive turn the next day, the archbishop said he could not discuss it given the suppression order imposed by a Melbourne judge. But he talked about how the abuse crisis has affected his home country and the case of Archbishop Philip Wilson, his predecessor as president of the conference, who was convicted of covering up abuse, sentenced and then acquitted of all charges.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Archbishop Coleridge said that “the credibility of the church is shot to pieces” because of the abuse crisis. Asked to explain this comment, he told America, “It’s true but up to a point because our agencies retain great credibility—our schools, our hospitals, our welfare agencies, at that point the church retains great clout and credibility—but it is the bishops overwhelmingly who have lost credibility. Now that’s not to say the church has, because the church is bigger than the bishops, but the bishops’ credibility is shot to pieces.”

In a recent interview with the BBC, Archbishop Coleridge said that “the credibility of the church is shot to pieces” because of the abuse crisis.

As president of the conference, Archbishop Coleridge sees this loss of credibility in the public forum “when trying to engage the political world or other elements of society. I don’t have anything like the access or the influence that my predecessors had.” Indeed, he said, “if there is access and influence it’s only minimally attaching to the role; it might be attached at times to me personally because of some relation I might have with the premier or some decision-maker.”

Nevertheless, he said, “it’s not quite sure that the church’s credibility is shot to pieces everywhere and in every way, because in some parts of the world the church remains mightily influential, for better or worse.

“I think a figure like Pope Francis has high credibility,” he said. And while questions have been raised about the way the pope has responded to sexual abuse, Archbishop Coleridge said, “I think some of the criticisms of him on that point are not just. And he has high credibility in all kinds of unexpected places. So to try to assess the credibility of the church globally is a difficult thing.”

On the other hand, he said, “in Australia, the credibility of the bishops and I think of the clergy generally has been hugely damaged because at the present moment you have a situation where if you do a word association, and you said ‘Catholic Church,’ ‘abuse’ would be the answer.”

“In Australia...you have a situation where if you do a word association, and you said ‘Catholic Church,’ ‘abuse’ would be the answer.”

He said Australians associate “Catholic priest” with “pedophile” and “Catholic bishop” with “worse than [a] pedophile, liar or cover-upper, untrustworthy.”

Furthermore, Archbishop Coleridge said, “the public perception is so powerful that 70 percent, I think, by the Royal Commission’s own reckoning, of people in Australia thought that the Royal Commission was about the Catholic Church and basically about the Catholic clergy.” Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reported that 7 percent of the clergy were abusers, even though the statistics show that “in the Catholic Church at least one-third of the abuse was committed by clergy, one-third by religious and one-third by laypeople, teachers and so on. And yet it’s overwhelmingly identified with the clergy.”

Since many people think Cardinal Pell could be acquitted on appeal, as Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide was earlier this year, America asked Archbishop Coleridge about this latter case. Archbishop Wilson was first convicted by a magistrate for the alleged cover-up of a priest abuser, then sentenced to a year’s “home detention” and subsequently acquitted by a court of appeal, after serving part of his sentence.

“There was a great sense of relief” when he was acquitted, Archbishop Coleridge recalled. But, he said, “Wilson was a sacrificial lamb in some ways, a scapegoat for many things.”

“[Archbishop] Wilson was a sacrificial lamb in some ways, a scapegoat for many things.”

“One of the ironies of the case,” he said, “was that [Archbishop Wilson] was a trailblazer in the early years of leading the church to a point where we would actually deal realistically with abuse.” Archbishop Coleridge said the prosecution fastened onto his predecessor “using a piece of legislation that is only found in New South Wales and which many legal people regard as absurd and was always questionable.” He said there was “dismay” among many Catholics when the magistrate found him guilty, but public opinion was against the church.

“There were people screaming for imprisonment,” he recalled. “There was a crowd baying for blood, who want nothing more than to see an archbishop or better still a cardinal being dragged off to prison.”

Though the eventual acquittal of Archbishop Wilson was decisive, Archbishop Coleridge said, “it’s been an agonizing process for Phil; his health is shot to pieces. There’s a tragic edge to the story, in a sense he was destroyed even though [he was] innocent.”

Archbishop Coleridge, who today issued a statement on Cardinal Pell’s conviction and said the cardinal has lodged an appeal, then went on to speak about the abuse summit and offered this surprising conclusion: “The abuse crisis is forcing us to come to grips with the Vatican II vision of the church.”

“The abuse crisis is forcing us to come to grips with the Vatican II vision of the church.”

He revealed that “three or four times during the summit that thought came to me with great clarity and power: that it would take this horror almost to force us to really enter in a new way, in a new depth, what the Spirit was saying to the church in the Second Vatican Council.”

He believes the abuse crisis has led participants “by force of necessity” to understand the importance of collegiality and synodality. “It’s been forced upon us,” he said, “and in that, I do see these strange disruptions of the Holy Spirit. It’s grace, a searing grace that we would never have sought or expected, but it’s upon us.”

While the archbishop pointed to “the good spirit” at work in the crisis, the pope in his closing talk had discerned that “the spirit of evil” was behind all the abuse. Archbishop Coleridge said Pope Francis gave “a profoundly biblical talk” in which he drew attention to “the great conflict” between the forces of evil and good in the world today. He said the pope was “spot on,” but “in a post-Freudian world perhaps you have got to say it differently” because “the language of faith,” which the pope used, “is not accessible to some.”

He noted that Francis spoke not only of “a synergy between church and world” in combating the abuse of minors but also of “a new kind of synergy or interaction, a new collaboration between the Holy See and the local churches.” He believes that is why Francis decided to call the summit instead of issuing “a flurry of executive orders.”

Archbishop Coleridge believes the abuse crisis has led participants “by force of necessity” to understand the importance of collegiality and synodality.

Archbishop Coleridge sees “the task forces” to help churches that do not have the resources or the know-how to address the abuse crisis, which were announced by the Vatican on the last day of the summit, as “one sign of this new synergy” because they become “a middle element” between the Holy See and the local churches.

He also believes that “a new synergy between survivors and church leaders” will result from this summit.

He acknowledged that many survivors have not understood the shift that is happening in the church and felt let down by Francis’ concluding talk.

[Read America’s comprehensive coverage of the Vatican sex abuse summit]

“I can understand why there are people expressing great disappointment or worse at the lack of very clear policy decisions and directions to come from this meeting,” Archbishop Coleridge said. At the same time, he remarked, “it is like turning around...an enormous ship. Now the ship has begun to turn quite some years ago, but it is still turning, and I do think that this meeting was quite a significant moment in the turning of the ship.”

The archbishop acknowledged that “it is going to take time and the quality of impatient patience.” He repeated, as he said in his memorable homily at the summit’s closing Mass on Feb. 24: “We don’t have forever. We really don’t. So there has to be a sense of urgency, and I think the meeting did help to create more of a sense of urgency around the world.”

Asked if all the bishops were “on the same page” by the end of the summit, the archbishop said, “Well, we’re a hell of a lot closer to that than we were four days ago.”

He insisted, moreover, that “we dare not fail, because at stake—and this was clear from the discussions at the meeting—at stake really is the mission of the church, not only credibility and trust, which are central to that, but the whole effectiveness of the church’s mission and the possibility of it.”

He sees “the danger that we could become this despised, ever-shrinking enclave, which is certainly not my understanding or our understanding or the Lord’s understanding of the Catholic Church. So we dare not fail.”

He said Pope Francis was underlining all this by summoning the presidents of the bishops’ conferences and religious superiors to the Vatican and telling them clearly, “This is something that concerns us all.”

He reported that “the cultural differences were evident at the beginning of the summit, with some saying, ‘It’s really not our problem.... We have other more pressing issues such as child labor, child soldiers, etc.’” However, during the meeting, he said, “there was a shift on that point,” and by the summit’s end “they understood that they had to look again, perhaps a little more closely, at their own situation, just to make sure that they are not blind to what is there, particularly in cultures where it is taboo to talk about sex of any kind, let alone the shameful sex of abuse with a child.”

“I go back to Australia is listening, not just listening to women but including them more deeply and incisively in the whole decision-making process.”

He said that at the summit they had discussed the “culture of silence” and had recalled that while today the abuse question is still a taboo subject in some countries, the same was true until recently in places like Australia and Ireland. At the summit, he said, he detected “a significant shift in perception and a shift, in a sense, in understanding our task as bishops in relation to the abuse issue.”

Asked if all the bishops were “on the same page” by the end of the summit, the archbishop said, “Well, we’re a hell of a lot closer to that than we were four days ago.”

He said that the summit was “very, very different” from any meeting he has previously attended. “The feel was very different,” Archbishop Coleridge said. “The rhythm was different, [and] it had an unusual kind of intensity.”

“The subject matter, too, gave it a kind of intensity that was unusual,” he continued, “a sense of the urgency of the task.” Moreover, he said, “the recurrent sound of the survivors, the voices and even the music gave an emotional intensity that no meeting I’ve been at in Rome has ever had.” He said he had listened to survivors “often in the past, but there was a power because of the setting and who was in the hall—the pope. That was very unusual.”

Similarly, he said, “listening to the three women was very significant; the setting gave it a power that was so unusual. Listening to Linda [Ghisoni], [Sister] Veronica [Openibo] and Valentina [Alazraki], sitting there in that gathering, overwhelmingly male and aging if not elderly, those women’s voices had power. And listening to those three highly competent and remarkable women convinced me that one of the things I have to be even more focused on when I go back to Australia is listening, not just listening to women but including them more deeply and incisively in the whole decision-making process.”

Likewise, he said, as a result of the summit he intended on his return home “to listen even more attentively to survivors and be more focused on the concrete requirements of pastoral care and accompaniment of the abused. Now that’s something we have begun to look at in Australia, but I’ll go back more resolute than before.”

Asked how the bishops hoped to regain credibility, he said, “We bishops have to be humble.... We need to look at our style of life and where we live.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J. Calpezzo
2 months 3 weeks ago

Consider the case of His Eminence Roger Mahony.

Leo Sprietsma
2 months 3 weeks ago

Child sex abuse happens, even in families. It becomes a CHURCH problem when it done by a CLERIC, because we have set up this Clerical System where 'Clerics' are considered to BE 'The Church'. Clerics are 'professional churchmen' -perpetual, full-time, life-long MEN who are celibate and extend the office and power and presence of 'The Bishop'.

So when a 'Cleric' abuses, it is a 'scandal' affecting the 'Church' itself. The first tendency of a Bishop is to deny that it ever happened; and the second is to 'cover up' - to not let it get publically known. The whole 'Clerical Club' is affected. The sins of a Cleric are the sins of 'The Church'.

The simplest solution to that problem of Clericalism is to simply abolish the whole Clerical system. We created it – we CAN change it.

But the consequence would be : if there were no Clerics, the only people left to 'ordain' and appoint to extend the functions and presence of the Bishop in the local parish would be LAITY.

neil allen
2 months 3 weeks ago

Much too late.

The Catholic policy in 100% of cases was to protect 100% pedophile priests, in BRUTAL defiance of Jesus in Matthew 18:6-14.

The Catholic Church has proven that they will do the opposite of what Jesus would do.

The Catholic Church has made it clear to anyone who follows Jesus, that they are not God's church.

You can follow Jesus or the Catholic church, not both.

Leo Sprietsma
2 months 3 weeks ago

Child sex abuse happens, even in families. It becomes a CHURCH problem when it done by a CLERIC, because we have set up this Clerical System where 'Clerics' are considered to BE 'The Church'. Clerics are 'professional churchmen' -perpetual, full-time, life-long MEN who are celibate and extend the office and power and presence of 'The Bishop'.

So when a 'Cleric' abuses, it is a 'scandal' affecting the 'Church' itself. The first tendency of a Bishop is to deny that it ever happened; and the second is to 'cover up' - to not let it get publically known. The whole 'Clerical Club' is affected. The sins of a Cleric are the sins of 'The Church'.

The simplest solution to that problem of Clericalism is to simply abolish the whole Clerical system. We created it – we CAN change it.

But the consequence would be : if there were no Clerics, the only people left to 'ordain' and appoint to extend the functions and presence of the Bishop in the local parish would be LAITY.

Stephen de Weger
2 months 3 weeks ago

But it appears that he, himself may have 'failed' but more importantly, doesn't want to accept that. The investigation will hopefully reveal more. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/25/archbishop-of-brisbane-under-investigation-over-alleged-response-to-child-abuse-information . From a personal point of view, based on experience and my research into this whole issue, including others who have been 'responded' to by the hierarchs, I don't doubt the claims in the report at all. But, we'll have to wait and see. And maybe he's had a conversion experience since this and his other 'knowledge' of abuse of 25 years or so and the following very concerning statement: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-08/archbishop-says-no-right-to-ask-priests-about-sexual-behaviour/8250524 .

arthur mccaffrey
2 months 3 weeks ago

if the Bishops' credibility is indeed "all shot to hell", then get rid of them. Why do we need them? They are a medieval accretion of courtiers for a papal monarch. We do not need all these layers of bureaucracy in order to have and to practice faith. Saying that bishops have outlived their usefulness is more than an understatement. They are dodos that should be extinct in the 21st century. Let the laity run their parishes, hire and fire their priests, and if they need another level of governance for interparish activity, they can easily invent corporate forms of relationship run by WOMEN and men. If Francis is so concerned about global warming because we aren't "green" enough, then he should appreciate that Bishops are an old form of fossil fuel that is polluting the church and the planet--time to go green with lay -led parishes. No more polluting white smoke coming out of Vatican chimneys......

neil allen
2 months 3 weeks ago

The Catholic Church is just doing what Satan would do:

- Run an organized child rape crime syndicate, in BRUTAL defiance of Jesus in Matthew 18:6-14, where Jesus said child rape was unforgivable

- Hide 100% of known pedophile priests in 100% of cases

- Call itself "God's church"

- Make people feel good about getting away with evil just like the church did

Md Firdos
2 months 3 weeks ago

Thank you for posting such a great article! I found your website perfect for my needs. It contains wonderful and helpful posts. Keep up the good work!. Thank you for this wonderful Article! greatandhra telugu

Lach Satsuma
2 months 3 weeks ago

As far as I see the present reality of our CC I'm pretty sure that the "Vatican II vision of the Church.” served and serves as the central force responsible for that deplorable and pitiful reality.

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