Can the Catholic Church survive?

Posted: November 14, 2012 by J in Church

Cardinal George Pell addresses the congregation at St Marys Cathederal during Easter Sunday Morning Solemn Mass in Sydneys CBD.

MORE than 70 per cent of the Brothers from the St John of God order are suspected child abusers and the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney should immediately shut it down, says a psychologist who was employed by the order to meet scores of victims.

…Last week a Melbourne inquiry into child abuse heard allegations that Brothers had drugged and pack-raped boys at their operations in Victoria.

-SMH report, Nov. 12 2012

They’ve made a mockery of everything.

-my elderly, Catholic neighbours

These are just small snippets of a much-larger picture, which reaches beyond the RC church.  The above allegations may not even be true. But what they point to is a tidal wave of distress and outrage which is currently breaking over the edifice of the Catholic church. The Royal Commission is rightly not limited to church behaviour. But Sydney’s Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell seems unable to articulate what everyone now knows – that the child abuse scandal has reached disastrous, monstrous, institution-breaking proportions.

Which raises the question, can the RC church in Australia survive this calamity?

What will the Catholic church look like in 5 years? How will attendance at its services be? We cannot help foreseeing a significant departure of sheep from the fold. A widespread implosion. It’s an old old church and this won’t be the finish of it, but it may be the long-term loss of its place of trust in Australian society.

Not just because of the crimes. But because of the cover ups, and above all because of the failure at the highest levels of leadership to realise what was needed, and respond properly to the crisis. The church’s addiction to secrecy and instinct to suppress evidence are looking like bringing it undone. For they give the strong impression that the institution’s first allegiance is to its leaders, not to the people. To the powerful, not the vulnerable.

And blind Freddy can see the hypocrisy in that, for a Christian set-up.

Without a kind of Glasnost, a new policy of openness, it’s hard to see how the church can have any sort of future. But how damaging that the state has to intervene and impose that policy, because the church is not willing. All signs suggest that the any regulations imposed by the state will be resisted and receive minimal compliance at best. (For OS readers, our Prime Minister has just announced a Royal Commission into the handling of child abuse cases by organisations like churches).

George Pell is clearly not the man for the hour. At a moment when clear-sighted, wise and sensitive leadership is needed, when there is a desperate need for someone who can inject some confidence and calm into the crisis scene, Pell’s public comments regularly make things worse.

Pell’s default mode seems to be denying things. He didn’t know, he wasn’t involved in the process, the Brothers don’t report to him, etc, etc. He gives the impression of admitting to the minimum possible, only to what is undeniable.  And he never wants to accept personal responsibility, even for the things that have happened on his watch. This is disastrous. As his organisation self-destructs, he seems determined to keep up appearances. The trouble is, appearances are shot to pieces. What is needed is for Pell to be telling us the worst. Unless we hear it from Pell, he will not be able to escape inclusion in the sense of betrayal Australia is feeling.

There is a time when the best form of defence is attack, but this is not that time. It may be that the media exaggerates and singles out the RC church more than other groups. But now is not the time for Pell to be harping on that note. The pugilistic, defensive posture is all wrong. We won’t hear any contrition or sorrow for the victims coming through over that growling, whining noise. Pell just needs to let it go. If he’s seen to be straining out the media’s gnat while letting through the camel in his own eye, it’s all bad.

Nothing Pell has said or done has convinced us that he’s the man to fix things. And so now that state has had to step in to fix it for him – what an indictment that is.

At a time like this, the Catholic church simply can’t afford to have substandard leadership. Which returns us to the question: will the Catholic church be able to survive?

We take no pleasure in this. Our own team is not squeaky clean. But we can’t afford to ignore what’s happening, or not to learn its lessons. It’s just too close to home.

What will be the effect on our own cause of the RC church’s spectacular fall from grace?

  • Will a smaller RC influence in society be a good or bad thing over-all?
  • Will it make our job of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus easier or harder in the next generation?
  • Will we evangelicals be tarred with the same brush, or will we manage to distinguish ourselves from the RC church clearly enough to escape the loss of credibility?
  • How should we respond to what’s happening?

I’d like to hear people’s thoughts.

  1. Alan Wood says:

    Our differences with the Roman Catholic church are at the level of soteriology. That’s at least one level down from the person and work of Christ. But we aren’t even differentiated from Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses – or Muslims. We’re all God-botherers, Bible-thumpers, ‘religious zealots’, fundamentalists, fanatics, etc. – and in this instance, hypocrites and coverer-uppers. No, I don’t think we will be able to differentiate ourselves from the RC church in the mind of the average Australian.
    I think I’d put that down to some good communicating by Protestants in the past 50-odd years – since Billy Graham (correlation isn’t causation) we’ve presented a united front without too much brand differentiation – so, united we fall.
    It will definitely make “the job” harder, unless it is handled *really* well from here on out – and I don’t see that happening, and can’t quite see how it can be. Costly, sincere repentance is really the bare minimum. Perhaps Christian churches can be *for* the abused – communities of support, champions of justice, advocates, resource providers for peak groups and representatives… there’s plenty we could do – do we feel obliged enough to do it? And why don’t we do the same for all the broken, marginalised people we’ve blown off over the years? And how do we explain why we’re suddenly concerned now, and weren’t before, if this sudden flip is so expressive of our identity in Christ?
    Just to attack your framing of the question for a moment, can we say that *any* time the concentration of Australian society falls on Christians and our actions and words is an opportunity to proclaim the gospel in thought, word and deed? Isn’t every day a moment of repentance, picking up pieces, and trusting in God to start again?
    But to speak at the human level again, the RC church isn’t going to win many abused people back, and given the wide remit of the Royal Commission, we’re probably stuffed, too. Grace and love can be surprising, but ‘we’ are the perpetrators here. Whatever they do – whatever we do – will probably come out as ‘only fair, too – serves ’em right’.

    • Jonathan says:

      Alan you say
      given the wide remit of the Royal Commission, we’re probably stuffed, too. Grace and love can be surprising, but ‘we’ are the perpetrators here.

      Is there evidence of much child-abuse in for example the Sydney Anglican Diocese? Sounds like you’re assuming there’s a lot repent of in this area?

      Are there stats?

      • Alan Wood says:

        That’s why I put inverted commas around the “we”. What Mike said: we’ll get lumped in with everyone else as ‘the Church’ when people form their judgments. So the exact level of infection within the Anglican Diocese of Sydney may not determine how we are viewed in the end as a result of the continuing fallout from this evil.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Thanks Alan, you’ve obviously done some serious thinking about this.

    I agree about this being not a time to try to preach. I was more thinking about the next 30 years, as the fall-out continues to fall: will a diminished Catholic voice in society make our job of communicating the gospel harder or easier?

  3. Have to agree with Alan that we are likely to be tarred with the same brush. One of the things a good friend keeps saying is Peter Jesnens greatest legacy is the Professional Standards Unit. They really have worked hard to clean things up in Sydney. I think the Wood Royal commisssion did bring up some things in Syd Ang land. We are by no means squeaky clean (over the years)
    But the general public have no idea about church structures. if something happens in the Newcastle Anglican diocese, no-one knows that under our current structure there is little to no connection to Sydney Anglicans.
    And I have to admit that I have no idea about the complexities of structure in the Roman Catholic church. Perhaps George Pell really does have little control or knowledge of particular religious orders. Who knows how much power he actually has to do anything? Or make any apology? Or statement?
    It is just sad. Sad for everybody.
    one thing that does become clear is that organisational structures and procedures matter. They matter a lot. They are part of protecting the sheep from wolves.

  4. Dan W says:

    Had a PSU talk today at MD training. 192 allegations have gone to court between 1990 and 2008 for matters taking place in the Anglican Church of Australia. The guy with the stats couldn’t quite remember the number that had actually taken place in Sydney (very minimal though), but his strong point was, ‘even one is one too many!’ Good call.

    And yes, wouldn’t matter if none had occurred, we’ll still get tarred. Our only hope is for us to so act that people have the view; ‘The Church is stuffed, but the Christians I know at our local church aren’t like that. They love people, they care for the marginalised and abused.’ Perhaps in time their attitude towards ‘the church’ will change, but that’s not so important.

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