Listening is crucial

Bishop Patrick Power (Photo: Beth Doherty)

These are painful times to be a Catholic, but they can also be an occasion for us all to look to Jesus and to know that “the truth will set us free”, writes Pat Power.

BY Pat Power*

When the Prime Minister announced in November that there would be a Royal Commission into child abuse, I wrote a piece for Eureka Street, some of which I repeat here.

Over the past 20 years I have listened to people who have suffered such abuse, sometimes many years ago, and every time I hear a heart-rending story I see another facet of the horror of this criminal behaviour. The loss of childhood innocence, the secrecy which means that little ones carry a burden that they can share with no one, the misguided sense of guilt which they often carry for many years into adult life, blaming themselves for what someone else has done to them, their shame before God and at times, when they do try to unburden their troubled souls, not being believed or understood.

Speaking to such people who have experienced failed marriages, it becomes clear that sexuality, which is meant to be God’s joyous gift to us, has been a source of confusion and great hurt because of the destructive experiences in childhood. Every person’s experience will be different, but I believe that the present publicity, painful though it be, will give more people the opportunity to unburden themselves and thus take the first steps towards finding healing and peace.

Not long after the announcement of the Royal Commission, I led the annual retreat for the clergy of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn. My brother priests and deacons were battling to know how to best respond to the awful issues which are constantly before us at this moment of our history. But they were unambiguous in acknowledging that the damage and hurt to victims and their families should be our first concern.

They shared their experiences of raising the issue of abuse in their homilies and other forums and in one-to-one conversations with their parishioners, and the positive response that they were given for doing so. I encouraged them in their openness and asked them not to withdraw, but to continue to preach and live the Good News, doing so in a spirit of humility which acknowledges the human frailty we all carry.

Most people would accept that as a Church we have been overly negative in our teaching on sexuality. I think much of the current negative reaction to the Catholic Church is a result of Catholic moral teaching disproportionately concentrating on details of sexual morality. Many of the pronouncements of the Church at the highest level have caused me to question how an all-male celibate voice can realistically enunciate such teaching in a manner which is able to be understood by the whole human family. Unless women and married people are made part of the governance of the Church, there will continue to be a lack of balance and reality in all our teaching, especially around sexuality. I would include homosexuality in that critique.

Listening is crucial in every facet of the Church’s response. I well remember in the 1990s, Bishop Geoff Robinson repeatedly appealing to his brother bishops to listen personally to the victims of abuse and to engage with them. He said that it was only having had such experience that we could even begin to understand the impact of abuse on a person’s life. I remember, too, a touching moment not so long ago, when the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Lazzarotto, shared the impact on him of listening to a family whose child had suffered from abuse within the Church. It was refreshing to hear in the last week of Bishop Bill Wright of Newcastle, listening to a mother at the launch of a book describing the abuse of her son at the hands of a (now-deceased) priest. That the book launch took place in the Cathedral was also powerfully significant.

These are painful times to be a Catholic, but they can also be an occasion for us all to look to Jesus and to know that “the truth will set us free”. If we are humble enough to admit that at times we have got it wrong, sometimes horribly wrong, then there is the opportunity to make reparation and to do all that we can to see that the same mistakes are not repeated. The whole Church is in need of the good healing oil which the Good Samaritan offered the wounded man on the road to Jericho.

Opening the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago, Pope John XXIII called on us to “read the signs of the times” so as to bring the light of the Gospel to every aspect of the life of our Church. My hope is that the Royal Commission can become for the Catholic Church a true instrument of grace and healing.

* Bishop Patrick Power retired in June this year as Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn Diocese. Educated by the Good Samaritan Sisters at St Christopher’s School in Canberra, Pat says he has “retained a continuing affection for and appreciation of the Good Samaritan Sisters who have played an integral part in my life as priest and bishop since my ordination in 1965”.

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The Good Oil, December 11, 2012. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

3 Responses to “Listening is crucial”

  1. Thank you Pat for your forthrightness “spoken” so gently but surely. Marie.

  2. Thank you Bishop Power for reminding us of the need for humility and for the transforming call of Vatican II. We need to continue to listen to the call to be aware of the pain around us in every facet of our lives.

  3. Frank S. says:

    Dear Bishop Power,
    We have just last Sunday had the reading from John 1:23: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah.” (Isaiah 40:30).
    The prophets faced a lot of opposition in Old Testament times and that is continuing, because the truth can be painful. I acknowledge your prophetic voice and highlight your statement: “Many of the pronouncements of the Church at the highest level have caused me to question how an all-male celibate voice can realistically enunciate such teaching in a manner which is able to be understood by the whole human family. Unless women and married people are made part of the governance of the Church, there will continue to be a lack of balance and reality in all our teaching…Listening is crucial in every facet of the Church’s response. I well remember in the 1990s, Bishop Geoff Robinson repeatedly appealing to his brother bishops to listen personally to the victims of abuse and to engage with them.”

    In many cases, Bishop Robinson was clearly another voice crying in the wilderness since the 1990s – that would make it 20 years before the Church to our shame has been forced by a Parliamentary Enquiry and a Royal Commission to “face the truth” that there were cover-ups. He is another prophet who was clearly speaking with and for the Body of Christ, but it seems church leaders at the highest levels found him discomforting, perhaps because they were unwilling to admit that they could be wrong about anything. He said that John Paul II failed to address the greatest moral crisis of his time: the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the Church.

    Apparently, elements of the Church leadership covered up abuse; kept it out of the public eye because to admit that it occurred would mean that the church was not perfect, and if not perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect, then surely it has failed? We could not admit failure. That would be a bad look. It might bring into question all of church dogma. And from the Lay Catholic viewpoint, we were so naïve because of course the church was perfect, its leaders were perfect and to be trusted absolutely, because weren’t the priests the Earthly representatives of and standing in for Christ? What chance then to recognise the evil within? We see only what we believe.

    As you say, “If we are humble enough to admit that at times we have got it wrong, sometimes horribly wrong, then there is the opportunity to make reparation and to do all that we can to see that the same mistakes are not repeated.”

    Sadly, we can no longer trust anyone inside or outside the Church with our children. We have now been alerted to that. But we cannot just blame the criminals for their crimes. The hierarchical structure of the church has facilitated criminal acts by those people who choose to take advantage of it. We need to have a church structure that discourages criminality. There needs to be independent oversight. Perhaps that will be forced upon the church as a recommendation of the Royal Commission of Enquiry. If the church’s leadership wishes to be seen as proactive, it should establish that now, itself.

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