June 2013

A call for Vatican III to eradicate sexual abuse

There are only two forces in the Church that have the authority to make the changes necessary to banish sexual abuse: the Pope and an Ecumenical Council, writes Bishop Geoffrey Robinson.

BY Geoffrey Robinson

In responding to sexual abuse within the Catholic Church I believe we must do three things: deal firmly and openly with offenders; reach out compassionately to victims; and identify and eradicate all factors within the Church that may have contributed either to abuse or to the poor response to abuse.

Much effort has been put into the first two, and in Australia, no less than three commissions are now assessing the response of the Church in these two fields.

It is the third field – eradicating the causes of abuse – that now needs attention. The Royal Commission cannot do it for us; it is the Church itself that must take up this task and carry it through without fear or favour.

There have been so many crimes of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church that we cannot just blame individuals, but must look for systemic causes. There have been so many cases of a poor response by authorities that, again, we cannot just blame individuals, but must look for systemic causes.

It is now 30 years since revelations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church first received headlines. Over all that time there is no evidence that powers within the Vatican have ever made a serious attempt to identify and eradicate the systemic factors within the Church that have contributed either to abuse or to the poor response.

Once abuse has occurred, complete healing is impossible. The only real solution is prevention, and the only way to prevent abuse is to remove the causes.

I have written a book entitled For Christ’s Sake: End Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church… For Good in which I set out my own understanding of some of the major causes. I am sure others can add to this.

The factors I speak of are: people serving God out of fear rather than love; a morality based on obeying laws and superiors rather than taking responsibility; the teaching of the Church on sexual morality; the exclusion of women from positions of influence; persons dedicated to priesthood but living an unwanted and unassimilated celibacy; the idea that priests are somehow above other people, on a pedestal; the lack of professionalism in the lives of priests; and psychologically unhealthy living conditions of many priests.

Together with Bishops Pat Power and Bill Morris and many, many other people, I am calling for a Council of the whole Church to deal with the one subject of factors contributing to both abuse and the poor response. To that end, we have launched an online global petition.

Catholic people are appalled by the scandal. I believe this petition is a chance for them to speak up and join a collective voice that will be heard in Rome. Change is possible. Think of how “people power” brought about change in the Philippines, in Eastern Europe, in South Africa and in the Arab Spring.

Pope Francis brings a new spirit to the Vatican. He has lived his life in the Church of the poor in South America and he has said many times already that this is his priority. He has also said that among the poor and injured, victims of clergy abuse must be given a special place. It is our hope that he will see this petition as a way to achieve the kind of Church he himself wants.

There are only two forces in the Church that have the authority to make the changes necessary to banish sexual abuse: the Pope and an Ecumenical Council. Experience over the last 50 years shows that, while a Pope alone can prevent change happening in the Church, a Pope alone cannot bring about profound change and needs a Council in order to do this (for example, Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council). Pope Francis needs the support of the Catholic people of the world in order to bring about this Council.

In addition to calling for a Council, the petition calls for significant lay participation in that Council. My book asks that for every bishop member of the Council there also be a lay member, and that these be both male and female. It also asks that all major decisions of the Council be submitted to the judgement of the entire Church.

The pope and bishops have lost a vast amount of credibility over the issue of abuse, and statements by them alone, even in Council, would not be convincing. It is only the laity who can restore credibility to them, so they must have a truly significant role in the Council.

Anyone may sign the petition, but there is a question included: “Are you a Catholic?”, because we need to know how many members of the Church itself are asking for a Council. “Are you a Catholic?” does not mean “Do you go to Mass every Sunday?” It means “Have you ever been baptised or received into the Catholic Church at any time in the past?” People who have stopped going to church need the opportunity to say through this petition why they have stopped going.

Many may be cynical about the chances of success, but please don’t give up on the idea of change before we even try. We need your signature. Then we need you to invite several other people to sign, and each of those to invite several others.

Become part of a “people power” movement to rid the Church of the evil of sexual abuse.

The online petition can be accessed at www.change.org/forchristssake

Geoffrey Robinson

Retired Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney Geoffrey Robinson was born in 1937 and ordained for the Archdiocese of Sydney in 1960. He holds advanced degrees in philosophy, theology and canon law, and is the author of several books. His latest book is "For Christ's Sake: End Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church... For Good".

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