March 2019

A community in crisis

Sr Patty Fawkner SGS

“Though hard to recognise, God is there,” writes Sister Patty Fawkner in response to the crisis of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. 

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

I was in Alabama at the end of February attending a joint meeting of the American Benedictine Prioresses and Abbots. One of the speakers, Jeremy Driscoll, a theologian and Abbot of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon, observed that we tend to forget what an utter crisis Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion and death caused for his disciples.

Think of Jesus’ experience on his path to Calvary. He was betrayed, disbelieved, abused and abandoned.

His death threw his followers into a crisis for which they were ill-prepared. The disciples were left questioning everything – their convictions and their identity. Who was Jesus? Who is God? Where is God? Who are they and what is to become of them without Jesus? Their messianic hope in Jesus collapsed around them. Their faith was shaken to the core.

During the meeting our proceedings were interrupted by a tornado warning – a new experience for me – but not so for the locals. To the relief of the 80 men and women attending, the all clear sounded about 30 minutes later.

Sadly, a week later, a tornado ripped through Alabama killing 23 people, including three children. Scores more were injured and there was widespread devastation and destruction.

On the day before I was due to leave Alabama, I received news of Cardinal George Pell’s conviction. I returned home to a church in utter crisis. We are experiencing our own ‘tornado’.

American Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who made a fine contribution during the ABC’s Q & A program soon after Cardinal Pell was found guilty, correctly observed that the Australian Church, indeed Australia, is traumatised. However, the trauma is not solely because of Cardinal Pell’s conviction and sentencing. It’s cumulative, and is a tipping point for all that had been revealed during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

It occurs to me that we are experiencing our own Calvary moment. It’s easy to understand why some Catholics have abandoned ship. Like the disciples, the faith of Australian Catholics has been rocked. Who is Jesus, some ask? What has his church become? In God’s name, how could this abuse have been allowed to happen? And then covered up? Where is God in all of this?

Though hard to recognise, God is there. God is there in the children who have been abused, betrayed, disbelieved and abandoned – the crucified ones.

The people of Alabama, like Aussies who suffer ravaging bushfires, floods and drought, find ways of moving on in the aftermath of devastation. They somehow find the strength and courage to rebuild in the face of overwhelming loss and grief.

How do we in the Australian Catholic Church move on from here?

For me, a helpful image comes from Leonard Cohen’s classic song, Anthem:

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

There are gaping ‘cracks’ in our Church. A culture of a monumental betrayal of trust has been exposed for its raw ugliness, its criminality, sin, and the incalculable damage to victims, survivors and their families. Some victims have not survived and haven taken their own life.

Is there any glimmer of light? If so, how do we allow it to get in, and shine within our hearts, our communities and our structures?

Light gets in when, as St Benedict says, we “never lose hope in God’s mercy” and pray for healing. Healing for victims and survivors, mercy and healing for perpetrators, and mercy and healing for the entire people of God.

The light will get in when we allow the victims of abuse to lead us and guide us; when we call each and every criminal perpetrator to account. Light will get in when we believe those who have been abused, and going forward, do all in our power to make the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults our priority.

Light will shine if we resist being defensive and do not allow ourselves to indulge in any self-pity, even in the face of some hostility towards Catholic officials and the vandalism of Catholic churches and businesses in the days following the Cardinal’s guilty verdict. Front and centre, our focus must always be on those who have been abused.

“Straying maps the path,” says Rumi, the Sufi mystic. We have strayed by being an egoic Church. In centuries past we arrogantly proclaimed that God’s salvation was only for baptised Catholics. One wonders what kind of God we believed in – certainly not the God of Jesus Christ!

We have strayed from God’s mission and the person of Jesus and his gospel. We have allowed concern for the status, reputation and prestige of the Institution to negate our concern for innocent children. The perpetrators violated their duty of care and church officials didn’t want to know. Criminal and moral negligence at every stage.

A toxic clericalism and a medieval hierarchy will continue unless we begin to listen to and value other voices, especially those of children, women and non-ordained men. How poor and depleted our Church is because women’s voices are muted. The voices of women need to be heard not only in classrooms, but from pulpits, and where key decision-making occurs within the Institutional Church.

The Church has strayed ‘big time’ and is being called to account. We are being invited to become a more humble and human Church, a Church without status and prestige, a Church which is truer to the person and message of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is utterly vulnerable on the Cross. The seeds of the divine are found in weakness, not in strength. Just as the resurrection of Jesus is the unexpected hope to that first community of disciples – a community in crisis – so we as Australian Catholics must put our hope in the Risen One. In both his death on the Cross and in his Resurrection, Christ rebirths hope. God’s fidelity is our hope.

The contemporary French poet Christian Bobin could be talking about the Australian Catholic Church when he says, “We fail our lives. We fail everything. What is strange in that fact is that grace still gets to us, when we do all we can to render ourselves unreachable.”

The light gets in; grace will still get to us. There is reason for hope.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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