In the lead-up to the announcement of the Royal Commission and now in its aftermath, Catholic clergy have again been humiliated in a way that spares none of us. This seems to have gone on for years, and it is hard to gauge accurately the toll it has taken on the ordained. I suspect it is more severe than we are usually prepared to acknowledge. In my nearly forty years as a priest, nothing approaches the sexual abuse crisis as a blow to clergy morale. All of us have been left shamed, bewildered, angry and discouraged. Every time there is a lull in the storm, when we seem to be finding a way forward, something blows up to make the storm rage more fiercely than before. That is what is happening now with the announcement of the Royal Commission and all that surrounds it; and more of these moments will come as the Commission begins its work.
The percentage of Catholic clergy who have offended is disturbingly high, even if it is absurd to claim that the abuse of minors is primarily a Catholic problem. Only some clergy have offended, it is true; but all of us are mired, and there is no way we can avoid that. Denial is long behind us, and defensiveness is futile. The only way forward now is to face the full horror of what has happened, and to do so humbly and courageously as men of faith who have entrusted our lives to Jesus crucified and risen.
The pressure of shame, bewilderment, anger and discouragement can induce a kind of amnesia. We can forget that evil is an awesome power. We can forget that the only power greater than evil is the love of God which raised Jesus from the dead. We can forget that the Church has always been a mess in one way or another and that the challenge has always been to see the magnificence at the heart of the mess. We can forget that the magnificence is the presence of the Risen Lord himself, without whose presence the Church is a rotting corpse not the Body of Christ radiant with a life bigger than death, a love greater than evil. We can forget that it is Christ who has called each of us into the mystery of his own priesthood, and that he who has called us will not betray or abandon us. Now is above all a time to remember, keeping in mind that for the Old Testament one of the words for “sin” is “to forget”.
With all that is swirling around us, I want to encourage each of you to be more faithful than ever to the disciplines of the spiritual life, so that you may see more clearly the face of Jesus and hear his voice. We must come closer to him. Therefore, the need for prayer, both public and private, is urgent. We need the power of the Eucharist, even daily, the Liturgy of the Hours and meditative prayer in its different forms, especially those which draw their inspiration from Scripture. This is also the time for a new and regular experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and spiritual direction. Regular and effective in-service training is also required now. These are trustworthy means of remembering in the right way.
I also want to encourage you to go on day by day doing quietly and faithfully what you were ordained to do as priest and pastor, especially preaching the word and celebrating the sacraments. Your people will need support and encouragement as they deal with the difficult issues before us. They too are struck by shame, bewilderment, anger and discouragement; and they are vulnerable to unhelpful readings of the situation. The undramatic task of tending the flock of Christ will never make the news, but it is essential to the life of the Church.
In the media there has been talk about the seal of the confessional. This has been something between a distraction and a sideshow. The seal of the confessional is inviolable, and that is not open to negotiation. This is because the sacramental confession of sin is not in the end between the penitent and the confessor but between the penitent and God. Talk of abandoning the seal of the confessional comes usually from those who leave God out of the mix. If the confession of sin were only between the penitent and the confessor, the seal would be open to negotiation. But because it is between the penitent and God, the seal is inviolable. The Catholic Church does not leave God out of the mix, nor would we ever be free to do so.
This touches on the question of the relationship between the culture of crime and punishment such as we find in the courts, and the culture of sin and forgiveness such as we find in the Church. The two are distinct but they can never be at odds, though we have struggled to find the point where the two converge. Australia is a society based upon the rule of law, and that is one of our great strengths. The rule of law means that when crimes are committed, appropriate punishment must follow; and the Church is not exempt from that. But once we move from speaking of crime and punishment to speaking of sin and forgiveness, God again enters the mix. The law cannot deal with God, but the Church must.
God will not get much of a mention in the hearings of the Royal Commission, and so it has to be. But we, who are called to be men of God, cannot forget that without God Jesus is just another role-model, the Church is just another human institution and the priesthood is just another job. Should our horizon ever shrink to that point, then the last word in our lives and in the life of the Church would go to shame, bewilderment, anger and discouragement. Now is the time to look more resolutely than ever to a larger horizon where the last word belongs to God in whom there is mercy, peace, hope and love.
I leave you with the words of the Psalmist: “For love of my brethren and friends, I say, ‘Peace upon you’; for love of the house of the Lord, I will ask for your good” (122:8-9). Pray for me as I will for you and your people.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge
November 20, 2012