Australian prelate: Laity could have prevented ‘catastrophic’ abuse crisis

21 June 2018
Archbishop of Brisbane, Archbishop Mark Coleridge. Image: The Catholic Leader.


ROME – Arguably, few people in Australia can say they are more on the front lines in picking up the pieces after the recently concluded Royal Commission into Institutional Sexual Abuse that was highly critical of the Catholic Church than Archbishop Mark Coleridge, elected as president of the country’s bishops’ conference last month.

Despite the challenges, which also include trials of two of Australia’s most renowned clerics, Archbishop Philip Wilson in Adelaide and Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s finance czar, Coleridge is convinced that when it comes to fighting clerical sexual abuse, a “change in culture” is needed and is already in motion.

“There’s absolutely no room for complacency, but there is room for encouragement,” Coleridge told Crux on Monday in Rome.

The Australian prelate is in the eternal city this week to participate in the “Anglophone Safeguarding Conference,” a yearly gathering taking place since the early 2000s, bringing together bishops’ conferences from the English-speaking world under the aegis of Rome’s Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Among other things, Coleridge spoke with Crux about the role of the laity in addressing the problem, because if “there had been more lay people involved in decision making roles in times past, we wouldn’t have the catastrophe on our hands that we now have.”

“There’s no point in denying that, generally, clericalism was at the heart of the problem, and still is. Part of the culture shift we’re trying to bring about is to break the hold of that clericalism. Therefore, obviously lay people need to take on responsibilities that are new in the Catholic Church,” he said.

Coleridge’s interview with Crux aired on Monday on the “Crux of the Matter” radio show, which airs every Monday at 1 p.m. EST on the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM 129. What follows are fragments of that conversation.

Crux: You’re here for the Anglophone Conference. Can you tell us what that is and what’s on your agenda?

Coleridge: The very first meetings in the early 2000s were held, I believe, in the British Isles, but there was a decision that Rome was a better base, and also the Center for Child protection at the Gregorian University became very interested, particularly under the direction of Hans Zollner, who’s been a key figure in the conference in recent years.

The idea is that various bishops’ conferences of the English-speaking world, and that gives us a vast variety, come together once a year, not just the bishops but those who work closely in this area of safeguarding and child protection, to pull together our wisdom, questions, resources, on the understanding that seeing the complexity and the scale on this matter of child protection, we need all the information we can get.

This conference that is held every year around the same time at the Gregorian University brings together the English-speaking bishops’ conferences, which means places like Australia, the United States, the British Isles, Canada, Africa, Asia, you name it, Anglophonia is a big place!

We take a particular theme, this year the theme is ‘Child protection and culture.’ That’s a vast theme, because it was a particular kind of culture or dark aspects of culture that enabled abuse and the cover up that followed. We’re trying to analyze that phenomenon and see what can be done, which is the hardest thing to do, as we all know. It was said during the Royal Commission in Australia that ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’

You can talk strategy and structure all you like, but if it doesn’t change the culture, you’re really adopting a cosmetic approach.

The other thing about the conference, and this is becoming true in recent years, is the collaboration between the local churches and the Universal Church. And that is a crucial collaboration. The Holy See was slow to get on board with this on some ways, but I believe that Zollner, the German Jesuit here at the Gregorian, was a crucial figure in moving the Holy See more vigorously to engage.

So really, it’s not just the English-speaking churches coming together, it’s the local churches and the Universal Church, and in that sense, it’s become quite a powerful thing. We have about 75 participants this time, a number of bishops, but others who are religious and laity. It’s a fascinating diversity of characters, cultures and backgrounds.

I was invited to give a presentation on the cultural factors at work in abuse and its cover-up, and I was very keen to accept the invitation because it’s something I’ve thought about for 25 years, I’ve written about it. I said to myself, in normal circumstances, I wouldn’t be at this meeting, but seeing the invitation I was very happy to come and share what meager wisdom I’ve collected after long and agonizing pondering.

You’ve spoken about the importance of changing culture and that of the local and universal churches coming together. But often times, when we talk about these issues, we reduce the Church to clergy and religious. What is the role the laity is expected to play, but also, needs to be allowed to play in the changing of the culture when it comes to clerical sexual abuse?

I think that if it was left to just the clergy and religious, culture won’t change. I think the lay people, the baptized, who are most of the Church, have a crucial role to play. I haven’t looked at the breakout of this group of 75, but I would think that at least half would be lay people. And they’re in crucial roles, they really are.

It has often been said, and it’s hard to dispute, that if there had been more lay people involved in decision making roles in times past, we wouldn’t have the catastrophe on our hands that we now have. It’s not an option, and I think this is at the heart of this cultural shift.

To break the patterns of clericalism, this is something that emerged with extraordinary clarity in the Royal Commission in Australia. Clericalism has been at the heart of the problem. How you define clericalism is a teleologic thing.

There’s no point in denying that, generally, clericalism was at the heart of the problem, and still is. Part of the culture shift we’re trying to bring about is to break the hold of that clericalism. Therefore, obviously lay people need to take responsibilities that are new in the Catholic Church. It’s true in Rome, and I think Pope Francis certainly understands that. And it’s definitely true in places such as my own diocese of Brisbane and throughout Australia. That is a major challenge.

We’re seeing an interesting interaction on this in Mexico, where the archbishop of Mexico City and the diocese and SNAP have announced that they will be as a whole actually working together.

I’ve seen that. It’s something that I would like to do, to work more closely with abuse survivors’ groups. It’s not the easiest thing to do, not all the groups are keen on working with the bishops. But I’m very interested to see what is happening in Mexico, I’d like to know more about it, what shape it will have and how did it come about.

The pastoral outreach to survivors is another major element of the cultural shift. How do we work with them? Because there has been such a sense of antagonism, that we have to move beyond if we’re going to make progress at all.

We’re on the verge of a sentencing with Archbishop Philip Wilson in Adelaide, and the Vatican has intervened appointing a new administrator. How do you, as president of the Australian bishops’ conference, guide a pastoral response not just to this diocese but to an abuse scandal that has really plagued the nation?

The symbolic impact of Archbishop Wilson’s trial and now sentencing is colossal in Australia, but not just in Australia. It’s some kind of threshold for the Universal Church, and I think the people in Rome understand that. It’s possible that the sentencing will be tomorrow, and it’s possible that he will receive a custodian sentencing, which would be the ultimate humiliation.

This has been traumatic for him personally, and I say this of a man who’s been a great friend through the years, so I speak very personally about this, not just institutionally, so the things that have been said about him struck me as unjust, untrue and cruel. It’s affected him physically, and I think it has destroyed his capacity to govern in a permanent way, no matter the result of eventual appeals.

I had come to a point of being strongly in support of an apostolic administrator, and I think it was fortunate to have Archbishop O’Kelly on hand. He was the ideal man in many ways. He was for many reasons just the man for what was a tumultuous situation not only in Archbishop Wilson’s life, but in the diocese of Adelaide.

And you have to keep in mind too that Cardinal [George] Pell, who’s an even higher profile than Archbishop Wilson is himself facing two trials. It’s hard to know what’s going on with Cardinal Pell because there’s been a media blackout. There’s a lot of gossip, but it’s hard to know the facts.

It’s not Archbishop Wilson in a vacuum or in isolation. It’s part of a larger configuration. And in some way, whatever the integrity of the legal process, which has to be respected obviously, but it’s hard to resist the sense that there’s some element of determination to make heads roll. I wouldn’t want to push that too far, but it’s hard to resist that in the case of Archbishop Wilson and Cardinal Pell.

It’s had a major impact on the Church in Australia. What it will mean long term, it’s hard to know. But it’s certainly meant that I, who’ve been recently appointed as head of the bishops’ conference in Australia, had a baptism of fire with the aftermath of the Royal Commission, plus these trials against two of our most high profile bishops.

It’s been very torrid indeed. One of the things about being in Rome this time is that I have the safe guarding meeting at the Gregorian, but I also have a series of meetings with people in the Curia. And one of the things that has impressed me already in these days that I’ve been here, is that there seems to be a real determination to help me in the Vatican.

Which as you will remember on this particular issue, hasn’t always been the case…

No, I think there was a perplexity on how to respond. One of the things that I find here is that people are full of good intentions, and they’re highly competent people, but they haven’t sat across a table and listened to the voice of victim survivors. They haven’t coopted the anger and heard the stories, and until you’ve done that, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. It’s not their fault, that they’re just out of the cold face from the way a diocesan bishop is.

There has been a very significant change in more recent times. And what I see here, strongly, certainly in the Secretariat of State and other bodies, such as the Commission for the Protection of Minors, here’s a real determination to help. And also a capacity to think creatively about how that might happen.

Do you remember what the atmosphere here was in 2002-2003, when the crisis exploded in the United States …

It was utterly different. Once upon a time, you had extraordinary Rome minds, saying that this was “a problem of the English-speaking world.” What we know now is that the child sexual abuse is everywhere, but it’s configured differently from culture to culture.

I feel very encouraged, I must say, from the conversations I’ve had already with people in the Vatican since I’ve been in this position, that there is a determination to work with all the local churches in really trying to, first of all, understand the phenomenon and the scale and complexity, and then to tie action, not just wring the hands or have another discussion, but to actually take action.

The whole Chile thing on the other hand, I think has had a tremendous impact, and it’s hardly surprising.

There is absolutely no room for complacency, but there is room for encouragement.

By Inés San Martín. With thanks to Crux where this article originally appeared.


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