The Plenary Council confronts Church abuse

The Catholic Leader [Archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia]

October 8, 2021

By Mark Bowling

MEMBERS of Australia’s historic Plenary Council assembly have spent a day confronting the abuse and hurt committed inside the Church.

One of the 278 Council members, Francis Sullivan described Day 6 of the Plenary as “harrowing”.

“The atmosphere was solemn, the burden far from light,” he said.

Mr Sullivan is chair of Catholic Social Services Australia and formerly headed the Truth, Justice and Healing Council that oversaw the Church responses to a royal commission into child sexual abuse.

A commission final report delivered in 2017 revealed the appalling extent of clergy abuse, the gross failure of Church leaders to deal properly with allegations, to deliver justice for victims and to co-operate with civil authorities.

There were 21 specific recommendations for the Catholic Church, including setting up a national protocol for screening candidates before and during seminary or religious formation, measures to ensure greater transparency and accountability in Church governance, and payment of compensation to survivors.

“Confronting the shameful history of abuse is vital. That history is alive today,” Mr Sullivan blogged at the end of Day 6 (October 7).

“It is something we carry as a Church, and it must shape us as a Church.”

Council members spent much of the day offline, praying with and reflecting on questions about seeing through the eyes of those who have been abused and reaching those on the peripheries.

Fr Adrian Farrelly, a canon lawyer and a parish priest in Gympie, Queensland, said it was a “moving” experience.

With time set aside for individual reflection, Fr Farrelly said he phoned two women he knew well – one who was abused as a teenager by a parish priest, and another whose eldest daughter was abused.

“There’s no way they would go to Mass because it’s just too raw, but the depth of their faith in God is just unquestioned even in the midst of the hurt,” he said.

“When you’ve got friends who have been abused, or are abusers…  the links within the Catholic community are still there – you are still part of the Body of Christ, even if part is wounded badly,” he said.

Mr Sullivan said Church handling of abuse cases still needed to improve on many fronts.

“The Church effectively still investigates itself in meeting safeguarding standards and addressing initial complaints,” he said.

“The voices of victims seem absent from the governance structures charged with dealing with abuse cases.

“The recommended accountability and professional supervision measures for clergy and Church personnel are far from implemented.

“There has still not been a comprehensive national report on the ‘state of play’ of the current cases of abuse, the resolution of cases and the financial reparations made.

On Day 7 (October 8), Plenary Council members spoke publicly about the progress being made during 12 small group discussions.

Claire Victory, national president of the St Vincent de Paul Society, spoke of her group’s discussion on Church governance and concern about “how we speak in a way that makes sense to the world”.

“Are there voices we’re still not listening to, and lessons we haven’t yet learnt from the Royal Commission?” Ms Victory said.

“We must let go of the model rooted in clericalism and tribalism and instead listen to what the Spirit is saying and also listen to the voices of those who we have been excluded.”

Also looking at governance in relation to synodality and co-responsibility, Professor Renee Kohler-Ryan said her group felt that the inclusion of women should not be reduced to the single issue of ordination for women.

She noted the need for understanding of how lay and ordained, women and men, each bring unique gifts to governance and proclamation of the Gospel.

Deearne Gould told the assembly that her group believed a cultural of continual renewal and review should be encouraged and that relations between parishes, dioceses, new movements and public juridic persons should move out of a “silo mentality”.

“Structures are not the end, but are a means to the end,” she said.

The small group session on Aboriginal spirituality sought to understand more deeply the submission made to the Plenary Council by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council.

Mary O’Reeri told the assembly their discernment had also drawn members to consider the Uluru Statement from the Heart and how they could encourage the Council and all Catholics to back the establishment of a First Nations voice enshrined in the Constitution.