Australian bishop who was victim of sex abuse speaks on U.S. church’s crisis

By Jim Mcdermott
America Magazine
September 19, 2018

Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen of Parramatta, chairman of the Australian bishops' social justice council, is pictured in a 2014 photo.

Bishop Vincent Long is the Bishop of Parramatta, a diocese northwest of Sydney. A former Assistant General of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual, he is Australia’s first Asian-born bishop and the first Vietnamese-born bishop to head a diocese outside of Vietnam.

In 2017 Bishop Long testified before Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. In his testimonyhe revealed, “I was also a victim of sexual abuse by clergy when I first came to Australia, even though I was an adult, so that had a powerful impact on me and how I want to, you know, walk in the shoes of other victims and really endeavour to attain justice and dignity for them."

This is the third in a series of interviews Jim McDermott, S.J., is conducting on the sexual abuse crisis. This interview was conducted by e-mail.

Bishop Long, what are your reactions to the events of the last three weeks in the United States and beyond? What do you see happening in the church right now?

The events in these last few weeks, including the sensational accusations against Pope Francis himself by the former nuncio to the U.S., has caused great turmoil in the church. The sexual abuse crisis is inundating the whole church like a tsunami and it has the potential to cause long-term damage, chaos and even schism. It is the biggest crisis since the Reformation and it exposes the ideological conflict that runs deeply through the length and breadth of the universal church.

The anti-Pope Francis forces...have accelerated their frontal attacks against him in a coordinated and virulent manner. The gloves are clearly off and they have seized this moment of turmoil as an opportunity to undermine his papacy and derail his reform agenda. What is interesting, too, is the number of bishops who have chosen to sympathize with these forces and therefore shown their not-so-subtle disapproval of the way the pope is leading the church.

“I was also a victim of sexual abuse by clergy when I first came to Australia."

Clearly, Captain Francis will have to weather both the storm and the mutiny onboard. I just hope and pray that he stays the course because nothing less than a deep and comprehensive reform will restore confidence and trust in the church. It is time for the church, especially its leaders, to listen with great humility and embark upon a journey of radical conversion. I firmly believe that we must seize this time of crisis as a catalyst for change and not as a temporary aberration. We must have the courage to do whatever is needed to bring about the church that is worthy of Christ and his Gospel.

We should not fear this time. For it can be a great opportunity and a tremendous blessing in disguise.

The church in Australia seems to sit in a somewhat similar position to that of the United States right now, with the Royal Commission and the Pennsylvania grand jury both begging the question of next steps. What do you see as the next major steps the episcopacy must take?

They say culture eats strategy for breakfast. Any attempt at ridding the church of child sex abuse by clergy will have to deal with its root causes. I believe the clerical sexual abuse crisis is a symptom of a dysfunctional, corrosive and destructive culture in the church. Pope Francis often denounces clericalism, which is endemic to many aspects and levels of the institutional church such as the Roman Curia, the Diocesan structures, seminaries, etc. Ultimately, it is not a question of individual manifestations of clericalism. It is a question of clericalism inherent in the very culture of the church, which we must look at very honestly.

If we are to make the church a safe and healthy environment for children and vulnerable adults, we must not only hold the perpetrators and enablers to account but also explore the cultural and structural reforms needed to move the church forward.

Critical among these is the exercise of power. Abuse of a sexual nature is often a manifestation of abuse of power. An effective response to the crisis must include, therefore, an examination of the exercise of power in the church, not only among the clergy but also in the very structure of the church. A healthy approach to and exercise of power is grounded in an understanding of power as relational and intended for service, rather than as dominance, entitlement and privilege.

Any attempt at ridding the church of child sex abuse by clergy will have to deal with its root causes.

These are the major steps I believe are needed for the church leaders to take: enabling survivors to attain truth, justice and healing; creating a safer and healthier church environment for children and vulnerable adults; and facilitating the faithful, particularly women, to participate with full citizenship in the church’s life, governance structures and decision-making processes.

In all these steps, it is necessary to have a body equipped with expertise, experience and independence in order to investigate, review, recommend standards, governance and management structures of dioceses, parishes and institutions, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women.

It is very hard for people to understand how the culture of the church continues to allow for obfuscation, cover-up and at times a refusal to take responsibility for serious mistakes. How do you see these matters? Why even now, and even among leaders who have done so much good otherwise, do they persist? What will it take, in your opinion, to change the culture of the church?

The culture of clerical hegemony has been solidly entrenched in the Catholic Church since it began to take center stage in the Roman Empire. It is a by-product of the model of church, which sees itself as self-sufficient, superior to and separate from the outside world. Its security, reputation and internal relationships are the center of attention. The church in this model becomes the church of the ordained at the expense of the baptized. As a result, the ordained becomes an exalted and elitist club that protects the interests and privileges its members. This explains the obfuscation and cover-up, which is so endemic to this club mentality. It is a far cry from the model of the Humble Servant at the Last Supper and it is a powerful ingredient and ideal condition for the disease of clericalism to fester.

In my opinion, we really need to, once and for all, jettison that clericalist model of church. It has served us well beyond its use-by date. The church as understood and articulated by the Second Vatican Council sees itself as a pilgrim People of God, incarnate in the world. It is a new paradigm—one that is based on mutuality not exclusion, love not fear, service not clericalism, engagement with the world not flight from or hostility against it, incarnate grace not dualism. The time has come for us to embrace and implement unambiguously and decisively the vision of the pilgrim church that the Second Vatican Council entrusted to us. The time has come for the church to be truly the church of the baptized and together with the ordained, all the People of God can create a new culture of humility, accountability and service.


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