A Bishop drops a bombshell  
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Dr. Paul Collins

A Bishop drops a bombshell

A commentary on Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s Confronting Power and Sex in the Church. Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus, Mulgrave, Victoria, John Garratt Publishing, 2007.

Personally Bishop Geoffrey Robinson is a rather reserved man, not much given to small talk or being the life of the party. As one reporter put it, personally he is “shy and guarded”. With a Doctorate in Canon Law from Rome, he is one of Australia’s leading canonists who for many years headed the tribunal of the archdiocese of Sydney. He was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney in 1984 and retired twenty years later in 2004, even though he was only sixty-seven years old and had not reached the mandatory retirement age of seventy-five. The official reason given for his retirement was ‘ill health’, but it was clear to insiders that the real problem was incompatibility between himself and Archbishop George Pell who had been appointed to Sydney from Melbourne in 2001.

Back in 1994 Robinson had been elected by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to what Robinson himself calls in his book “a position of leadership in responding to revelations of (sexual) abuse, and for the following nine years I was at the heart of this storm within my country.” The victim of an act of sexual abuse himself by a stranger when he was a teenager, Robinson increasingly became the champion of the victims. It was he who was instrumental in drawing up the Towards Healing protocols which now govern the way the Catholic church deals with accusations of sexual abuse in Australia. However, his championing of victims rights didn’t earn him friends in the Vatican. He reports that his public criticism when talking to a group of abuse victims in 1996 of John Paul II’s failure to respond adequately to the crisis led to two letters from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops which expressed “the on-going concern of the Congregation that you have in recent months expressed views that are seriously critical of the magisterial teaching and discipline of the church.” This, of course, was nonsense, but nevertheless within a couple of months the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was involved. Robinson admits in his book that he “felt personally hurt by this criticism”.

In Australia the sexual abuse storm reached its most intense point in August 2002 when Archbishop George Pell was accused and voluntarily stood down. The accusation was that in 1961 or 1962 he had abused a twelve year old altar boy at a camp when Pell was an eighteen or nineteen-year-old student for the priesthood. Although not primarily responsible for this case, at the time Robinson was still involved with the church’s National Committee for Professional Standards and was inevitably caught up in the controversy over the accusations against Pell. His position was complicated by the fact that he was Pell’s Auxiliary Bishop. A retired lay civil judge was appointed by the church to examine the whole affair and he reported that while the complainant was “impressive” and “truthful”, Pell denied the accusation under oath and the alleged sexual abuse could not be established “beyond reasonable doubt”, the standard applied in criminal trials in the common law tradition. The Archbishop was cleared and went on to become a cardinal.

But Robinson, who early in his episcopal career might himself in better times have had a chance of being appointed Archbishop of Sydney, was ultimately not prepared to continue on as Auxiliary Bishop. He says in the book that “I eventually came to the point where I felt that, with the thoughts that were running through my head, I could not continue to be a bishop of a church about which I had such profound reservations”. So he resigned as Auxiliary and set out to write a book “about the very foundations of power and sex within the church”.

It is precisely because he has been so much part of the ecclesiastical establishment that his book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church has caused such a stir. The rather sober Melbourne newspaper The Age describes him as “Calling for the most radical changes since Martin Luther started the 16th century Protestant Reformation”. While this is journalistic exaggeration, it is no wonder Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart said that his book “will in due time be judged by the church’ (i.e. the CDF), and criticized it for causing “grave harm ... among the faithful”, as though the faithful were too stupid to make up their own minds!

Essentially what Robinson is arguing is that the church has misused its power, that its approach to sexuality is vitiated by the fact that it sees sexual sin as being against ‘nature’ as established by God. He argues that the church needs to recover a biblical morality which is ‘person-centered’. He asks “Should we not look at sexual morality in terms of the good or harm done to persons and the relationships between them rather than in terms of a direct offense against God? ... Following from this, may we say that sexual pleasure, like all other pleasure, is in itself morally neutral, neither good nor bad? It is rather the circumstances affecting persons that make this pleasure good or bad.”

He is particularly scathing on the church’s misuse of power and the failure of the Vatican and the two most recent popes to confront the sexual abuse crisis rather than merely ‘managing’ it, by which he means shifting the blame to organizations other than the church. In a recent speech he attacked the papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, for attempting to shift blame away from the church. He says “It was disheartening when, on a recent visit to the United States, (Bertone) was asked about sexual abuse and first blamed the media, then greedy lawyers, then said that the church had ‘faced this trial with great dignity and courage’”. Bertone said he hoped other institutions were as courageous and realistic as the Catholic church. Robinson commented that ”I believe that most of the Australian bishops had moved beyond this point more than a decade ago, so it is discouraging to hear that it still prevails at the highest levels. It is a typical example of trying to manage rather than confront a problem”.

While I personally agree with almost everything in the book, my own reaction to Confronting Power and Sex in the Church is quite ambivalent. At one level I found the book lacking a certain amount of grace in that it doesn’t acknowledge that many of us have been saying for years exactly the same things that Robinson says, often at considerable personal cost. But no where does he acknowledge this. It is as though what others have said doesn’t really matter until a bishops says it. And he is not even the first bishop to say many of these things. That pioneering role in Australia belongs to Bishop Patrick Power, the Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn, who for a decade or more now has stood up publicly and said in the media what Robinson says more discreetly in his book.

Also I wonder if the sexual abuse crisis is the best prism through which to view the need for reform and change in the church. While the sexual abuse revelations might well be sounding the death-knell of a corrupt clericalism, it doesn’t really address the profound ministerial renewal that challenges the church. Certainly Robinson is right that abuse has to be confronted not managed. But while cleaning up the mess, the church also has to present the positive challenge of listening to and entering into dialogue with the contemporary world. Perhaps all I’m really saying is that I’m in a quite different place to Robinson. I’ve learnt that if you take on church authority you have ‘to cop it sweet’ as we say in Australia. In other words take it on the chin!

More than anything, I want Robinson to do something, to go beyond mere theory and talking. It’s all very well for a bishop to be ‘talking the talk’ as the Americans say. That may seem ‘brave’ to some people, but in the end change is not achieved by talk but by action to revolutionize church structures. Robinson told the Melbourne Age that he is “aware of how radical the call I’m making is. I’m looking for a very different church”, he says. That’s good, but a different church doesn’t emerge from talk and discussion. It comes from action and it is interesting that Robinson didn’t support the recent lay-based petition to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference signed by 16,700 Mass-going Catholics and 167 priests which called for action on some of the very things Robinson discusses in his book.

My feeling is if you’re going to get into brawl with the Vatican you may as well get into trouble for more than just talk. So I’d want a ‘brave’ bishop to actually do something, like ordain a married man or two. These kinds of laws like obligatory celibacy are only changed by breaking them and taking action to the contrary.

But then perhaps I’m too impatient!

Paul Collins

Paul Collins is a writer, broadcaster and church historian and lives in Australia. He has been a priest for 32 years, till he resigned over the Vatican's investigation of his book Papal Power (1997). He has published several books on the history of the papacy with a theological emphasis.

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