Australian archbishop examines contributing factors to clerical sexual abuse

Archbishop of Canberra Mark Coleridge.
Archbishop of Canberra Mark Coleridge.


Outlining the Catholic cultural problems which he believes contributed to the failure to correct sexual abuse by clergy, Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn Mark Coleridge has written a Pentecost Letter about sexual abuse to the people of his archdiocese. He called for sensitivity to victims and a purification of the Church.

Archbishop Coleridge recalled how the first case he knew of a priest abusing a child seemed “weird and distressing” to him, as it was “mind-boggling” that a priest entrusted with the young could abuse them. He thought it was a “tragic and isolated episode.”

As a church spokesman in the mid-1990s, he still insisted that abuse was a matter of personal, not communal or institutional culpability.

In his first meetings with survivors of sexual abuse, he saw the “extraordinary damage” done to many of them and was “taken aback” by the force of their anger.

“I could see that these were people in need of all the care and compassion we could offer and that any response that did not have them as its prime concern was bound to fail – at least if the Gospel was the measure of success and failure.”

As he learned more about sexual abuse, he came to see that the pathology can be “compulsive” and “serial.”

“I was aghast to read transcripts of the trials of pedophile clergy; it seemed that their lives revolved around the grooming and abuse of children. It was apparent that this kind of abuse was something other than a moral lapse, a fall into sin, which could be made good by appropriate repentance, penance and a fresh start.”

The “hiddenness” of this pathology was also a key aspect, abetted by both general ignorance in the community and abusive clergy’s adeptness in concealing their crimes. The scale of the problem is now undeniable, the archbishop remarked, and determined action is now needed “to do everything possible to root out the evil from the Church.”

The prelate then listed several factors he thought created cultural problems in the Church’s response to sexual abuse in Australia.

He blamed poor understating of Catholic teaching on sexuality, particularly a “rigorist” attitude to the body and sexuality. While clerical celibacy was not a factor in itself, it is “especially risky” when separated from the “ascetical and mystical life.” The discipline of celibacy may also have been attractive to men in whom there were latent pedophilic tendencies, he suggested.

Archbishop Coleridge said seminary training promoted “a kind of institutionalized immaturity” by failing to advance life-long formation. Once ordained, a priest was presumed to have all the formation necessary, a “fateful” presumption when latent pedophilic tendencies emerged only after ordination.

Another factor he named was clericalism: the view that the Catholic hierarchy is dedicated to power, not service. The isolation of the clergy and the lack of lay involvement could lead to destructive tendencies, he suggested.

A certain “triumphalism” and “institutional pride” were also factors, as was the underestimation of “the power and the subtlety of evil.” But the prelate added that the Church’s “culture of forgiveness” could have played a role.

“True, sin must be forgiven, but so too must crime be punished,” Archbishop Coleridge wrote.

A “culture of discretion” that rightly opposed spreading falsehoods and defamations against others “turned dark” when used to conceal crime and protect the reputation of the Church, he said.

While some of these factors have to be abandoned, such as rigorism, clericalism and triumphalism, others like the practice of celibacy need to be “purified.” There needs to be greater awareness of how forgiveness and discretion can be abused, the Australian archbishop stated.

In assigning blame in the aftermath of sexual abuse, he said the offenders must bear the “full weight” of human and divine judgment. The Catholic bishops too are culpable, “insofar as they concealed or denied the abuse.”

According to the archbishop, the media and lawyers have only infrequently abused their powers, and ultimately the “blame-game” does not advance healing, reconciliation and reform.

“The Church is under judgment. That judgment is in part human, as many point the accusing finger at the Catholic Church and especially at her leaders. But also and more importantly, the judgment is divine,” his statement concluded, noting that lamentation and acknowledgment of sin do not preclude “the joy of Easter.”

“At the moment, the Catholic Church and the bishops in particular are being pounded mightily and dismissed as lacking all credibility or worse. This is hardly surprising, and it can be humiliating. But it is not the end of the world; nor is it the end of the Church.”

“My deepest and most heartfelt prayer is that the same promise of life out of death will sustain the survivors of sexual abuse whose faces I have seen and will see, whose voices I have heard and will hear.”

He voiced hope that the Church will soon witness the renewal and fulfillment of “the promise of Easter.”

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