Saturday, August 25, 2007

"It's Like Krakatoa"

On his home turf, Bishop Geoff Robinson's confrontation of "sex and power" has hit...

The Age in Melbourne compares the retired Sydney prelate to another Luther:

In English, it's only a tiny preposition, two little letters, but it has helped the Catholic Church get its power relationships wrong for centuries

Dissident Sydney Bishop Geoffrey Robinson shows how in the translation from Greek to Latin the church took a serious wrong turn that gave priests an inflated view of their special status and helped create a climate in which abusers could flourish.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Bible talks of a priest being "chosen". The Greek word means "taken" but in Latin it became "taken up". The "up" implies they are lifted to a higher level than laypeople, which allows an element of "messiah complex", and eventually a mystique.

It's an example of the close reasoning and broad scholarship behind Robinson's call in an explosive new book for perhaps the most radical and all-embracing reform ever suggested by a Catholic bishop, re-examining centuries of carefully guarded doctrines.

"Spiritual power is arguably the most dangerous power of all," writes Robinson, a retired Sydney bishop, in Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, to be launched tomorrow.

"If the governing image of how to act as a priest is tied to the ideas of lordship and control then, no matter how benevolently ministry is carried out, an unhealthy domination and subservience will be present." It also adds to the pressure on priests.

"It was not a healthy idea, and it must now be confronted," writes Bishop Robinson . But it's not the only serious problem he thinks needs correcting.

He believes the church needs to ditch its traditional thinking about sex _ in which all sex apart from a married couple who must not use contraception is an offence against God _ in favour of a relational model. This has implications for sex outside marriage, contraception, homosexuality and women priests.

And there's much more, ranging from the sort of God Catholics worship _ wrongly focusing on an angry God made the lives of millions sadder and poorer, he says _ to curbing the power of the Pope and Curia, down to the sort of clothes bishops wear.

Carefully reasoned and presented, the book is set to electrify the Catholic Church. Such is the significance of the changes he seeks, Robinson could be likened to a modern Martin Luther, the 16th century theologian whose challenge to key doctrines and the authority of the papacy gave birth to Protestantism.

It's a thought, naturally, that a Catholic bishop is not entirely comfortable with. "It's not quite as dramatic as that," he says. "I don't have inflated ideas that the book will change the world, but if no one speaks out nothing will happen. I think if you asked an out-and-out Protestant to read this book he would say `that's not my church'. For a start, there's a pope in it."

Little in his past would suggest that Robinson might break ranks so spectacularly. Indeed the full force of the tradition and the institution and an oath of fidelity to the pope are used to prevent bishops doing so. Robinson outlines the way this works, and writes "please believe me that all of the above and more have been in my mind as I have written this book".

He is well regarded in the Australian church as a careful and scholarly thinker, an excellent canon lawyer who was a sensible head of the Marriage Tribunal, a pastoral bishop who was good with priests, well versed in Scripture and author of devotional studies. Those who know him say he never courted popularity or power, but was well liked.

He ruffled legal feathers in 1990 by asking a series of pointed questions about lawyers' fees and their links with big business at a Mass for the opening of the law year.

As chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference professional standards committee, Bishop Robinson headed the drive for a national protocol that served victims better, the Towards Healing program.

He finally convinced all but two of the 180 bishops and leaders of religious orders whose assent was needed to introduce the protocol, but one of the pair was then Melbourne Archbishop George Pell, who broke ranks to introduce a separate protocol. (To this day, Melbourne has a different protocol from the national one.)...

The Catholic Church is still not truly confronting the abuse problem, he believes. "I have a serious fear that many church leaders are now feeling the worst of the problem is now behind them, that it has been successfully `managed' and hence that they do not need to look at deeper issues," he writes.

Pope John Paul II failed his duty of responsibility and therefore failed to hold the church together. Even now, no pope has apologised to victims or promised to study the causes of abuse and ruthlessly change factors that contribute.

Abuse is most likely when three factors come together to create a "murky" climate: an unhealthy psychological state, unhealthy ideas about power and sex, and an unhealthy environment, according to Robinson....

Robinson says the search for meaning which religion answers concerns love, and it is his developing understanding of God's love that underpins his book. But the Catholic Church for the last 1000 years has reflected far too much an angry god, a view responsible for "many of the worst pages in church history".

"At its worst people were ordered to perform the impossible task of loving a most unlovable god under pain of damnation. Millions of people were affected by these ideas and their lives were made sadder and poorer."

Catholics have no monopoly on the angry God, he told The Age, but "where that happens you will have a pretty angry sort of religion with lots of rules and lots of thundering from the pulpit".

A related problem is that the church has tried to constrain the beliefs of its members too rigidly in too many non-essentials. He cites the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, declared an infallible truth in 1950 so that to deny it is to deny the Catholic faith. As it happens Robinson believes the doctrine, but admits it is not in the Bible, it is not an early tradition, the arguments are weak and if it's wrong, the essentials of the Christian faith are untouched. It should not be made a test of faith.

Bishop Robinson makes some interesting proposals for restructuring the church, from the top down. The pope's authority should be reduced, partly by requiring far wider consultation and partly by setting up regional "patriarch-presidents". The Latin church already has patriarchs of the Melkites and Copts, a model the church knows and accepts.
...and Sydney's Morning Herald kicks in a 2500-worder:
Robinson, shy and guarded, broke his lifelong silence in an explosive critique of the church's use and misuse of power which outlines a radical vision for the church that questions the very nature of its power and sexual ethics and slays the sacred cow of papal infallibility.

Robinson, 70, was a teenager at the time of the abuse, the nature of which he does not fully disclose. The offender was neither a family member nor a priest.

Even now he finds it hard to tackle the topic and prefers his book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, to speak for him. "Neither in my age at the time it happened nor in the duration of the abuse was it as serious as much of the abuse I have encountered in others, and yet, if the man had been caught in any one of his acts against me, he would have been sent to prison," he writes in the book's introduction.

"It was never a repressed memory but for most of my life it was, as it were, placed in the attic of my mind. That is, I always knew it was there but I never took it down to look at it."

When he was appointed in 1994 to the church's national professional standards committee to help develop procedures to respond to sex abuse complaints he made a vow to himself to "never defend the indefensible". He strove to act as a "decent human being, a good Christian and caring priest" and listened to the complaints of as many victims as possible so he could to learn from their experiences....

Robinson says his writing was in development for almost 50 years, from the age of 12, when he entered the rarefied atmosphere of a seminary.

In his description of seminaries and novitiates as unhealthy places to grow into maturity, there is a sense of the wounded boy. He laments the absence of parents and other nurturing figures, the lack of intimacy and the perception of women as threats to vocation rather than as a positive and essential influence.

"At the time I wouldn't have found seminary life impossibly difficult but looking back I observe absences," he says now.

"I never wish to see any boy taken into the seminary at that age again."...

"This is a very unusual book," says the church historian Ed Campion. "Bishops normally keep dissident thoughts to themselves but Bishop Robinson has gone public with his disquiet about how church authorities responded to sexual abuse scandals. He calls for change at the highest levels of the church, including the papacy. His compassion for abused victims is remarkable and welcomed.

"This grew out of his hard years of caring for injured people. Beyond this, the book is a fresh look at the fundamentals of Christian faith. When a Catholic bishop does this he surprises many people. Others will be grateful that Bishop Robinson has now joined in an ongoing conversation about what it means to be a Christian today."

Father Michael Whelan, of the church reform group Catalyst for Renewal, says Robinson's lifetime of service in the Catholic Church, including 20 years as auxiliary bishop of Sydney, has been one of intelligence, fidelity and generous commitment.

"He is a man beyond reproach. He is also a man of considerable intellect and substantial scholarship. No one who knows him could doubt his love for the church. Indeed, those of us who knew something of his personal struggles with the Vatican in the late '90s will be always grateful for the faith-filled and humble manner in which he continued with his duties as a pastor during that time.

"This, above all else, has shown him to be a leader of the Catholic Church in Australia."

Robinson probably raises more questions than he answers, but he turns his searching gaze and reforming zeal to every corner of the church. His message of love to the church is that it must take its role to tackle sexual abuse more seriously, not simply manage the scandals.

Whelan says Robinson is urging all Catholics to dare to imagine a new way of being a church, a way that is more obviously rooted in the gospels and less obviously beholden to the Roman Empire and the historical circumstances of the fourth and fifth centuries. "Geoffrey Robinson has written a gracious book about a graced institution that too often forgets grace," he says.

"In its forgetfulness, that institution becomes prey to the 'absolutising instinct' and means become ends. Relative rules and relative teachings and relative roles and relative customs mysteriously become absolutes.

"Robinson asks us to remember the gospel and the reality of Jesus and common sense and humility. If this book has one message for us Catholics - and it is addressed primarily to us - it is simply this: Remember who you are. Remember why you are church. Remember Him."

A fellow member of the national committee for professional standards, Sister Angela Ryan, remembers Robinson for being dogged in his pursuit of a just church response to abuse claims.

In Australia, a country of 5 million Catholics, a nationally binding response to sexual abuse required the unanimous consent of more than 160 people, including bishops and religious superiors. When Robinson had finished cajoling and crafting the document only two refused their consent.

As a result of Robinson's persistence, the Towards Healing protocols is a "standout document" that has no peer in any other Australian religious denomination, says Patrick Parkinson, a professor of law at the University of Sydney.

"The first version of Towards Healing was a victim-centric document. He was adamant that victims of abuse should hear the church cared for them, wanted to help the victims and that they would not tolerate the abuse in future, and Towards Healing was, and is, still full of that," he says.

Robinson concedes the document will never satisfy everyone but says it succeeds in encouraging priests to confess their misdeeds, sparing the victims more pain and adversarial criminal proceedings where convictions are rare....

Like every bishop, Robinson takes seriously his oath of fidelity to the Pope. Rebellion is like breaking an oath to God. He eventually resigned, and Pope John Paul II accepted his retirement in July 2004, due to ill health. It was true that Robinson was battling a coronary condition that brought on bouts of pneumonia.

But it was also disenchantment that finally drove him out of ecclesiastical office.

Some of Robinson's supporters had wanted him to succeed Edward Clancy as archbishop of Sydney.

Perhaps Robinson's blackened copy book with the Vatican and his chronic shyness ruled him out of contention but, in any event, he never coveted the job. George Pell did.

"I was aware a number of people wanted that to happen and I was aware that was not going to happen, and I would not have wanted that to happen because it would have created intolerable pressure for someone who was as disenchanted as I was," Robinson says carefully.

Campion says anyone who has studied the church's response to sexual abuse is entitled to feel disheartened. "They were just unprepared because the mind-set is to think of these things as a sin that could be forgiven rather than as a crime that should be punished and the victims cared for. I think Robinson's book is a sign of that, surely a sign of change in itself."

Robinson says: "The most loyal person in the kingdom is the person who tells the truth. It's like the emperor with no clothes, I thought now had come the time to speak the truths."