Catholicism's Sex Abuse Crisis: an Australian Bishop's rebellion

February 1, 2008

Confronting Power & Sex in the Catholic Church, Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus

By Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

John Garratt Publishing 2007

307 pages, $34.95

At the conclusion of the epoch-making Vatican II conference in 1965, Pope Paul VI took off his jewel-encrusted crown and, laying it on the alter of St Peter's Basilica, walked away. It was removed, sold and the money given to the poor, a symbol of the new direction the Vatican Council wished for the Catholic Church.

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus, draws on the spirit of that important conference.

Recently, Pope Benedict XVI quietly undid the symbolism: the crown has been bought back to show that old-fashioned Catholic reaction is firmly in the saddle. Benedict, infamous for his role as the arch-enemy of progressive Catholics, is intent on once again pushing into the shadows such things as the ongoing crisis regarding sexual abuse within the Church.

However, Geoffrey Robinson, one of Australia's most respected bishops, has bravely struck back.

The National Library of Australia cataloguing information advises to file this book under "Catholic Church — Controversial literature". Controversial is hardly the word, this book is incendiary: the Age has compared it to Martin Luther.

Robinson first rose to prominence when he was assigned to coordinate the Australian bishops' response to the abuse crisis in the late 1990s. He won respect for his integrity and the experience changed him fundamentally as he recalled his own childhood abuse.

While winning reverence for his work with victims, he discovered that he had been reported to the Pope for once saying, in passing, that he wished for more support from Rome in the matter.

Robinson has meditated on the experience and has concluded that if John Paul II "had spoken clearly at the beginning of the [abuse] revelations, inviting victims to come forward so that the whole truth, however terrible, might be known and confronted, and firmly directed that all members of the Church should respond with openness, humility, honesty and compassion, consistently putting victims before the good name of the Church, the entire response of the Church would have been much better. With power go responsibilities. The Pope has many times claimed the power, and must accept the corresponding responsibilities."

The experience has drawn Robinson to consider the entire history of canon law that props up the doctrine of Papal infallibility, Church autocracy, priestly celibacy, the ban on divorce and teachings on sexuality. As a foremost canon lawyer, his approach is calm and questioning but intellectually devastating.

His rebellion is all the more significant because he is not a liberation theologist or a political radical, such as the late Father Ted Kennedy of Redfern. That a mild-mannered liberal has been compelled to take this stand speaks volumes about the centrifugal forces at play in modern-day Catholicism.

Rome will not rest easy with this book. Robinson said at its launch: "I do realise, at least in theory, that I could end up outside the Church."

So far there has been official silence. Writing about Robinson's book in the British Catholic weekly The Tablet, ABC Radio National religion commentator Stephen Crittenden said that the Vatican simply might not know what to do about him. Crittenden believes that the Australian church is "tinder dry" after years of misleadership and if Rome comes after Robinson "it should be prepared for a conflagration".

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