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National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2007

Bishop’s book calls for ‘a better church’

"Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church" criticizes the church's teaching on sex as outmoded and inadequate.


For nearly a decade, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson headed the Australian bishops’ committee that developed guidelines and procedures for dealing with clergy sex abuse. He retired in 2004 at the young age of 66, when, he said, the burden of his “profound reservations” about the church he loved became too strong to be ignored.

He emerged from retirement last month to promote a new book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus, and to demand a better church.

Robinson says that the church -- especially the hierarchy in Rome -- must tackle the twin problems of sex abuse and power.
In the book, he writes that the church has not confronted the sexual abuse crisis; it is simply managing it. He blames Pope John Paul II, in particular, for failing to exercise the leadership demanded by the sex abuse crisis, allowing it, instead, to ravage the church.

He criticizes the church’s teaching on sex and sexuality, which are based on offences against God, as outmoded and inadequate. He suggests a sexual morality based on human relationships.

He says that obligatory celibacy -- not celibacy itself -- is a problem and sees the traditional seminaries and novitiates as unhealthy places for growth in maturity, especially if candidates are accepted at a young age.

In describing a “better church” he calls for a reconsideration of the distribution of authority in the church so that the collegiality of bishops and the sensus fidelium of the people of God are acknowledged and exercised. He suggests that the Roman curia be staffed by laypeople and that the pope should function as a prime minister rather than a monarch.

He wants a wide range of ideas put on the table: regular evaluations for those in authority, an option to remove a pope from office and an elected parliament of bishops. He even suggests updating clerical dress to do away with priests’ collars and bishops’ miters.

He suggests adopting the Eastern Catholic tradition of appointing patriarchs to lead national churches and that parishes have a say in priest assignments.

He notes that church language draws attention to the division between clerics and the laity and doesn’t have a collective term for all its members the way that a nation has “citizens.”

Response to Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church has been muted from the official church. Other Catholics have received it favorably.

The president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, told NCR he had not had time to read the book while preparing for an overseas trip. Other bishops contacted had no comments.

Pat Power, auxiliary bishop of the Canberra-Goulburn archdiocese, had no trouble in reading “with a great deal of interest” this “timely book.” Power is a well-respected human rights activist, outspoken for indigenous people, refugees and other marginalized groups.

Power described Robinson as a “prophetic voice” within the sexual abuse crisis in Australia, “and for that reason I think the message is one that we’ve all got to listen to.”

“Overwhelmingly, Catholics who love the church and thinking Catholics will applaud what he has done,” Power said.
Another noted reformer within the Australian Catholic church, Marist Fr. Michael Whelan, said that there is a risk that people could miss the central message of the book.

“Yes, the book is about power. More concretely, it is about the misuse and even abuse of power in relation to the scandal of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. But Robinson points to these as issues demanding urgent attention because he is interested in ‘reclaiming the spirit of Jesus.’

“This is the subtitle of his book. It is also the subtext and context and ultimate reason for the book. If this is missed, the best possibilities of the book will be missed.

“It might excite us but it will not renew us.”

Rome watcher, broadcaster and author Paul Collins said he agrees with the substance of the book, but that it is one voice among others and says that the time for conversation is past.

Collins is a former priest who ran afoul of the Vatican and has long agitated for change within the church.

“We spent 27 years of the John Paul II papacy in conversation and nothing was done. In fact we went backward. So I’m at that stage where I think the time for action has arrived. ... Things are changed by structures being changed. We made that mistake after Vatican II. We got ourselves caught up in endless talk. Real change occurs when small groups of people pick up an idea and run with it.”

Collins is one of several prominent Australian Catholics fronting a petition that calls for the Australian bishops’ conference to discuss such matters as celibacy, married priests, women priests and the return of some former priests to ministry.

The book is published in Australia by John Garrett Publishing, an independent Catholic company specializing in current church issues, spirituality, and parish and school resources. The initial press run, 2,000 copies, sold out in days and a second printing was ordered. Columbia Books of Ireland is to publish editions for Ireland, the United Kingdom and Europe.

In his acknowledgements, Robinson leaves unnamed the people who helped him: “It says much about the need for change that, in the atmosphere that prevails within the church, I would be creating difficulties if I gave their names.”

In the book, Robinson reveals that he was sexually abused -- although not by church personnel or a family member. He said it was not a repressed memory but was “in the attic of my mind.” It was not until he started speaking with other victims of clergy sexual abuse that he “was able to take it down and look at it.” It was a hard double journey and he acknowledges that he cannot talk about sexual abuse dispassionately.

Penny Edman is a freelance journalist who lives in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson told NCR that he sees a fractured church with a major division between the “proclaimers of certainties and the seekers after truth,” with the proclaimers of certainties seeming to be in the favored position.

“This has left many people feeling a sense of alienation, of being marginalized, of no longer quite belonging to the church that had given them much of their sense of belonging, meaning and direction throughout their lives.

“In writing the book I became aware that I was writing a book for these people, that I was trying to tell them that there is a church for them and that it is fully in accord with the mind of Jesus. I was telling them that there are basic certainties, but there is also abundant room for search, for taking personal responsibility and growing through that process to become all we are capable of being, all God wants us to be.

“I became aware that it was important for many people that there should be a bishop saying these things. At moments I felt that the needs of these many people were so great that it is perhaps true that I have never been more of a shepherd, I have never been more justified in carrying around a pastoral staff, than I have in this.”
-- Penny Edman

National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2007

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