Reporter, September 14, 2007
Bishops book calls for
a better church
Power and Sex in the Catholic Church"
criticizes the church's teaching on sex as outmoded and inadequate.
By PENNY EDMAN
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
He criticizes the churchs 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
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 doesnt 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
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 weve 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 Im 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.
is a freelance journalist who lives in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.
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
-- Penny Edman
Reporter, September 14, 2007
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