The major intersection between the child abuse royal commission and the Catholic Church went into act four over the past week. The drama, plot and moral of the miracle play would be much enhanced if scene one, rather than scene four, of act five began with the resignations of each of Australia's archbishops, along with that of the nuncio, the archbishop representing the Pope in Australia.
Each is, no doubt, a splendid person whose services would be much missed. But each represents in a real way the organisational and leadership failures that have brought the Church in Australia to its lowest ebb. Mass resignation would be a tiny, inadequate but still entirely appropriate act of atonement – a compound Yom Kippur – for both the personal failings of most of the archbishops, representing Australia's capital cities, and for the institutional failings of the offices they hold and their predecessors.
Cardinal George Pell, who has become the symbol of the truculent, embattled, irritable and defensive approach of the Catholic hierarchy to what some seemed to think a mere public relations problem, might well resign, too, this time with the Pope accepting it. But Pell no longer has any active responsibility for church affairs in Australia, and a noble gesture by him could never be enough to show that leadership has changed.
No doubt, the creation of some episcopal vacancies would be a bitter blow to the hundreds of thousands – once millions – of Catholic parishioners who would be suddenly deprived of their archbishops' spiritual guidance, zest for the good life and penchant for travel at the front end of jet aircraft. Likewise, the departure of the nuncio would suddenly deprive us, as well as the bishops, of an immediate conduit to Rome. Rome, acting on advice from successive nuncios, was guilty of acts of commission as much as omission, including in choice of bishops, that helped put Australian Catholics, and Australians, in this pretty pass, and helped delay and frustrate a timely reckoning.
These archbishops have apologised over and over. Now at least, they seem to appreciate that the stewardship of themselves and their recent predecessors has damaged the Church, and their reputations, almost as much as it damaged thousands of lives. But put bluntly, their regrets, tempered with reservations, excuses and continuing dissembling, should not be met with forgiveness and a clean slate.
First, because it is clear that most of them still don't really get it. If they did, they would have made more fundamental changes to the way the Church operates. Just as importantly, the Church needs pastors and teachers, not the sort of careerists, accountants, managers and autocrats that all too many have shown themselves to be.
I come from within the bosom of the Catholic Church and, from 56 years ago, was a regular altar boy, proficient in my Latin responses (which I understood) to the priest's words. The early part of the Mass included the confiteor, or confession, and, within it, the server would say "peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere: mea culpa" (here, one theatrically struck one's tum), "mea culpa" (strike breast again), "mea maxima culpa" (strike breast again): I have sinned exceedingly, in thought, word and deed: through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.
A reading of royal commission transcripts made me wonder whether the modern form is "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea minima culpa". Penance has not yet been performed.
None of the archbishops is said to have personally abused children. But all have been involved in managing dioceses long enough that none can claim complete innocence of the Church's multiple failures over the scandal of Church sexual abuse. And too many of them now pretend perfect understanding but were a part of the culture of denial, minimisation and anger at, and abuse of, those who drew attention to the problem.
Nor could any say they have been proactive about anticipating the overdue next generation of scandals, involving physical abuse, and critical review of the Church's role with Aboriginal missions, unmarried mothers, forced adoptions and child farming. They have acted either with total passivity, as if they hope that ignoring the legacies will go away, or pretended that these simply fold neatly into a wider historical problem to which the Church made no, or no additionally evil, contribution.
The Australian Catholic hierarchy, and the conduit to Rome, has yet to have the reckoning that has already taken place in Ireland. Even the most devout and loyal Catholic has no reason to want to see it avoided.
Some of the episcopal witnesses gave well-rehearsed and apparently sincere expressions of contrition and institutional remorse to the royal commissioners during the week. One or two even offered vague criticisms of the Vatican bureaucracy, or their predecessors, or the attitudes and approaches of another era.
With superb if unintended irony, some of this rich font of Australian clericalism, arrogance and overweening ambition, conceded that the Church, in Australia as much as anywhere, had had a governance problem, and perhaps still has. It does. It's them.
They pointed to minor organisational changes they recently made to prove it was now entirely different. They talked of better supervision, better "formation" of priests and religious brothers and nuns, and more conscious, active and suspicious environment in which everyone would now work.
They have, or are on the way to getting, the situation reformed. What Christopher Prowse – the transplanted Victorian archbishop who now rules the archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn without any legal accountability to check his power – has called the "scourge of sexual abuse" now seems to be less likely, more likely to be detected and punished when it happens. Most probably, a good many potential predators have now been weeded out of the system even before they had any opportunity to prey on others.
Prowse was recently heavily criticised for his serious error of judgment for declining to attend a healing ceremony for victims of abuse by the Marist Brothers at Pearce. One might not have known this at the royal commission this week, at least until the senior counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, SC, thought Prowse to be overdoing it in his efforts to be the modern-day healer.
According to Prowse, things are now better in the Canberra archdiocese because "I'm taking greater responsibility. Before it was rather diffuse. I wasn't really sure what was going on ...
"There is a determination in me to work with the competent people, mainly laypeople, to be able to change the culture, greater transparency and accountability for what's happening, and to be able to do that in the public forum in this tragic moment, this chilling moment of the Catholic Church, with these statistics coming out, particularly in the past few weeks, which have chilled us to the core, and me personally.
"It has been heartbreaking to see these statistics nationally, but at the very same time to be able to say 'well, let us go forward in a completely different way', that is, a way that we can hold our heads up high and be able to say 'we're learning from this'. We have a long way to go, but we are on the way.
"When I go back to my archdiocese, I have it in my heart to go around the diocese in regional areas for listening sessions. I want to gather the victims and their families. I mean, it's been like a bushfire going through the Catholic Church, or a tsunami effect, on faith and on people's trust of us. And I don't want to be sort of seen as some bureaucrat behind an office.
"So I want to go out and – I find the victims I've met over the years – I call them 'wounded healers'. I don't think we can go ahead without the wounded healers standing alongside us, walking together, correcting us, directing us, working in with us. That's what I want to do, because there's huge wisdom already there.
"Indeed it's part of our Catholic culture to be alongside the periphery, the vulnerable, the children."
Furness: "Archbishop, you have given evidence of wanting to, and, indeed, having walked with victims and heard what they've had to say." "Yes."
Furness: "But isn't it as recent as last November that you were invited to a healing ceremony at the Marist Brothers college or school and you refused to go?"
Prowse: "Well, that was a mistake on my part. I had a perspective of waiting till the royal commission concludes here and then, as the bishop looking after the entire archdiocese, to begin walking with the sex abuse victims and their families, listening to them and then working towards some sort of appropriate liturgy, perhaps a liturgy of lament. But I was then corrected by the victims, and they lamented that I wasn't there. I thought about it, and I agreed with them. I made a public apology and asked for forgiveness for that. It was a mistake on my part. I had more of a diocesan perspective rather than just the local one."
Furness: "It was a very recent mistake, if I can suggest that, archbishop." "Yes."
Furness: "And somewhat at odds with the evidence you're giving about how you have learnt from the royal commission, which has now been sitting for four years, and are taking a more survivor-oriented approach. What do you say about that?"
Prowse: "Yes, I agree with you, it was a mistake and I made a public apology and I regret that and am sorry for it."
Furness: "What are you sorry for?" "That I didn't attend. I didn't attend that ceremony."
Furness: "Have you since attended something similar?"
Prowse: "Well, I have with families, yes, but not in a public – not in a public way ..."
Furness: "In your archdiocese, since you've been in the position, has there been any public gathering or occasion upon which you've given your comments or thoughts in relation to child sexual abuse?"
Prowse: "In written form, yes, and with my Church gatherings, yes, yes, with my priests and with people and in deanery assemblies, yes, I bring it up very often."
Furness: "But in terms of a public forum for that purpose?"
Prowse: "That to me is the next step which I want to do. I feel the confessing – it's still the time for the confessing and the bringing of that out. From that, I would like to think that we can then move to more of a liturgical response. But I have been in public forums, yes, on the ecumenical dimension. Yes, there was a very big public forum at Parliament House there recently on an ecumenical level and I was with ecumenical leaders from Canberra. But it wasn't a Catholic Church one. So the answer to your question is, no, I haven't, on the Catholic Church aspect, in public forum – looking forward to doing that. Yes, I have done that in the ecumenical dimension on a public level."
The nerve of this lawyer – a woman at that – asking such impertinent questions of an archbishop. That's not an ordeal Prowse needs to endure, least of all from women, within his jurisdiction. He's not famous for listening to anyone. (Indeed, he has recently decided, and without much in the way of consultation of process, to close down the diocese's (advisory) commission for women and to subsume its functions into the commission into the married life and youth commission.
A bishop, or an archbishop, is accountable only to the Pope. Within his diocese, he is an absolute monarch. With some matters involving the interests of priests or the diocese's financial interests, he has an obligation to consult priests or church trustees, but he has no obligation to follow their advice.
Church documents themselves describe the bishop's power as akin to that of a monarch of a feudal principality. Nothing from the sex abuse scandals has caused any of the Australian bishops, certainly none of the penitents before the commission, to actually surrender any powers, even if, at times, they have delegated them, or exercised them through others, or found scapegoats to blame.
Secular government cannot reform the Catholic Church, change its doctrines or depose its officers. But it could give some encouragement to reforms that would not affect the Church's claims in relation to its (somewhat battered) claim of spiritual ascendancy. The obvious point of pressure is the Church's tax-free status, but demanding transparent and accountable processes, and proper levels of compensation, in the civil law, can also work.
The Church, if not the bishops, would benefit from a reorganisation that made bishops not only the local representatives of the Pope, but the stewards accountable to their flock. Working under modern, as opposed to feudal, concepts of professionalism, due process, accountability and transparency. Able to be sacked, complained about and appealed against. Chosen perhaps for their personal, pastoral and teaching qualities, rather than blind loyalty to the fonts of advancement. Leading dioceses professionally managed. Perhaps even by women!
Jack Waterford is a former Canberra Times editor.