Archbishop Christopher Prowse does not know how the Catholic Church may move forward in the wake of its recent sex abuse scandals but he is convinced the victims will be a part of any solution.
“We are going through an unprecedented crisis in the Catholic church,” he said this week. “There is so much shame, there is so much humiliation with the criminal acts of some of us [that] for us to stand alongside victims, to encourage them to come forward and to listen to their story, is absolutely imperative.”
Appointed to lead the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn last September, Archbishop Prowse said he had been humbled and inspired by “the raw courage of so many victims of clerical sex abuse as children”.
“They have been very heroic in trying to refocus on their life and to instruct us as a church [on] where we have failed and what we can do to ameliorate a very difficult stage of our history.”
He said the victims “who are able to be courageous enough to share with us their stories” are “the new missionaries”.
“When I sit down with victims there's tears, there is anger, there's shouting, there's lament. Yet, over a period of time, I've also found reservoirs of wanting to start again, a sense of forgiveness that would come after the acknowledgement of the injustice, a sense of working together to make sure these things don't happen again.”
The Archbishop is the first to concede the road to reconciliation is complex, delicate and challenging. “Sex abuse is a bit like an atomic bomb on faith. It devastates faith for the people that have been affected by it directly.”
He has met individuals who have made that journey, however, and it has given him cause for hope.
“They speak, as it were, from the other side, after having been for many years working through the issues and facing it and correcting the church and then having their legitimate injustices addressed by the church,” he said. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel I hope.”
Describing himself as an optimist by vocation and by nature, Bishop Prowse said: “It seems to me that in the midst of this terrible tsunami of evil, of sex abuse, there is the hope at least that we can move forward together.”
He acknowledges the problem of dealing with perpetrators who have been victims themselves is a difficult one.
Kostka (John) Chute, a Marist Brother who abused boys in Canberra and elsewhere for more than three decades, is a well known and documented example of this.
“We can too easily demonise the perpetrator of sex abuse [in cases where they have been victims themselves],” Bishop Prowse said.
“That person needs to face up to the criminal nature of his or her acts but at the same time that person is a human being in the midst of all the confusion and insecurity of their life too.
“I think we are all still learning about this. There has to be a moment of the Nuremberg but there also has to be the moment of re-creation at the same time.”
He said while the path was still unclear, the church and the community had made a start by talking through the issues.
“Ultimately there is the healing. There can be no healing unless there is justice and there can be no justice unless there is truth.”
Archbishop Prowse does not believe complex questions can be reduced to facile answers. There are no silver bullets in his personal philosophy.
An example of this is his response to the question posed by C.S. Lewis, now better known for the Narnia tales than for his works on theology and Christian philosophy, in The Problem of Pain.
Lewis grappled with the apparent contradiction of the existence of pain and suffering in a world created by an omnipotent, good and loving God.
“The only answer to that is to basically say `we haven't got an answer to that',” Archbishop Prowse said.
“There are some big questions we have to ask God when we see him face-to-face, God willing, in the fullness of time. To try and give a glib answer to these imponderables is, I think, largely dishonest and only a human attempt to work out a mystery.”
That said, there can be glimpses of transcendent joy and happiness through want and suffering.
“In the midst of all that there can be encounters with God at levels we have never imagined,” he said. “I was out this morning with CatholicCare and they were taking me around some of the homeless areas here in Canberra where the Catholic Church provides accommodation.
“It is interesting to see just how open people are, in the midst of their homelessness, to find a home starting in their heart through the care and compassion of others.”
Freedom from want and suffering are not, of themselves, the stuff of happiness and fulfilment.
“Even if people are very rich and have got big houses and big cars and all the rest of it, there has got to be a home inside yourself,” Archbishop Prowse said.
“It's not just outside beauty; there has got to be inside beauty. I think Australians generally spend an inordinate amount of time fussing about the outside look, the body beautiful, the cosmetics, the clothes and all these things to the extraordinary neglect of inside beauty.
“There is where the transcendent dimension of faith comes through. Some of the most beautiful souls I've met lead the simplest sorts of lives in terms of what they own. Often they can be quite a lot happier than others who have a bad dose of `affluenza'.”
This insight, which can be traced back to his experiences walking to school through a cemetery as a boy, was a major influence on his decision to become a priest.
“For 10 years until year 12 I would walk through the cemetery from my home to the Christian Brothers School, St Leo's, in Box Hill in Melbourne,” he said. “A cemetery is a serene place for contemplation; you sort of get to know the people that `live' there through the tombstones; I would get to know their names.
“When I was in year 12 and I had a bit of a crisis in a sense of trying to work out what to do, I would sit down sometimes with a heavy bag on a lovely sunny day in the cemetery and ask my friends, `if you could speak, what would you tell me?'
“I did feel I got a response; 'you can do whatever you want, but just remember that one day you are going to be down here with us'. That had a big effect on me; it made me see as a young man that life was very short. Later on I came across a homily by John Henry Newman, the famous Anglican Catholic, and he said, `always remember life is short, death is certain, eternity long'; and I've always remembered that. I could see the Holy Spirit working in my life at a formative age but, as always, the Holy Spirit writes straight but with crooked lines."
Catholicism is not the Archbishop’s only faith. He is also a true believer when it comes to Australian Rules football.
“My father played for Hawthorn in the league – the Victorian Football League, not the Australian Football League – and he played for both South Melbourne and mainly for Melbourne in the late '40s early '50s,” he said.
“Ever since I can remember I've been a devoted Hawthorn supporter along with all the family, whether we liked it or not. It was a duck going into water; we were all happy to do that.”
Frank Prowse was a man of many talents, not just on the football field.
“My father worked for General Motors Holden for most of his life and then, he was a mechanical engineer, he invented an anti-theft device for cars (the Stayput steering lock) that was popular. He was able to manufacture them and it gave us all a good education and mum and dad a trip overseas. Dad worked humbly from a garage in the backyard.”
The family was religious but not excessively so: “We went to church on Sunday, there were always prayers before meals; but I'd like to use the Italian expression: we were 'Catholic but not overdone'. The Italians say 'Cattolico non troppo' or, in other words, not too much. Catholics but not over the top, would be the Australian equivalent."
The sense of the spiritual he first encountered in himself in that Melbourne cemetery remains an important part of Archbishop Prowse’s life today.
“Australians tend to dismiss the religious or the transcendent dimension of human existence speedily because they feel it imposes itself on their freedom, but true religion, true faith, gives release to deeper freedoms than we've ever thought or imagined,” he said.
He compares that faith to the waters of the Australian artesian basin.
“There's deep wells of interest and a real searching for God in Australia, but it's subtle, it's almost imperceptible. When there is a tragedy, whether it be a national tragedy like the Bali bombing or a twin towers, or the personal ones – the death of a loved one, car crashes, friends that have suicided – it brings up the primal questions that can only be answered in a religious way.
“The big challenge is to take people where they are at the moment with all their struggles and to help them to see meaning, hope, mercy and purpose in life in the face of the crucified Christ in a way that doesn't impose but that proposes something other than what they've already been presented with.
“[We want] a real answer to the deep questions of life: 'who am I, where am I going, what am I doing?' I don't think the deepest questions of humanity can be answered in a shopping centre, in a gaming venue, in a bottle or in a drug. I think we basically go back to the cemetery where we are trying to find stillness and serenity in a pretty busy and chaotic world. I think this is quite attractive to most Australians despite an uneasiness about organised religion.”
On a personal level Archbishop Prowse finds truth and meaning through personal ritual and contemplation.
“I have a prayer room, a little chapel in my house,” he said. “I sit there in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I read my Office, I read the Scripture of the day and try to fill my mind with the Scriptures. It is a 'breakfast before breakfast’, the feeding of my soul through the Scriptures until I feel I've been fed. Then I put it aside and just be. I try not to be anything else but still and silent in the presence of God while my soul digests that which has been given.”
Archbishop Christopher Prowse
Family: Born East Melbourne, November 14, 1953. The third of six children of Frank Prowse and Marian Atkinson.
Education: St Francis Xavier Primary School, Box Hill, and St Leo’s College, Box Hill. School captain at St Leo's in 1971.
Religious: Altar server at St Francis Xavier Parish, Box Hill.
Studied for the priesthood at Corpus Christi College, Werribee (1972), and Clayton (1973-1980). Ordained priest for the Archdiocese of Melbourne by Archbishop Sir Frank Little in St Patrick’s Cathedral on August 16, 1980.
Academic: Bachelor of Arts Degree (Monash 1978), a Bachelor of Theology (MCD 1979), a Licentiate in Moral Theology (Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, 1987), and a Doctorate in Moral Theology (Pontifical Lateran University – Alphonsianum Academy, Rome 1995).
Vocational record: Deacon at St John’s, Mitcham, in 1979. Assistant priest of St Mary of the Angels, Geelong (1981-83), then St Monica’s, Moonee Ponds (1984-85). He was also vocations’ director throughout 1984-85. Lecturer in Moral Theology at the Catholic Theological College from 1988 and priest in residence at St Mary’s, Thornbury. In 1996, he was appointed parish priest of Holy Spirit Parish, East Thornbury. Named Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Melbourne in 2001. Consecrated Bishop of Bahanna and Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne on May 19, 2003, and given pastoral responsibility for the Southern Region of Melbourne. Named Bishop of Sale on June 18, 2009.
Appointed Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn in September 2013.