Methinks Archbishop Anthony Fisher doth protest too much in his recent comments complaining about all past, present and emerging church leaders being tarred with the same brush. He was criticising Justice Peter McClellan's reference to the view amongst some Catholic leaders that child sexual abuse was seen as a moral failure and not a crime.
He ought to try being a run-of-the mill Catholic following the revelations of shortcomings of the leadership of the church. Many of us are vilified for the failings of the leadership.
The very basis of our faith continues to be questioned, with the underlying theme that we "ordinary" Catholics are complicit in the sexual abuse and other mistreatment that has occurred in times past. Many critics think that by continuing to practise our faith, we are somehow supporting the abuse that occurred. We are complicit in subsequent cover-ups. We all believe in the same rubbish being sprouted by Archbishop Fisher. In short, we are grubs.
The fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church has been incredibly slow to accept fault, apologise and provide recompense to the victims of abuse. Even when the facts were staring church leaders in the face, they continued to obfuscate.
As an example, there are many Catholic parishes, orders of priests and nuns that have yet to join the national redress scheme for people who have experienced institutional child sexual abuse. If the Catholic leadership was about leading, the Bishops' Conference would have insisted that all Catholic organisations should sign up, lest they be excommunicated from the church in Australia.
An interesting sideline is that Archbishop Fisher's own order - the Dominicans - has not yet signed up to the redress scheme (according to the website nationalredress.gov.au). That says quite a lot to ordinary Catholics who continue to expect that leadership will improve.
Another example is the dwindling number of souls in pews at weekend masses in Catholic churches across Australia. The idea that people will turn up to get "more of the same" from the pulpit is laughable. My faith is tested regularly by appalling sermons that are irrelevant.
The Australian church's approach to marriage equality, leading up to and during the plebiscite, was shameful. There are many Catholics who have relatives who don't fit the male-female family unit that many in the church would like. They (and many other Catholics) are supportive of marriage equality, and celebrated when the legislation was finally passed. I know many Catholic leaders who are also supportive; sadly, not the Australian Bishops' Conference though. Their behaviour was contemptuous towards those who wanted marriage equality, and demeaning to those who are being married under the new legislation.
The Catholic Church has an obligation to admit that its leadership got so many parts of this crisis wrong; to provide genuine apologies at every available opportunity; and to work tirelessly to ensure the conditions that allowed abuse to flourish for so long are removed. I would have thought Archbishop Fisher would have used the opportunity afforded to him the other day to reiterate a heartfelt apology. Full stop: no defence of the church leadership or whining about how they feel aggrieved.
It is governance of the church that causes most concern for many ordinary Catholics: the patriarchal structures that were in place to allow abuse to go unchecked for so long are still to be broken down. In particular, women need to be genuinely engaged as equals in the church. Transparency and accountability are not buzzwords to be heard within many Catholic parishes.
The current Plenary Council, which is aimed at reviewing the future of the Catholic Church in Australia, recently embarked on its listening and discernment phase. The Archbishop presiding over the council has exhorted Catholics to "listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying". A good and noble suggestion, but it seems to be at the expense of what the people are saying - indeed, the Holy Spirit may well be speaking through them! The council received more than 220,000 written submissions when the first phase of the council opened, but didn't want to publish these. It would have been nice for ordinary Catholics to read the submissions with their own eyes, rather than have them filtered by the machinery behind the Plenary Council. This would have been such a simple demonstration of transparency and openness.
It is my observation that once you become a priest you are expected to be the managing director, the chair of the board and the fount of all knowledge for the parish, the local school and indeed the community. There are many priests who are fabulous at this. However, there are equally some who are absolutely not suited to such a role.
The church needs to consider how it can become more relevant for existing and potentially new Catholics in this day and age. While it's hard enough in the cities, it's even more difficult in the bush. Unlike those in the city, rural Catholics don't have access to mass every day. Plenary sessions are scheduled for capital cities, giving folk in rural, regional and remote Australia little hope that things will improve for them.
As can be seen from this short analysis, the Catholic Church has considerable work to do if it is to continue to be meaningful to its ordinary Catholics. A word of advice from someone who has no say in today's church: Archbishop Fisher should take a humility pill and accept that its current woes are due to extremely poor leadership, structures and governance. A mea culpa at regular intervals, rather than more "poor us" bleating, will go a long way.
- Anne Cahill Lambert is a consumer health activist and a practising Catholic who will probably end up hopping to hell on a pogo stick.