Not just another meeting in Rome: Archbishop Coleridge
I’ve been to many meetings in Rome, but none has stirred the interest that this one has. Pope Francis has called together all the presidents of bishops conferences from around the world in a way that’s never happened before.
The idea for the meeting didn’t come from the Pope, but he obviously thought it was a good idea; and I think he was right.
Bringing together all the presidents has to be a good thing, especially when dealing with something as serious and complex as child abuse and the church’s appalling response to the horror of it. Francis is saying that child abuse and its concealment isn’t just a crisis in certain parts of the Catholic Church. It’s a global emergency that needs to be understood and responded to in a global context; and that’s what this meeting will be seeking to do.
We’re meeting from February 21 to 24, from Thursday to Sunday: well over 100 bishops from across the Catholic world, plus leaders of religious orders, heads of Vatican agencies and, most importantly, survivors of abuse, whose voice will be heard at the meeting.
We’ll listen, we’ll speak, we’ll pray together; and all of that’s important.
But what’s more important is that action follows from what happens in Rome. Words are no longer enough.
That’s something we started learning long ago in Australia; and it’s something we need to keep on learning and relearning. It’s certainly not behind us. In some ways the journey has only begun, even though we’ve been through a lot in Australia.
We’ve had five years of a royal commission which produced a massive report with a parade of recommendations.
It’s been agonising, but it’s helped the church in many ways to understand what has happened and why, and to see what must be done.
Our response to abuse and its concealment began long before the royal commission started its work; but the royal commission provided a mighty impetus for awareness and action.
It also provides key elements of a road map to the future. In preparation for this meeting, we’ve provided to people in Rome an account of what we have learned, what we have done and what we have still to do.
But that’s not to say that we can’t learn from the rest of the Catholic Church.
Yes, we’ve been through the likes of a royal commission. Some other countries have been through something similar, but most have not.
However, at this meeting those of us who have been through the mill and are still going through the mill shouldn’t start lecturing others about what it all means and telling them what they should be doing. We have our story to share, yes; but we’ll need to be humble enough to listen to others and to resist the tendency to indulge in what the Vatican calls “ideological colonisation”, which can be an unconscious failing of the West.
That’s certainly how I’ll approach the days in Rome: speak when the time comes, but listen first. Listen especially to survivors: that will be crucial. I’ve been listening to survivors for over 25 years — long before I became a bishop — and it’s been one of the most difficult and decisive experiences of my life.
Until you meet and hear survivors, you can’t know the truth of abuse nor begin to see things through their eyes.
But I’ve never listened to survivors in an extraordinary context like this gathering, which will have a power of its own; and I’m bound to hear new things from them and to learn in new ways.
For me over the years, it’s been a journey from seeing abuse as a sin to seeing it as a crime and then finally seeing it as involving a culture — by which I mean that cultural elements in the Catholic Church were part of abuse and its concealment. It took me a long time to see that and to see therefore the need for cultural change if we are to go to the root of the crisis and not just treat the symptoms. In Rome, I hope we’ll reflect upon the cultural changes needed in the church and how they might be brought about. We’ll ask how we might forge a church culture that is more accountable, more transparent and more inclusive — and therefore safer for all.
None of that will be easy, because cultural change is the hardest thing of all. But we’ll be there for hard work, not for some Roman vacanza. At the same time, I don’t expect for a moment that we’ll do all this in a few days. The meeting will have to be part of a long journey with many steps into the future, and I’ll be keen to see what specific actions are proposed beyond the meeting.
In addressing abuse and its concealment, we’ve come a long way in this country; but the further we go, the further we see we have to go. This gathering in Rome will help us see, with the whole church, where we have been, where we have to go and how we might get there. That’s why this isn’t just another meeting in Rome. It won’t provide a magic bullet, but it really does matter.
Mark Coleridge is the Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane and president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.