Inquiry likely to reveal leadership crisis in Church

Over twenty five years ago, the notorious Premier of Queensland, Johannes Bjelke Petersen, epitomised corrupt leadership.

Inquiry likely to reveal leadership crisis in Church

When asked by a journalist about allegations of corruption in the Queensland police force, Premier Joh looked condescendingly at the young reporter and told her not to “worry her pretty little face about that”.


Organisations of all types – businesses, governments, public service departments, sports clubs and, yes, churches – react in a similar way when revelations loom that show things are not what they should be. They behave like tortoises, withdrawing into a hard, protective shell and not emerging until they believe the threat has moved on and disappeared.


But, organisations only thrive when they are open to the society they live in. Closed off and deprived of the life that comes through interaction and open communication, they become sick. Then, just as happens with individuals, one infected organ spreads disease through the whole body.


This experience is not unique to the Church. We know it well in NSW, the home of Commissions of Inquiry into corrupt behaviour among the police, politicians, public servants, crime networks, prison systems and hospital groups to name just a few.


Now, the Catholic Church’s co-operative approach to the Royal Commission into sex abuse of children is showing that, like so many other organisations, left to itself, the Church has not managed, and perhaps cannot manage, its own mess.


This failure to handle its own mess originates in a lack of transparency and accountability in the way the people and the issue have been handled in dioceses and by religious congregations. Such transparency and accountability are two of the weakest operational activities in the Catholic Church.


I have long believed the so-called “crisis of clerical sexual abuse” in the Church is just as much the “crisis of organisational leadership”, something which may become increasingly clear in the Cunneen Inquiry.


Abuse and organisational collapse are related for one simple reason: both the leadership and the rank and file of the Church have, as we say in Australia, some very ordinary cattle among them.


The Catholic Church is like a cricket team that has among its members some Don Bradmans with lifetime batting averages of 99.94 runs per innings, along with players who never face a ball and yet stay on the team. Even worse, they never turn up to training, don’t appear at matches and bet with bookmakers against their own team. Yet they’re left in the side. No one asks why; no one tells them they aren’t worth their place; no one calls their bluff.


And look at the shocking things they do; look at the narcissistic acts of destruction they perform and numbing self-delusion with which they rationalise their evil deeds.


No one in the Hunter needs reminding how deeply destructive, utterly irresponsible and completely culpable some among the clergy and their associates have been. And once the Inquiry makes all plain, no one will need reminding how hopelessly incompetent and practically destructive some leaders in the Church have been.


What is to be done?


A great deal, I would suggest. And there are many hands at work across Australia on the many tasks that need to be performed.


I fear, though, that we may miss the impact of this public mess on the average Catholics who may never have heard of the problem of child abuse until it was highlighted in the media and have no personal experience to draw on.


What unaddressed demoralisation, disappointment, dismay and sense that they have been, at least, misled, if not betrayed, floats around in the Catholic community? 


My pastoral concern as a priest is for “the people in the pews”, and there are three steps we must take for their sake:

  1. Face the hard facts and not hide from victims’ calls for empathy and justice;
  2. Accept the fact that our generation of Catholics has no choice but to live with this reality, and to discover what it means to forgive the perpetrators and the incompetent leaders on whose watch it all happened; and
  3. Live in the hope that with honesty and courage, such discouraging times can lead us to something better where justice, compassion and healing might hold sway.

How those things might be approached, nurtured and fostered will be the subject of my talk in Newcastle on 18 June.


Fr Michael Kelly SJ, a native of Sydney, is Executive Director of UCA News, based in Bangkok.


See details of the Social Justice Council event where he will speak. 

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