Two Reports of Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s U.S. Tour

Report 1. Robinson forced to choose loyalty to abuse victims

CN Catholic News, June 16, 2008

Concluding his US tour, retired Sydney priest Bishop Geoffrey Robinson says that he was forced to choose between loyalty to abuse victims and loyalty to the pope.

The Age reports Bishop Robinson told a US audience last week that as a bishop, he took an oath of loyalty to the Pope.

But he was a victim of abuse himself, and during the nine years that he investigated clerical sex abuse cases in Australia, as a member and then chairman of a Church-appointed committee, he found himself trying to choose his side.

“I had to choose between loyalty to the Pope, or loyalty to the victims,” he said. “The victims of abuse were on one side, and on the other, total silence from Rome. Nothing. John Paul II simply gave no support. He had done nothing with this.”

Explaining how the millenniums old culture of the Church had to change, Bishop Robinson noted that confrontation might be necessary.

In his Culver City, California speech, Bishop Robinson said he had received letters from the Vatican saying he was suspected of heresy while he was on the investigative committee.

Ten bishops, including Cardinal Roger Mahony, of Los Angeles, earlier wrote to Bishop Robinson urging him to stay away.

Cardinal Mahony, whose archdiocese of Los Angeles has agreed to out-of-court settlements totalling $A766 million for clerical abuse cases, wrote again in May after the Australian bishops’ conference issued a public finding of doctrinal difficulties with Bishop Robinson’s book.

Bishop Robinson’s book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus, was published in Australia last year and, according to its publisher, has sold more than 8000 copies. It is also on its second US print run.

However, the DC Catholic website, based in the national capital of Washington, announced his arrival last month as “Disgraced Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson speaks in the Archdiocese of Washington”.

“The book began as a response to abuse,” he told the Culvrer City, Los Angeles gathering. “Every page in it, every word in it is a response to that abuse.”

“I don’t know why it happens,” he said. “That priests, God help us, descend to that level … I have no explanation for how a priest can do this.”

But the book was also specific to Bishop Robinson’s experience in Australia. To the palpable disappointment of the audience, he refused to comment on the state of the church in America.

“It’s so different,” he said. “So new. Please forgive me. It’s not avoiding the issue. It’s that things are so different to what I expected.”

Later, questioned by an audience member, he relented slightly. “I’m surprised by all the lawsuits, the way money is used on both sides, where money seems to have been substituted for reaching out to people.”

Report 2. Bishop Exposes Unhealthy Environment or “Brutta Figura” of the Catholic Church

by Rafael Pozos, 21st. Century Catholic , 16th June 2008.

“Sexual abuse is about power and sex and both must be addressed.” This was the main point Bishop Geoffrey Robinson made at a talk at the University of San Francisco on June 13, 2008. Sponsored by Voice of the Faithful, the event was the final leg of a controversial book tour before the bishop’s return to his native Australia. Called doctrinally questionable by the Australian Bishop’s conference, his book titled “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church”, calls for wholesale cultural change in the Catholic Church which will allow it to move away from the unhealthy culture and environment which allowed the abuse to happen. This is a tall order as cultural change is painfully slow and takes a lot if time to effect.

These issues are not at all new to Bishop Robinson. A victim of abuse himself at an early age – and not by a member of the clergy, he stated that he had “no idea what it was about when it was happening, only that it didn’t feel right.” As his life went on, he repressed these memories, putting them in “the attic of my mind” as he puts it. From 1994 until 2003, he was first on and then chair of a committee sponsored by the Australian Bishops to coordinate the national response to the revelations of sexual abuse in Australia. The experience consumed him. “For nine years, it completely dominated my life” he said. During that time he “met with everybody.” This included both victims and perpetrators. This book began as a response to these revelations in Australia and eventually morphed into something much bigger, as he realized that the problems run far deeper than any one issue.

From his perspective, the main thing that allowed the abuse to happen in the first place was a generally unhealthy environment. Specifically he cited an unhealthy psychology and ideas about things which lead to an unhealthy environment. When all of these things happen, abuse can happen. He was reflecting on the case of a friend of his, also a bishop who had dismissed a mother whose child had been abused and found himself wondering what had happened to this friend of his who he remembered from his days in the seminary in Rome as being a very caring and generous man that would cause him to change like that. “When a bishop gets ordained, there is a lot of laying on of hands. I do not believe however that this microwaves his brain” he lamented.

Starting from the reality of abuse, he proceeded to address both of the issues of power and sex. For him the power issues starts with a misunderstanding and a mistranslation of a passage from the letter to the Hebrews, which he remembers being repeated constantly in the seminary – which he recalls as an artificial environment which continues this unhealthy environment. The passage states that priests are chosen from men to handle the sacred and that they receive power to do so. Due to a mistranslation from Greek to Latin, the term “receive” came to mean “taken up” as in taken to a level above the people. This has happened at an early age for some priests who entered the seminary as pre-teens and were indoctrinated at an early age with certain ideas, namely that all sexual desire is wrong as well as a general sense of misogyny. This lead to a mystique of the priesthood which the bishop cited as a major contributing factor along with mandatory celibacy to the unhealthy environment and said must change as “priests are still people.”

As an example he related a personal story of a game of golf after he had been ordained a bishop. He hit a good shot off the tee and his partner said “good shot milord!” and when he had a bad putt, he said “oh, bad luck milord!” as though he were nobility. He felt like he had to remind his partner “please, we’re playing golf, it’s just Geoff.” To him this felt like the ideal of a priest that most laity have, which is that a priest must be perfect and if they can’t be perfect, they need to appear it. This is part of the reason why mandatory celibacy must be investigated. If the celibacy is not well received and desire is not dealt with properly, it can cause even more problems, as clergy will try to appear the celibate part, but only end up self destructing over it. Even further, he noted that the popular description of a priest seems to be “Jesus Christ on one of his better days.” All of these are unhealthy ideas as they hold priests and religious to standards that they can’t possibly hope to achieve.

A far more insidious issue is the way papal infallibility has factored into the lack of leadership from the papacy on this matter. The doctrine of papal infallibility is defined in a very technical way, however lately the pheonomenon of creeping infallibility, where just about anything from the Vatican is treated as such. It’s become such that “Any time you have papal authority invested, it’s going to be treated as infallable” the bishop said when relating to Humanae Vitae and mandatory celibacy for clergy – which he sees as a major contributing factor in the sex scandal. He pointed out that “celibacy is merely a law and it could technically be changed at any time.” The problem is that changing it could imply that “one thousand years of popes were wrong” he said, meaning that if a law like that were changed, it could potentially undermine the authority of all that came before the pope who changed the law. Even further is the Italian notion that everything has “Bella figura e brutta figura” or “Good appearance and ugly appearance” with the emphasis on maintaining the good appearance (for bella figura in Italian) no matter the cost or what was really happening. This notion goes back to ancient Rome and is deeply embedded in Italian culture and carries over to the Catholic Church. When they are ordained, all bishops take an oath of loyalty to the pope to defend him at all costs. This includes maintaining the bella figura of the papacy and of the church as a whole. Therefore, when the pope did not offer strong leadership in this matter, bishops were caught between being the pope’s man and the victim’s man. This lead them to scapegoat homosexual priests instead of confronting the real issues of power.

When it comes to sex, the Bishop feels that a new sense of sexual ethics is needed. He pointed out that Catholicism’s sexual morality comes from Philo of Alexandria, who was trying to explain Jewish mores in terms of Greek philosophy. The essence of it is that if a sexual act is not considered natural (e.g. homosexual sex) is considered to be a mortal sin against God. This is tied into the property and purity ethics present in ancient Jewish sexual ethics, where adultery was seen as a violation of the man’s property rights and purity is key and it’s very easy to become impure – especially through sexual contact. While Jesus abolished the old law, he did not replace it, leaving the door open for the fathers to read Philo and use his model. Therefore the property and purity ethics remained when the probably shouldn’t have. This is unhealthy because it doesn’t take into account our current understanding of nature and does not allow for any change in that understanding. When confronted with this, the bishop said “God does not get upset by sexual acts in and of themselves, God gets very upset when a child is harmed” – very much counter to the traditional understanding.

He is under no illusions about the difficulty of this kind of reform as the defenses to this cultural system are “1000 years old and rock solid.” Therefore this kind of change is going to involve both confrontation and conversation. Confrontation will include the bishops individually and collectively as well as civil society. One example mentioned was removing the statute of limitations for sexual offenses. Conversation is also going to be key, to try to get everybody on the same page as right now bishops have very little power even collectively against the might of the papacy and as the pope’s men, they are kept on a very short leash. Even so, the scandal, because of its shocking nature and scope is the one issue that has the power to change all of this. While the bishop will readily admit that he does not have the total solution to this problem of an unhealthy environment within the church, he did have some suggestions that could help. These included the pope making a public apology in St. Peter’s surrounded by the cardinals, an open and frank discussion and investigation into the role of mandatory clerical celibacy, a way for a nation to speak as a whole and the creation of the structures to implement Vatican II. “We cannot only rely on one man.” He states.

The proceedings were disrupted during the question and answer section by two evangelical activists who were taking advantage of a situation in Santa Rosa to make their point against Catholicism – one of them even compared the retired Father General of the Society of Jesus to the devil himself. In spite of that, when asked if there was an alternative to bella figura, or good appearances, the bishop responded that there really wasn’t one, but we need to find a better way to use it, as in this case it was clearly problematic. When asked about accountability, especially when a bishop obstructs justice by keeping a pedophile away from law enforcement, he said “if a bishop has committed a criminal offense, let him go off like anybody else” as bishops like anybody else are citizens of their respective countries. Other questions also referred to the response here, e.g. the withholding of money in the Archdiocese of Boston. He repeated again and again that he could not comment on issues here in the US as he found during his tour that the issues are so different than they are in Australia. When asked if there was one major case that was so egregious that it had the effect of the revelations in Boston on the entire country, he said he didn’t know of any.

While Bishop Robinson spoke at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit Institution, the University withdrew their sponsorship of the event after Cardinal Mahoney and a number of other Bishops wrote to Bishop Robinson after he had given them notice that he was going to be there asking him to cancel his appearance. Even further Archbishop Neiderauer told Bishop Robinson to stay away from local parishes. While some say he is rabble rousing, others say that he is a genuine prophet who is merely saying what has been on the minds of most Catholics for some time and is not going to go away any time soon. Despite the fact that his message is a genuine threat to the current system – the bella figura of which the bishops are currently obligated to defend – it is prophetic and raises a number of issues of church culture that do need to be addressed – even if it does result in a “brutta figura” for the church at least temporarily as it sorts out these issues of power and sex so that the resulting “bella figura” can be far better in the end.