Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Attacking the Church Militant: Harry Potter theology indeed!

Over at aCath News we have been graced today with a post by Mark Johnson attacking the Church Militant. 

The very concept of it I mean.

Does he not understand the concept that all catholics in this world are members of the Church Militant?!

Yet Mr Johnson apparently teaches in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he is a PhD candidate.  So he has no excuse for such ignorance.  Likewise Cath News itself.

Fight the good fight of faith?

The object of Mr Johnson's ire is apparently the use of militant language, and the concept that there are actually such things as absolute good and absolute evil.  I assume this means he hasn't actually read (or understood) any Christian Scripture as such!

Let's take a look at some of what he has to say...

Much of recent institutional Catholic identity has become overwhelmed with a prevailing deep insecurity. This insecurity has taken many forms - such as criticism of servant models of leadership [Mr Johnson claims anyone who criticises this very recent theory is suffering from 'insecurity'!  The classic liberal tactic of attack those who dare question their particular storyline, rather than actually engaging with the critique itself!] and the rise of a variety of ‘warrior’ narratives [which are surely firmly based in Scripture.] which not only seek to demarcate a righteous ‘us’ from the sinister ‘them’, but abrogate for ‘us’ the deeply hubristic role of combatants for God. [It is deeply disturbing to see taking up the fight for Christ being described as 'hubristic' in an opinion piece on a site claiming to be catholic.]

As if the world really needs more such self-appointed militia. [It is entirely disingenuous to compare those taking up the spiritual battle to those actual physical world militias!]

The most consistent construct of this insecurity [really?] is cultural, and the great miasmic evil to be confronted is relativism. [Well, at least he is honest about where he is coming from.  And it is not Catholicism as such.]

The assault on natural law as the basis of society

Mr Johnson then proceeds to defend relativism, attempts to redefine it and what constitutes liberalism, and argue that there is no such thing as absolute truth. 

He claims that the real target of the Catholic critique is liberal democratic systems. 

There is something in that - to the extent that what we understand by the term liberal democratic increasingly seems to mean moving away from a natural law based conception of government where some truths are held to be self-evident. 

Instead, liberal democratic is increasingly being redefined by stealth to mean a permissive system based on arbitrary "rights" where the prevailing criteria for what constitutes a right is the pursuit of individual pleasure even at the expense of other's rights (such as to life) and the good of society as a whole. 

And that is why it doesn't matter whether you call it liberalism, relativism or whatever - because Catholics should indeed be trying to resist the  attempt to fundamentally redefine the basis of Western society away from the concept that the laws of a nation must be grounded in the natural law!

Truth is not 'relational'!

Mr Johnson then proceeds to give a rather obscure dissertation that I assume is trying to say that truth can be found everywhere, not just in the Church:

Relativism as the imperative to understand knowledge as relational is deeply to do with truth. It reminds us that knowledge does not manifest in a vacuum, but instead has all sorts of tributaries flowing from all sorts of wells. [ie outside the Church?  Well half true of course!  Elements of the truth can be found everywhere - but mixed with error.  We need the Church to safeguard truth, and revelation to protect us against error.]

Take for example our own Christian faith. Some may not want you to see this, but if we lift up the seemingly pristine cover of static notions of certainty we find a wonderful conglomeration of influences. Surely the Spirit speaks through vitality and a harmony of diversity.

He goes on to talk about the fact that Catholic culture is the product of multiple influences.  That's true of course.  But what we should treasure is the outcome purified by the encounter with Revelation, not all the discarded bits as he seems to be advocating!  He goes on:
What is it that speaks through deadening uniformity, or even mindless conformity? [Anyone who claims the Church's spiritual traditions involve deadening uniformity or mindless conformity is clearly simply ignorant of the rich and diverse patrimony of the Church.  Or is he talking about those pesky moral doctrines we are required to believe as Catholics....]

I won't bother to reproduce the rest of it, you get the flavour.  A commenter suggests that his piece constitutes 'Harry Potter' theology.  Indeed.

Monday, 26 September 2011

TV alert: Four Corners tonight alleges another Adelaide cover-up....

Four Corners tonight on the ABC apparently focuses on another Adelaide sex abuse case which it is claimed was covered up, to continuing denials from the Archdiocese...

**The program was about two cases of bus drivers abusing disabled kids, one current, one dating back twenty years but still alive due in some court cases against the Archdiocese alleging failure to take proper action to deal with the situation, resulting in extremely disturbed behaviour on the part of the victims.

The story

In the first case, a paedophile bus driver was working for a Catholic school, and managed to insinuate himself into the school proper as a volunteer. 

The scandal was that once discovered, it was claimed that both the police (who abandoned the investigation very quickly indeed, allowing a pedophile to continue in his activities elsewhere) and the Catholic education authorities/archiodiocese (who terminated the driver's employment, but even thanked him for his work in a dismissal letter than fails to mention the reasons he was sacked) failed to take appropriate action such as informing the parents of the abused or potentially abused children. 

As a result, the abused went untreated for over ten years until the parents discovered had happened when it was largely too late to help the children. 

Why bother going to the police in SA?

Part of the story was about the sorry performance of the South Australian (Adelaide) police in both cases. 

When charges were finally laid against the driver (but not his known paedophile accomplice), the paedophile was granted bail and fled to Queensland. 

When the Queensland police discovered where he was (again working with children), the SA police initially declined to press to for extradiction on the grounds that the case would be too hard to prosecute given the difficulties in using the evidence of disabled children.  It was only when the parents went public that action was suddenly taken.

The Archdiocese - a familiar sounding story?

The Archiodiocese came off looking worse for wear too.  Most of the events took place under the previous Archbishop, Leonard Faulkner.  But the discovery of what had happened and subsequent handling occurred under the watch of the current Archbishop. 

And the particular contemporary relevance to the Hepworth case is that instead of using the Towards Healing protocols, the Archdiocese, in the form of Monsignor Cappo, is claimed to have told the parents to lawyer up; followed up with out of the blue arbitrary payouts to parents without any discussion and investigation involving them; and generally refused to apologise for what happened or take an interest in the effects of what happened (storming out of a meeting with parents). 

Worse, Four Corners cited a letter which seemed to show a preoccupation with media management of the affair and enabling the (then) Archbishop to be seen as having clean hands.

Adelaide, oh Adelaide.  City of Australia's weirdest murders and other odd crimes, cesspit of homosexual misbehaviour and paedophilia.  Aided and abbetted by largely unfettered corruption.

And headquarters of the liberal Church establishment...

The Australian today reports on the Archdiocese's response: denial of any cover-up.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

On why priests don't preach hard sayings...

Last Sunday I blogged about a sermon that was undoubtedly trying to be "pastoral", and thus avoided mentioning those disturbing, pesky bits of the faith about the need for actual repentance from mortal sin for salvation.

This week, there have been two rather awful stories about just why priests actually avoid preaching on these hard truths, from North America:
  • in New Brunswick, Canada, Fr Donat Gionet was suspended without any discussion with his bishop for a sermon denouncing abortion and homosexuality following complaints by parishioners - a member of the parish council is apparently an openly practisng homosexual!;
  • in West Texas, Fr Michael Rodriquez transferred for his public comments denouncing homosexual activity in the context of a local council political debate.
Would it happen here?  You betya.  We do after all, even in the Sydney Archdiocese of all places, still have "Acceptance" masses taking place every week explicitly catering for homosexual persons which you can pretty much guarantee are extremely "pastoral" indeed in their sermon pitches!

And, as in the US, any such attempt to preach the truth is likely to be dealt with far faster than any accusations that the priest concerned was actually practising any of the sins concerned...

Bishops and priests need to be prepared to be white martyrs for truth. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Why bishops find it hard to act....

If there is one thing the reaction of the laity to the Hepworth case illustrates, it is just why our bishops find it so hard to act decisively in abuse cases.

Springing to the defense

Go around the comboxes and discussion boards - including to the posts on this blog - and you will find many condemnations of Archbishop Hepworth's decision to go public, and of Senator Xenophon's decision to name the accused priest.

What does he hope to achieve, they ask?

Well, a serious investigation for one thing.  And appropriate precautionary action in the meantime.

What level of proof is necessary?

Acting on an accusation does not mean you think they are guilty.  It does not mean that the accusations will ultimately pass the 'beyond reasonable doubt' or some other test of proof.  It merely argues that there is a claim that needs to be properly tested.

The instinct to defend our priests is a natural and good one.  Our first instinct when someone we know or respect is accused of doing something that seems wildly out of character is naturally to spring to their defense.

Nothing wrong with that. 

But even as we offer them our support we have to be careful to allow proper processes to work.

Resistance to proper action

And that can't happen when the laity's first instinct is to resist even acknowledging the remote possibility that there might actually be a real problem that needs to be addressed.

It is precisely this kind of reaction that has made it difficult for bishops to take decisive action when known problems have occurred in the past.

It is precisely this reaction which has seen priests shuffled from parish to parish, or moved into quasi-administrative positions rather than actually removed from the ministry when they were known paedophiles or guilty of other serious crimes.

We need to let the light shine in on these cases with transparent processes. 

We need to urge bishops to take decisive action, whether precautionary or where guilt is reasonably established.

If we don't, we ourselves bear the guilt for any future crimes committed.

Not that support or otherwise appears to be much of factor in this case, as the latest updates suggest that since AB Hepworth went public, the archdiocese hasn't even bothered to make official contact with him, preferring instead to defend it and the accused priest in the media rather than by instituting an actual process...

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Msgr Dempsey replies to Senator Xenophon....

The latest in the ongoing Adelaide saga is a letter from accused Msgr Dempsey to Senator Xenophon, attacking the Senator's decision to name him in Parliament.

Msgr Dempsey's response

The letter apparently argues that his reputation has been irrevocably smeared and that the accolades he has received over the years are inconsistent with the accusations against him being true. He also argues that he was the one hurt by the naming, yet he has no control over the Archdiocese's action or inaction.

It is an understandable reaction.

Personally I do think Senator Xenophon acted somewhat precipitately.  While it is true that the Archdiocese appears to have pretty much sat on the case and done nothing for four years, the matter had only just been made public, and there was surely some hope that the Weekend Australian's coverage of the case would force some action even without the Senator taking this step. 

And even if it was necessary to set a deadline, a one day deadline was, I think, just a tad short.

All the same, I have to say the appeal to reputation as a reason for rejection of the accusations out of hand just does not hold up; nor does Msgr Dempsey's claim that he has no influence on the handling of the case.

What constitutes a credible accusation?

Msgr Dempsey apparently suggests in his letter that Archbishop Hepworth will be shown to be a less than reliable witness.  He certainly seems to have had a difficult and troubled life.

But these are matters for a formal investigation to look at and arrive at a view on.

The issue at stake here is when should a priest accused of any kind of serious misbehaviour stand aside, voluntarily or otherwise.

In my view, Msgr Dempsey should have offered to stand aside voluntarily (four yesrs ago) and insisted  on the accusations being investigated and resolved one way or another as quickly as possible, just as, for example, Cardinal Pell did when he was faced with an accusation against him.  That course is still open to him.

The real question is, do Archbishop Hepworth's accusations pass the credibility test making them warrant serious investigation, and for the priest concerned to be stood aside?  Given that his accusations against two of the three priests concerned have already been found to be credible, and that those priests concerned seem to have left a long trail of other abuse cases behind them in Adelaide, Melbourne, and elsewhere, it is hard to see how his claims can be rejected out of hand.

Why reputation should not be a factor in decisions on standing aside a priest

The biggest problem in all this, in my view, is that the archdiocese appears to have accepted Msgr Dempsey's argument that his good reputation means he should not be stood aside. 

Once upon a time, I might have agreed.  One would expect priests to conform to a higher standard of behaviour; might assume that accusations against them are just the inevitable attacks of evil on the good.

Unfortunately, there is just too much evidence that just as the Church has been so badly infected by heresy in the last few decades, so also it has been infected by the wholesale collapse of traditional morality in our society.  Too much evidence that many of our current priests should never have been ordained in the first place, while many who were excluded from ordination would in fact have made excellent priests.

I'm not saying that the Church is any worse than other institutions in our society in relation to sexual and other crimes.  It may even be a little better. 

I'm certainly not saying that there isn't a double standard in play - hard to imagine any priest found guilty of sexual abuse getting the sympathetic hearing accorded by the judge to Adelaide author Mem Fox's husband for example.

But it is clear that, as the Pope has acknowledged, there is a legacy of filth in the Church that needs to be dealt with, and it is in the very nature of sexual misconduct cases that the behaviour concerned has been concealed and covered up for many years; that people who appear publicly virtuous turn out not to be.  Consider for example the case of Fr Marciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, friend of a Pope, numerous Cardinals and bishops!

I'm not suggesting that is the situation here.

But we simply can't know one way or the other (particularly given Archbishop Hepworth's claims that he did go to the authorities at the time and their threats were the reason for him leaving the Church), and those in power shouldn't be making decisions based on a presumption that could turn out to be false.

The urge to protect and defend

The instinct of bishops to protect and defend their priests in the face of accusations of misconduct or other criticism against them is perhaps a natural one.  They are, after all, meant to have a fatherly relationship to their priests. 

Moreover, false accusations do get made.

Yet bishops also have a duty to protect their flocks, and it is an unfortunate manifestation of clericalism in my view, to put their relationship to their priests ahead of the protection of the laity.

The precautionary principle, of taking action on the assumption that the consequences of not acting should the accusations subsequently be found to have something to them are high, should be adopted.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Why do we fear fear itself?

I heard at mass this morning in the city a sermon from a senior Australian priest that finally motivated me sufficiently to resume blogging at least temporarily (yep shouldn't have put the blog back up online even so as just to allow people to access older posts, I just can't resist the urge to rant!).

It was one of those sermons that probably aren't outright erroneous, but do their best to give that impression by omission, and thus have the potential to seriously mislead the congregation.  Or at least to feed those delusional reassurances we all tend to use to persuade ourselves not to worry about sin.

And it was especially disappointing because the Mass itself was very reverently said (unlike many masses in my parish), the congregation gave rather less of a tower of babel imitation in relation to the new missal texts than I've experienced at other churches/mass times in my geographical parish, and I have a lot of respect for how the priest concerned does his day job.

God's free love does not mean we are all saved!

The sermon concerned was about this week's Gospel in the Ordinary Form, the parable of the workers paid the same whether they worked all day or or even up to the last hour (Mt 20:1-16).  

The theme of the sermon was the gratuity of God's love.

The problem was the omission of any reference to the need to actually actually repent, confess and do penance in order to earn that one denarius of pay, whether earned for little or much work.  Instead, there was lots of emphasis on how God loves us all, regardless of our sins, regardless of our good works.

Well yes, but.

Confusing God's love with the free extra gift of salvation?

God, it is true, loves us all.  He wants us all to enjoy heaven. 

But we do actually need to repent from the sins Father listed in his sermon such as treating marriage as optional and living in sin instead, failing to attend mass, and so forth. 

If people guilty of those sins do repent and get to heaven, then of course, as the parable suggests, we should rejoice at God's generosity, not be aggrieved.

Yet while we may all earn that reward of salvation whether for little or much work, we can't just rely, as so many do today, on the idea that God is totally indifferent to what we actually do here and now.

God's love grants us the gift of life now.  It grants us the possibility - but not certainty - of eternal life.

But the fact that God loves us doesn't mean we can't incur temporal or eternal punishment, doesn't mean that God is not also justice: such a view is practical atheism.

And a sermon that omits to make this point strikes me at least as deeply problematic, as I pointed out to the priest concerned!

There is nothing wrong with holy fear

The sermon treated us to a little dissertation to the effect that liberals and conservatives alike blame Vatican II for the current state of the Church, but perhaps we should look elsewhere.

I agree.  To a large extent, 'Vatican II' is just a code word for a much bigger issue that has deeper and more roots that has little connection to the actual texts of the Council.  One of the most significant elements of this problem is the fundamental subversion of the faith by subtle redefinitions of key concepts that occurred over the course of the twentieth century in particular.

Like fear of God.

In the sermon we were told that fear of hell - and all those stories nuns used to tell children to terrify them into going to mass and so forth - is bad.  It is not the right motivation for doing the right thing, that rather we should act out of love of God.

To act from love alone is certainly an ideal we should strive for.  But there are surely some basic realities of human psychology that come into play here, psychological realities that have long been used by God and his Church to good effect, and the pertinent one here is the acceptance that while ideally we should act out of love, in reality we have to start somewhere, and fear is a perfectly acceptable, albeit imperfect motivator.

Long held, stock standard spiritual wisdom of the Church is that love of God, like any kind of love, is usually something that grows gradually, as we get to know the object of our affection.  We can only really get to know him when we start trying to do his will, and follow his commandments.  And we only start doing that, in most cases, because we fear the consequences if we don't!

St Benedict, for example, in his Rule, sets out a series of steps in humility through which we must progress.  Only then, he says, will we be able to act out of that perfect love that casts out fear:

"Having climbed all these steps of humility, therefore, the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God which casts out fear. And all those precepts which formerly he had not observed without fear, he will now begin to keep by reason of that love, without any effort, as though naturally and by habit. No longer will his motive be the fear of hell, but rather the love of Christ, good habit and delight in the virtues which the Lord will deign to show forth by the Holy Spirit in His servant now cleansed from vice and sin." (RB 7)

It is this understanding of human psychology that explains, for example, why the Government is putting ever more gory pictures on cigarette packages - because yes, ideally people shouldn't smoke because they love being in good health, because they don't want their secondhand smoke to hurt their children, and because they can make a rational decision to sacrifice some pleasure in the interests of the good.  But in practice, as has well and truly been demonstrated, many people need to be scared into action.  And that is just as true when it comes to sins in general as it is for the particular vice of smoking.

Holy fear in the Catholic tradition

When I raised with the priest concerned all of those Scriptural references to 'fear of the Lord', I was told that fear in Scripture means not fear of the consequences but awe.

But that is not how the Church has understood 'fear' down the ages.  Fear, it is true, can certainly include awe.  But consider for example St Benedict's discussion of humility in his Holy Rule:

"The first degree of humility, then, is that a person keep the fear of God before his eyes and beware of ever forgetting it. Let him be ever mindful of all that God has commanded; let his thoughts constantly recur to the hell-fire which will burn for their sins those who despise God, and to the life everlasting which is prepared for those who fear Him. Let him keep himself at every moment from sins and vices, whether of the mind, the tongue, the hands, the feet, or the self-will, and check also the desires of the flesh."

I could provide a long list of similar citations from the Fathers, Theologians and the Magisterium to support my case, but I won't bother.  Because I know that many priests today, including, I imagine, this morning's preacher, don't think we should bother relying on the tradition of the Church when we can instead look to the creative reinterpretations of modern theologians popularized and taken further by those such as Fr Ron Rolheiser, quoted at length this morning.  Because newer is of course always better...

So why do we fear fear itself?

When I raised these issues with the priest concerned, and pointed to the Church's teaching, affirmed by the Council of Trent, that attrition, or repentance out of fear of the consequences is sufficient, he responded that it was imperfect.

That is technically true of course, but surely imperfect is better than not at all!  The reality is that most of us are still imperfect, and will be all our lives.

It is true, as he suggested, that we can't know who is saved and who isn't.

But we do know that the way is narrow and hard.

We do know that unrepented mortal sin bars us from heaven.

The underlying problem, I would suggest is about priorities.

The traditional view of the Church is that its purpose, above all, is to get people to heaven.  That salvation comes through the Church, and being (officially) part of it is the safest means of reaching heaven.

If you believe this and truly love others, you will be concerned about their spiritual welfare first and foremost, want them to get to heaven.  And you will be prepared to use any and all any proper means that helps achieve that.

If that is your priority then you will act as swiftly and sympathetically as possible to assist in the reconciliation of those in schism (de facto or otherwise) - such as Archbishop Hepworth and the Traditional Anglican Communion, such as the SSPX - to be reconciled to the Church and move to full communion.

If, however, you think the Church is primarily about something else - such as achieving social justice or building a particular concept of community of people here and now (things that in my view should be regarded as the means to an end, not the end itself) - then holy fear seems a quaint, old-fashioned and inappropriate concept.

If you don't really believe in heaven or hell, don't want to believe that actions have supernatural consequences, best to avoid thinking of the reality of hell.  Because if you don't think about it, then you won't fear it...

Holy fear is perhaps something we all need to recover.  Surely better that than realizing too late that one has neither love nor fear.

We need to keep in mind the Scriptural injunction that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  It is not, it is true, the end of wisdom.  But personally, I think most of us, myself included, could do worse than listen to the advice of St Benedict and his 'little Rule for beginners'...

On the evils of Adelaide...

I really shouldn't have put the blog back online (which I did so that people could follow links etc to older material) because I'm afraid I just can't resist the temptation to comment.   But I drafted this a few days ago, and now, impelled by a sermon this morning (see today's other post), have decided to post it.

A modern horror story

The Australian Church has been convulsed over the last week, by a modern horror story.  For the background to this case now playing out nationally and internationally, see the sequence of stories in the sidebar (oldest at bottom). 

The short version is, Archbishop Hepworth, Primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion four years or so ago told Church authorities that his reason for leaving the Catholic Church (of which he was an ordained priest) was sexual abuse at the Adelaide seminary and subsequently as a young priest.   He sought their help in both dealing with his allegations, and resolving his personal situation so as to allow him to be reconciled with the Church.

The allegations of abuse at the seminary have been accepted in the case of two of his abusers, handled by the Melbourne Archdiocese within a year.  The admittedly more complex case of his alleged rape at the hands of an Adelaide priest remains unresolved and on the face of it virtually unactioned four years later.  On the face of it, a sorry state of affairs for the diocese of the President of Australia's Bishops Conference.

Horror, despair and hope

The Hepworth case convulsing the Australian Church at the moment is both a matter of horror and hope. 

Horror that what Archbishop Hepworth claims to have happened him - and who knows how many other Adelaide (and other) seminarians, priests and others - can have been found to be considered to be plausible by the Melbourne process and is believable because of what we know has happened elsewhere in Australia and overseas.

Despair that despite all that has happened over the last few years, yet another case of accusations against a priest appears to be being badly mishandled by the authorities, and bringing the church into yet more disrepute. 

Yet hope that out of this, a cleansing of the Australian Church might yet occur.

Shoot the messenger....

Unfortunately, many seem to be trying to portray this story as a conservative beat-up with a political agenda. 

This surely ignores the hard facts and circumstances of the case.

I, personally, am not convinced that Senator Xenophon's decision to name the accused priest in Parliament was on balance justified at this time.   

Still, that he has been named is not an issue of 'natural justice' as some have claimed (that is an entirely different concept). 

Nor is it necessarily about the presumption of innocence, since many people accused of various crimes are named yet subsequently not found to have a case against them. 

But people do have the right to a good reputation.  That is a serious right, that should, where possible, be respected.

But as with all such rights, it has to be weighed against the public good, and I can certainly understand the Senator's frustration in the face of the statements that the archdiocese has been making.  Let's take a look at some of them

Claim 1: AB Hepworth should have gone to the police (years ago)

Several statements have suggested that AB Hepworth should go to the police on this matter, and indeed should have gone to them years ago.  Mr Pearson's piece in this week's Weekend Australian takes up this point and points out that while this should certainly be encouraged, it is perfectly understandable why the Archbishop might not choose this route.  And the 'Towards Healing' document which is supposed to govern how cases in Australia are managed acknowledges this.

Let me add a few points though, to his arguments. 

First consider why then Fr Hepworth didn't go to police at the time.  Hepworth alleges that he was raped in the mid-1970s - just a few years after the notorious murder of homosexual University of Adelaide professor George Duncan (who drowned in the Torrens), an event in which the police were deeply implicated. Not exactly a group of people one might think it safe to go to in the circumstances. 

As for the reasons for continued reluctance, many women baulk at pursuing rapists to trial, knowing that they themselves will come under attack from the defense.  How much worse it would be in a case like this: even today, relatively few adult male on adult male rape cases have actually proceeded to trial.  Fewer still when it essentially comes to the word of one person against another.  And if he were to take the matter to the police now, this could become a further reason for delaying the resolution of his own reconciliation with the Church (and potentially that of the Traditional Anglican Communion).

Archbishop Hepworth wanted the matter dealt with internally within the Church.  He has a right for this to occur and for his decision on the matter to be respected.

Claim 2: Monsignor Dempsey (the accused) should not be stood aside...

Far more disturbing though, in terms of the archdiocese's handling of the case, is the refusal to have the accused priest, Msgr Dempsey, stand aside.  As Cardinal Pell has pointed out, this needs to be explained.  the press release put out by Archbishop Wilson in response doesn't cut the mustard in my view.

I'm not making any judgments about Msgr Dempsey's guilt or innocence. I've actually heard good things about his sermons for example, his interesting views on the Church's teachings on sexuality (see the sidebar) notwithstanding.

But being stood aside is not an indication that someone is guilty or not guilty.

It is, however, a fairly standard practice in the face of serious allegations that is about protecting everyone involved while an investigation occurs. 

It is, above all, an indication that the claims made are being treated seriously.

So it is deeply concerning to read from Archbishop Wilson's press statement that:

"The question has been asked as to why I have not stood the priest aside from his ministry during this investigation. My answer is very clear. Priests are normally stood aside from their ministry when accusations of child sexual abuse are made or where there is otherwise any risk posed by that priest’s continued ministry.

Is the Archbishop really suggesting that a rapist would not pose a risk of any kind?  That even if found guilty he could continue in his ministry?!  Is he really saying that the only serious crime that would case a priest to be stood aside is an accusation of child sex abuse?  I am not making a call on Mgr Dempsey's guilt or innocence, just suggesting that rape is a serious crime and should be treated as such!

Archbishop Wilson goes on to add that the events concerned allegedly took place forty years ago.

But is this a relevant consideration?  A mortal sin or crime is a mortal sin or crime whenever it was committed.

And the problem in assessing risk is that we do not know whether, if it occurred, this was a one off thing, or part of a continuing pattern of behaviour.  In so many other cases the first accusations that come to light often turn out to be but the tip of the iceberg.

Thirdly, the Archbishop points to  'the presumption of innocence'.

As I pointed out above, the presumption of innocence is not relevant here. In a court trial for example, those charged with a crime are often not granted bail - yet may subsequently found to be innocent.

The Archbishop's final argument is "the good standing of the priest under investigation".

This is surely the most problematic argument of all. This kind of argument is the very reason why the Church has been (rightly in my view) attacked for its mishandling of abuse cases.  Doesn't it imply a prejudgment of the relative merits of the claims of the accused and accuser rather than a willingness to let the matter be properly investigated?  And doesn't it fail to acknowledge the point made in the 'Towards Healing' document that:

"Offenders frequently present as respectable, good and caring people. They can be quite exemplary in their public life, while at the same time living a private life that contradicts their public image."

Claim 3: AB Hepworth asked that an investigation not proceed...

The strangest part of this story is surely the Archdiocese's claim that despite being given a lengthy document setting out the details of the claims, the Archbishop asked that no action be taken.

Frankly, even if this were the case, the Archdiocese surely had a duty to undertake some investigation on its own cognizance to satisfy itself that the accused priest was not in fact a practising homosexual or involved in coercive behaviour with others and that there was therefore no risk associated with leaving the accused priest in ministry. 

But in any case, the Archdiocese's line on this is difficult to reconcile with the swift resolution of the case against the two Melbourne priests (after, apparently Cardinal Pell's suggestion that he refer the matter to Melbourne), and the Archbishop's provision of several supporting statements over the period.  Moreover, the Archbishop Hepworth denies this claim, and he has a witness who supports him.  In fact it appears what he was quite properly resisting was the Archdiocese's attempts to make him his alleged rapist meet face-to-face in a 'mediated' meeting!

The reconciliation of the TAC

There are of course a number of complicating factors in this whole story, one of which is the reconciliation of the Traditional Anglican Communion. 

Many of us have wondered why things were moving so slowly in Australia, when they have been moving so expeditiously in England and elsewhere.  Presumably, the answer is in part the need to resolve Archbishop Hepworth's personal situation, since as Primate of the group he would want to be at least able to receive communion with the newly reconciled group.

A sympathetic Catholic bishop or group of bishops might have looked for a way to cut through all of this and separate out the issues.  A sympathetic bishop would gave given the Archbishop frank and honest advice in writing about what was possible and likely, and facilitated him making his case formally on his own situation with Rome.

But the liberal establishment that predominates among our bishops is, perhaps, less likely to be sympathetic to a group of conservative anglicans.

Particularly at the very time when they want to champion the cause of Bishop Morris with the Pope during their upcoming ad limina visit, a debate over the very issue that precipitated the traditional Anglican break, women priests!

Archbishop Hepworth's personal case

It may be though that part of the problem rests in part with the Archbishop himself, since some of his comments do seem to suggest that he holds out some prospect of him being returned to ministry in the Catholic Church.

I'm not an expert on canon law, but on the face of it, notwithstanding the circumstances of Archbishop Hepworth's departure from the Church, this seems pretty much impossible unless he agrees to separate from his wife which he has given no public indication that he is willing to do.

If, as has been reported, he has never been laicized, then neither of his purported marriages are valid in the eyes of the Church, since being a priest constitutes an impediment to marriage.

It would certainly be theoretically possible for him to be laicized, granted permission to marry (two separate issues) and so have his current marriage validated.

But for a validly ordained Catholic priest, even one coming back via the Anglican Church, to be explicitly granted a dispensation to marry and continue to practice as a priest?  Personally, I just can't see the Vatican ever wanting to set the precedent, no matter what the circumstances. 


And then of course there is the fact that Archbishop Wilson's point man on this issue has been the controversial Monsignor Cappo.

Leaving aside the politics of the person and his association with the soon to be ex-Premier of South Australia, the real issue, it seems to me, is symbolism: should we be focusing first on saving souls and administering the Church well, or focussing on saving those deemed to be oppressed or disadvantaged here and now?

All too many of Australia's bishops, religious and priests, whether liberal or conservative, seem far more intent on playing in the public square, obsessed with politics and power, rather than worship and cleaning up their own houses.  It doesn't, in my view, matter whether they are saying the right things, arriving at the right conclusions or not.  The point is that in doing so, in putting their efforts into lobbying and press releases they are squeezing out the space for lay action, rather than empowering and supporting the laity through the sacraments and proper instruction to take on what Vatican II (rightly in my view) insisted was primarily a lay responsibility.

We live in a time when Church attendance and numbers practising the faith continues to fall, heresy is rife and preached from the pulpit each Sunday, and priests and laity simply don't know or believe in their own faith.  Even when it comes to matters of the Church's social teaching, they are far more likely to be told to support this or that position rather than actually taught the appropriate principles so they can arrive at a judgement for themselves.

Souls and lives are at stake.

Yet there continues to be little or no accountability of the clergy for the Church's own administration and mission, as this whole story clearly illustrates.
Yet instead of seriously addressing these issues, and actively working to empower laypeople to play their proper role in the public square, our clericalist bishops continue to offer a constant stream of media releases on issues like prisons, refugees and the like.  And a high profile priest from a diocese with a shortage of priests has consistently taken on ever more highly politicized tasks.  Well, at least that has been stopped for the moment.

The bottom line is that it is all about priorities.  

So is there a political agenda behind this story?  Of course there is.  It is about the fight for the future of the Australian Church - indeed about whether there is any prospect of their being such an entity in a few years time.  Because there won't be if the current liberal establishment continues to ignore the elephant in the room that is the current devastated state of the Australian Church.

Should be an interesting ad limina visit next month.