Sunday, 19 August 2012

On treating the laity like mushrooms: Bishop Wrong strikes again?

One of the things that I find particularly puzzling about liberals is the seemingly irreconcilable gulf between rhetoric and reality on subjects like the role of the laity.

And there was a classic example of it last week, strangely comment-free on Cath News (censorship at work?!), in the story about payouts for sex abuse cases by the Maitland-Newcastle diocese.

Bishop Wright, you will recall, is one of Australia's youngest bishops.  He is a bishop who does not want the Extraordinary Form in his diocese.  He seems set to close down the use of overseas priests in his diocese, despite strong lay support for them.  And now he is refusing to tell the laity of his diocese just how much money has been paid out in the abuse scandal, and how many cases of it there have been in the diocese.

Australia's sex abuse epicentre: how about some transparency and accountability for a change?

Bishop Wright of Maitland-Newcastle, in his bio on the diocesan website, claims a commitment to 'collaborative decision-making' and 'co-responsibility'. 

A couple of weeks back he even supported a Royal Commission to inquire into sex abuse.

Yet in the media last week he declined to confirm reports that the diocese had paid out more than $15m to settle around 100 sex abuse claims perpetrated by ten priests (in 1970, back when the abuses were being perpetrated, there were a toal of 114 diocesan priests there, and another 20 religious priests, so this is a startlingly high proportion of the clergy).

Instead he is quoted as saying 'it is not in anyone's best interest to make known the total number of settlements or the amount involved'.

And therein lies the case for a Royal Commission!

How bad is it really?

Presumably the reason the bishop doesn't want to confirm the number is that it is an underestimate - indeed, I've seen a figure of 400 cases for Melbourne, though how credible that is given the Church's continuing reluctance to come clean is hard to judge.

Regardless, it is not in the least evident to me at least that making some information public at this point will have any impact on the number and size of claims. 

First, the existence of many cases is well-known - it is pretty well inevitable that some unscrupulous minority will attempt to take advantage of the situation, but hard to see that information on the number of claims in itself will help them do this.

And in terms of the size of claims, well The Australian is reporting, on the basis of information provided to them by lawyers acting for victims, a settlement of a $2m for a single case, all conducted entirely in secrecy!  If that isn't true, then making that clear should help the Church not hinder it.

The reality is that the inner circle of lawyers and victims groups do talk to each other, and inevitably have a good sense of what is possible.

In fact the only ones being kept in the dark here and treated like...  - are the laity.

Why we should be told what the cost is

Yet as a result of the financial pressures resulting from these cases, assets build up by our contributions that provide services for Catholics are being sold off.  These payouts are impacting very directly on the laity indeed.

In Newcastle for example, the Australian reports that Bishop Bill Wright admitted that 'the costs "were a factor" in a 2010 decision to sell a number of aged-care facilities operated by the diocese across the Hunter region.'

Are abuse claims also the cause of Canberra-Goulburn's financial problems for example?  Or was it is rather fraud and other malfeasance?  Or just a case of past profligacy and mismanagement?

Personally, I think we have a right to know, and to be consulted over the choices that are being made.

Clericalism reigneth!


A Canberra Observer said...

In some instances the logic of "you don't all need to know the details" is fine.

But here it is SOOOOO bad precisely because SOOOOOO much was hidden.

The only way that there will be trust over these matters is for some disclosure.

And as to clericalism - just whose money do these bishops think they have been shelling out? Not their own by golly.

And yes, one wonders just how Maitland-Newcastle became such a high-incidence diocese.

Robert said...

The only method I, for one, can think of (other than blog posts like Kate Edwards's own) which might be of the slightest use in dealing with Australian bishops on sex abuse topics is to hammer - and to keep hammering, in season and out of season - into stupid episcopal skulls the simple fact that if American Catholicism's duty-of-care legislation applied here, every member of the antipodean episcopate would be either in prison or awaiting prison.

Anonymous said...

The Bishops concerned - not all of them - did act irresponsibly. However, these few Bishops did what was done elsewhere in society. This does not excuse them. Two people who worked with me some years ago ended up in prison (a few years apart) for child sex abuse. Authorities in the government department were aware of the allegations but these two continued working - though in different areas till they were jailed. But what annoys me is the fact that thousands of children are still being abused and nobody ie nobody in authority, in the media and ven lawyers do not seem to care about these victims. Sadly, the nubers are increasing every day.

PM said...

How did Maitland-Newcastle becone such a high-incidence diocese?

I know the place from my youth and can advance two sugestions.

First, the church (especially the school system) was overrun in the 60s and 70s by Californian pop psychology and the relativism and self-absoprtion that came with it. I suspect the beach culture of the 60s contributed to the process of 'Californication'. (In the 60s, child abuse was widely regarded as no big deal.) This made a particularly toxic mix with the voluntarist and rather feely piety it purported to replace.

Secondly, there was a high level of opportunity which derived from issues of social class. For all its reputation as a truculent union town, there used to be an ingrained sense of knowing one's place. Working-class childen would just have assumed that no one would ever take their word against that of a cleric, a professional or a pillar of the business community. There are probably more than a few ageing members of the business and professional classes relieved to see the church getting all the attention.

There was, moreover, a homosexual subculture in Springwood/Manly by the 1970s. I recall someone boasting of his 'liberation' in the boiler room at Springwood. But at least he, unlike others, had the honesty not to proceed to ordination.