|John Stumbles, Canberra Times|
Looking out my window this morning, Canberra is a frozen wasteland, with a deep frost after the coldest night of the year so far (minus six degrees Celsius, aka 21.2 Fs).
And that scene is pretty consistent with the state of the Church, and particularly, on the face of it, some of those who work here too.
There have been a series of horrific reports coming out of the special Inquiry on child abuse in Maitland-Newcastle Diocese.
And the latest is damning testimony from the bishops' fixer on these matters, Fr Brian Lucas, General Secretary of the ACBC, whose normal workplace is just down the road from me.
How the Australian Church approached the abusive priest problem
Fr Lucas' testimony basically ran the line that we've been hearing from a number of bishops and senior clergy, namely that ultimately the abuse scandal and the Australian hierarchy's handling of it was all Rome's fault.
The argument goes that canon law made it hard to do anything about abuser priests unless they voluntarily agreed to laicization, and so the best they could do is 'persuade' them to be laicized.
And if that meant making some compromises along the way - like leaving their reputation intact, not reporting their admitted misdeeds to either the police or even their bishop, paying them an ongoing pension, and ignoring the needs of victims, well so be it.
It is, in my view, utter nonsense.
First, the issue at stake here as far as I can gather, is laicization, not suspension from duties.
And Rome had no problem at all, as far as I can gather, with laicizing priests who were actually convicted of serious crimes. So if they had simply reported the cases to the police and supported proper investigation and prosecution processes, the alleged difficulties of the laicization would not have been an issue.
Secondly, if the priests in question had simply been suspended and put on permanent administrative leave without any financial support after a proper internal investigation, with the reasons for this made public (without naming individual victims), the perpetrators would have found it a lot more difficult to find new places to carry on their perversions.
Instead, the perpetrators were free to simply move on to new hunting grounds, often supported by a Church pension as they did so.
A problem of memory?
The reality is that the testimony of senior clerics and the hierarchy continues to be utterly unedifying.
A week or two back, the former Ordinary, Bishop Malone joined the ranks of those bishops (and Archbishops, remember AB Hart's 'better late than never' crack) who apparently think the scandal is something to joke about. Makes you wonder how they talk about all this stuff amongst themselves.
Worse, Bishop Malone's testimony has been flat out contradicted by others, and claims made that he altered his diary to bolster his claims.
On the plus side, Bishop Malone is no longer an active bishop. On the negative, his testimony illustrates the ongoing damage that can be inflicted on the Church of those whose early 'resignations' were quietly accepted, but retain titles such as Bishop Emeritus.
Since then we've had, amongst others, a former Vicar-General who apparently 'did not recall' pretty much anything.
And now Fr Lucas, who similarly seems to have memory problems, unable to recall even what one of the main offenders looked like even when prompted by a photo.
Indeed, Fr Lucas admitted yesterday that, drawing on his training and practice as a barrister he deliberately didn't take any notes of the meetings he held with abuser priests, and advised others to do likewise, lest they subsequently have to be delivered up in a court process.
In fact, he seems to have adopted the BBC Sherlock's 'delete button' approach to information he deemed irrelevant as he carried out his Mr Fix-it role:
"I see you've written up the taxi driver case.
Watson: Uh, yes.
Sherlock: "A Study in Pink." Nice.
Watson: Well, you know. A pink lady, pink case, pink phone. There was a lot of pink. Did you like it?
Sherlock: Um... no.
Watson: Why not? I thought you'd be flattered.
Sherlock: Flattered? "Sherlock sees through everyone and everything in seconds. What's incredible though is how spectacularly ignorant he is about some things."
Watson: Now hang on minute, I didn't mean that in a—
Sherlock: Oh! You meant "spectacularly ignorant" in a nice way. Look, it doesn't matter to me who's Prime Minister or who's sleeping with who.
Watson: Whether the Earth goes around the sun.
Sherlock: Oh god, that again. It's not important!
Watson: Not important? It's primary school stuff. How can you not know that?
Sherlock: Well If I ever did I deleted it.
Watson: Deleted it?
Sherlock: Listen. This is my hard drive and it only makes sense to put things in there that are useful. Really useful. Ordinary people fill their heads with all kinds of rubbish. And that makes it hard to get at the stuff that matters. Do you see?
Watson: But it's the solar system!
Sherlock: Oh! How? What does that matter? So we go 'round the sun. If we went 'round the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear it wouldn't make any difference. All that matters to me is the work. Without that my brain rots. Put that in your blog. Or better still, stop inflicting your opinions on the world."
His evidence certainly seems to put the competing recollections of the three priests involved in the infamous 'Fr F' meeting in a new light, as the ABC suggested on 7.30 last night.
Did the victims alleged desire to keep it away from the police justify failure to report?
Fr Lucas also admitted that he didn't report cases to the police as required by the law, on the basis that victims allegedly didn't want that to happen.
It is yet to be tested in court whether victims' preferences constitute a 'reasonable excuse' under the relevant Act.
The more fundamental question, of course, is whether victims really expressed such views in every single case relating to over 35 priests, and if so, whether they reached that view freely and without coercion.
There have been a number of claims in the context both of the Special Inquiry and the current Royal Commission that in fact victims were consistently strong-armed into keeping quiet, even forced, in some cases to sign (illegal) agreements not to pursue criminal actions in return for compensation.
And indeed, the ABC last night reported that victims claimed they had been told not to go to police by Fr Lucas to the Woods Royal Commission back in 1995-97. Back then Fr Lucas claimed they had 'misinterpreted' his remarks.
Fr Lucas and the ACBC
Fr Lucas' second line of defence, presumably, is presumably the Nuremberg one, that he was acting under orders.
Presumably that's why the Fairfax Media are reporting that:
"A spokeswoman for the Australian Catholic Bishop's Conference, Beth Doherty, said the church hierarchy would stand by Father Brian.
''There's no question at all over whether he will continue in that role, unless the inquiry finds that he has acted in some way with any misconduct,'' Ms Doherty said.
None of this, of course, is doing anything to aid the task of rebuilding trust in the hierarchy.
Mind you, on this occasion the lead really does seem to be coming from the top, given Pope Francis' failure thus far to act in relation to ensure the allegations about membership of the gay curia mafia around his recent appointee to oversee the Vatican Bank.
So how do we, the angry and disgruntled laity, keep the faith?
We have to find something about the Church in which we can trust. We have of course our direct relationship with Christ, and we should never neglect to pray fervently to him on this subject.
But that is not enough, for we cannot, as Catholics, retreat to being simply individual Christians without a community around us.
Yet how can we be members of the community when those who should be leaders to us seem instead to be at worst, ravening wolves, at best, lepers who arrogantly refuse to wash in the Jordan?
So we have to find and remind ourselves daily of some aspect of our Church that we love and can trust as a prop for our salvation.
For some that prop will perhaps be the liturgy; for others perhaps some particular devotion; for some particular spiritual tradition within the Church; for others perhaps the beauty of truth in dogma.
Whatever yours is, cling fast to the good, truth and beauty, and pray!
Fr Lucas is back in the witness box today.
**For a report on Day 2 of his evidence, go here and here.