I've refrained, up until now, from commenting on the spectacle of the Australian Archbishops in their recent appearances in front of the Royal Commission on child abuse.
But as today is the first day of Lent it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the need for prayer and penance not just for our own sins, but for those committed - and continuing to be committed - by those who claim to lead us.
Child abuse and the Church
Let's start with the facts.
The Royal Commission identified a total of 1,880 Catholic perpetrators, including 572 priests, abused 4,444 children in 1,000 Catholic Institutions in Australia between 1980 and 2015. The real number of victims is likely to be much higher.
What continues to appal the laity though is not just the crimes themselves, but how they were and are being handled.
The refusal to be upfront about what had happened; to be pro-active in identifying and helping other possible victims.
The failure to take appropriate action - both in relation to individuals and structures - to prevent recurrences.
The reluctance or outright refusal to help victims
The continuing lack of empathy.
The Royal Commission hearings gave no good indication that our leaders have actually taken genuine stock of what they need to do and acted; quite the contrary.
Indeed, what we saw was an unedifying refusal to defend essential protections that all of our spiritual health depends on, such as the seal of the confessional; and more indications of negligence, incompetence and worse.
The failure of leadership
The old saying is that the fish rots from the head and this is of course particularly true in the Church.
There are repeated, well-documented, stories in credible places such as the UK Catholic Herald to the effect that Pope Francis' version of 'mercy' is, far from clamping down on this problem, leading him to reduce the penalties imposed on some paedophile priests. Worse, it seems to be a highly selective mercy, based on who you know.
An extremely incisive satirical blog, Eccles is Saved recommends giving up the Pope for Lent.
I can't claim this one for Lent as I've long since given up on (reading anything by) Pope Francis on the grounds that I rarely find his comments edifying or spiritually nourishing, quite the contrary. But if you haven't as yet, I recommend giving serious consideration to this one!
And as the Pope leads, so our bishops follow.
Take the case of the Canberra Archdiocese where it was revealed yesterday that a priest who had been removed from ministry for inappropriately touching children had been housed next to two primary schools, allegedly because there was no where else 'suitable' to house him.
Really? In the whole of Canberra there was absolutely no alternative accommodation?
Sorry Archbishop but that explanation beggars belief.
Even more gob-smacking is the revelation that when the priest in question was 'moved on', his congregation was not, apparently told the truth about what had happened, but instead was told that he was sick.
This didn't happen years and years ago. Rather it all played out in 2013, presumably shortly after Archbishop Prowse was appointed to the job.
It seems that nothing has changed at all.
Yet today the Archbishop has issued a Lenten message trying once again to say all the right things, and embarking on a 'listening tour':
I also committed to a listening tour throughout our Archdiocese, to visit and talk with victims, their families and shocked communities. I want to assure the victims that we will focus on their care and on the prevention of further abuse. It is my highest priority across the Archdiocese. My aim is to conduct these listening sessions during Lent. The hope is then to invite people to an appropriate combined liturgy of healing/lament before Holy Week. Further details will be made available later.
Listening vs doing
Frankly I can't see the point of a 'listening tour'. The hierarchy in Australia (and most other places) has consistently shown that it is utterly incapable of genuinely listening.
Instead, what we need is some doing.
Here are my suggestions.
First, all those bishops and other clergy who have been complicit in covering up abuse - including feeding the laity 'alternative truths' about their priests - need to resign forthwith.
The most egregious case, in my view, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, who continues to be the subject of a criminal investigation in relation to covering up abuse claims, yet remains in place.
Nothing the hierarchy does will have any credibility whatsoever while those who are, on the face of it, part of the problem, remain in place.
2. Take responsibility for your priests
Secondly, we need a commitment from our priests and bishops that all serious sins on the part of the clergy, not just child abuse, will be treated appropriately. The horror of child abuse could only occur because of the failure of genuinely catholic moral theology to be taught and practised.
Priests who conduct sexual affairs with adults, practice homosexuality or otherwise fail to live a life consistent with their vocation are, in my view, just as potentially dangerous to souls. Their double lives impact their immediate victims (for sexual sins by the clergy pretty much invariably involve abuse of power, cover-up and impacts on third parties). But they also impact on their congregation, for few compromised priests are sufficiently hypocritical as to preach truth.
Yet at the recent Royal Commission hearings, how heard that Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane, doesn't believe that whether priests are keeping their vows of celibacy is any of his business!
It is true of course, as the bishop comments, that priests of a diocese are not the bishop's employees.
But aren't they supposed to be something much closer than that, his spiritual sons, his close collaborators?
Surely one of the the bishop's most important roles is ensuring that his priests have the spiritual support and professional oversight they need. Indeed, the Code of Canon Law actually says:
With special solicitude, a diocesan bishop is to attend to presbyters and listen to them as assistants and counselors. He is to protect their rights and take care that they correctly fulfill the obligations proper to their state and that the means and institutions which they need to foster spiritual and intellectual life are available to them.
3. Refresher courses
Thirdly, and not unrelated to this, we need all of our clergy (including our bishops) to be given refreshers in solid moral theology based on St Thomas Aquinas. All too many of them are the products of the faux theology of the 60s and 70s.
Let them now be taught actual Catholicism, and be required to swear to uphold the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for example.
4. Genuine transparency
Archbishop Coleridge amongst others talked about the need for greater transparency. So I looked at the Brisbane website - does it include any information on abuse claims made, payouts etc? The answer as far as I can see is no.
But of course transparency has to go much further than just the issue of child abuse, which is, as far as I can see just the tip of the iceberg of the Church's problems in Australia at the moment.
5. Public penance
Finally we need to see all those involved doing public penance.
The idea of Lent is that before we celebrate the reconciliation of man and God we first acknowledge and do penance for our sins. In an earlier era, public sin meant public penance, and the abuse scandal would best be addressed, in my view, by reviving this idea.
Let's see all of those who have failed to act, who covered up, who misjudged the responses - as well as those priests and religious who committed the crimes - wearing sackcloth and ashes and embarking on some genuine fasting this Lent.
And let's see those found guilty genuinely committing to a life of prayer and penance to atone for their crimes.
What we can do: Pray and fast
I hold out no hope that the Church in Australia will actually seriously consider or do any of these things. There seems to be every indication that our leaders will continue to keep their heads in the sand and continue to ignore ever declining congregations and practice.
And in the face of the failure to teach (or worse) on the part of the Pope, we can have no hope of positive intervention from there.
Instead we need to look after our own spiritual lives. The Catholics of Japan, after all, held fast for centuries with only the sacrament of baptism to sustain them; the time is surely coming (or in some cases is already here) where we too, may similarly be forced to rely on God alone as our help.
But there are things we can do.
Pray and fast this Lent, and offer our penances as reparation for the harms done.
Sing the Liturgy of the Hours/Divine Office, since the laity too, under the 1983 Code of Canon Law, are designated by the Church to offer this prayer liturgically.
Read Scripture regularly, with the help of good orthodox commentaries.
And study the Catechism and other suitable texts to make sure you know the faith well and can defend it.