Church now facing its own #MeToo moment, says Australian archbishop

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, is pictured June 21 on the sidelines of the Anglophone Safeguarding Conference, which was held at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University June 18-21. (CNS Photo/Robert Duncan)

By Junno Arocho Esteves 
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) — In the wake of historic allegations of sexual abuse and cover-up in countries around the world, the Catholic Church is experiencing the same challenge that has brought a reckoning to those who used their authority to abuse or silence victims, said an Australian archbishop.

Allegations such as those raised against Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, represent a “major shift” within the culture of the church, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said June 21. Abuse survivors are “willing to speak and they are believed,” and the church has new processes of investigation, he added.

“It’s not unrelated to the #MeToo phenomenon; there’s something going on in the culture. And one of the elements of that cultural shift is that people are prepared to speak up in a way that they would never have done before,” he told journalists following a four-day conference in Rome on safeguarding and child protection.

The Anglophone Safeguarding Conference, held at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University June 18-21, reflected on the theme, “Culture, an enabler or barrier to safeguarding.”

Among the speakers at the conference was Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, head of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection, and Bishop Gilles Cote of Daru-Kiunga, Papua New Guinea.

While local cultures can influence how the church in a particular area handles abuse cases, there are aspects of church culture that have hindered progress in addressing allegations of sexual abuse, Archbishop Coleridge told Catholic News Service June 21.

“One word that’s used to describe a large and complex phenomenon within the culture is clericalism. In other words, authority geared to power and not to service,” he said. “In many ways, what happened in the Catholic Church was that our strengths became our weaknesses.”

An example of those strengths was that closeness that Catholic clergy and religious shared with families. However, he said, it was precisely that which, “in certain situations, gave them access to the children who were abused.”

Nevertheless, Archbishop Coleridge said that just as strength can become a weakness, a weakness can also become a strength.

“I believe that the agony we are passing through this time in fact is a purification of the church that has already made us stronger. It’s kind of a searing grace that we never saw coming, and we certainly wouldn’t have chosen. But somehow, God is in the midst of it all, purifying the church and calling us to what we are intended be,” Archbishop Coleridge told CNS.

Following the conference’s conclusion, Father Zollner told journalists that allegations such as those raised against Cardinal McCarrick are signs that now “things are tightening up and that the thoroughness of the approach reaches now even the highest levels.”

Cardinal McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, said June 20 that he would no longer exercise any public ministry “in obedience” to the Vatican after an allegation he abused a teenager 47 years ago was found credible.

“A few years ago, we probably wouldn’t have so easily (seen) that headline,” Father Zollner said in reference to news about Cardinal McCarrick. “The church — step-by-step, too slow but more and more consistently — comes up with or lives up to what the norms are.”

Archbishop Coleridge agreed with Father Zollner, adding that “what’s happening with Cardinal McCarrick focuses on episcopal accountability” and that while progress has been made, “we have more to do.”

As president of the Australian bishops’ conference, Archbishop Coleridge stressed that although collaboration with local authorities is critical in confronting abuse and cover-ups, measures that compromise religious freedom and the rights of conscience are not the answer.

Laws requiring Catholic priests to break the seal of confession in some cases passed the Australian Capital Territory’s Legislative Assembly in Canberra June 7.

The proposal, he said, “is poor public policy” that will not make children safer and amounts to a “renegotiation of the relationship between church and state.”

He also said that following many cases of abuse, “there is a thirst for the church’s blood” as well as a “desire to punish the Catholic Church and a desire to show the Catholic Church who is in charge.”

“In other words, it’s almost being said implicitly. ‘For a long time, you tried to tell us what to do. Now, because of what’s happened, we will tell you what to do.’ So, it’s a kind of a public humiliation of the church but it is one that we have brought upon ourselves. So self-pity doesn’t take us very far,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

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