Bishop Geoffrey Robinson Addresses Cleveland
By: Fran De Chant
His stance erect, voice clear and strong, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson addressed an appreciative, overflow crowd of 330 people, including many priests and one retired bishop in the River’s Edge Worship Space in Cleveland. June 5, 2008, was midway through a grueling North American tour, yet the retired Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia, gave a commanding presentation. He guided an attentive audience through critical issues around power and sex in the Catholic Church, tracing the map laid out in his recently released book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (Liturgical Press, Collegeville,MN)
Bishop Robinson with FutureChurch staff (and Emily’s children) at Cleveland office.
Robinson’s book came out of his experiences as co-chair of the committee that coordinated the Catholic Church in Australia’s response to the unfolding revelation of sexual abuse by clergy. In that capacity he met and interviewed hundreds of victims of clergy sexual abuse. “It was an experience that changed me. I couldn’t go back to being the person I was,” Robinson recollected.
“What allowed good and decent people to act in this way?” Robinson queried. He identified three immediate causes. Under the heading of “unhealthy,” he listed a psychology, ideas and living conditions that form a murky underworld we have participated in simply by belonging to the institutional Catholic Church. Robinson used as an example the flawed concept of clergy on a pedestal. That idea, entrenched and exaggerated, led certain clergymen to view themselves as not subject to the same rules as others. The necessity of appearing to be perfect, at all costs and in disregard of those victimized, set a false standard within the Church. The ultimate result has been abuse and cover up.
Bishop Robinson turned his attention to the plight of his fellow bishops. At ordination, a special oath of loyalty to the Pope is required of every bishop, placing them under severe pressure to protect the Church at all costs and in all circumstances. “Does this put bishops on an extraordinarily short leash? Yes, like about one-half an inch!” said Robinson. When Pope John Paul chose to ignore two high profile cases of sex abuse that had reached his desk, he sent an unfortunate signal to the hierarchy worldwide. No response equated to no leadership. Tragically, a momentous opportunity was missed. Instead of honest acknowledgment and a comprehensive effort to halt wrongdoing and to treat victims justly and with compassion, lack of leadership allowed the festering mess to remain and grow.
Bishop Robinson cited the Song of Songs as example from Hebrew Scriptures of exalted sexual love. In place of the Judaic tradition of embodiment, the Catholic Church absorbed into its morality the purity and property regulations that controlled women in early societies under the domination of men. Jesus changed all that by teaching that a man could be guilty of committing adultery against his wife, a revolutionary challenge to the existing ethic. But in abolishing an old set of laws, Jesus did not establish a new explicit morality. What he set forth by his words and his life is the law of love. The Catholic Church still retains a moral theology in regard to sex based on an ancient, oppressive code. Bishop Robinson proposes a new morality of sexuality to replace it. Following Jesus, that will be a morality of genuine love, one for the other.
Over 330 people from Michigan, Wisconsin, Toledo, Columbus, Cincinnati and Akron hear Bishop Robinson's inspiring presentation in Cleveland.
How do we bring about necessary changes? “We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” observed Robinson, quoting Gandhi as he introduced ways to spur Church reform. First and most difficult will be making a substantial shift in the culture of the Church. After two thousand years developing and inhabiting the present clerical and ecclesiastic culture, reform will indeed be a formidable challenge. Bishop Robinson sees hope in the fact that embarrassment and discrediting done to the bishops by the sexual abuse scandal has shaken them out of their complacency. Now as never before the ground is fertile for real change.
An important lesson learned in Boston following the eruption of widespread sexual abuse of minors and cover up by the bishops is that confrontation must lead to conversation if ever we are to change. Further, the conversation must include all members of the Church, lay as well as ordained. The Pope must take a position of active leadership in reform. Absence of papal direction early on proved costly to the entire Church. The sexual abuse scandal has infused the energy for reform. Now, with the grace and the will to move forward we can echo the timeless words of John Henry Cardinal Newman:
Nothing on earth so ugly as the Catholic Church.
Nothing on earth so beautiful as the Catholic Church.
Working together, the lay and the ordained, we can resurrect that beautiful Catholic Church. In the hopeful words of Bishop Robinson, we can have “a new Church for a new millennium.”
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