My wife isn’t normally a reader of women’s magazines, but she recently visited one of her sisters and borrowed an old copy of the Australian Women’s Weekly to while away the time on the train journey home.
It lay around our place for a couple of weeks before I happened to glance at the cover and notice a pointer to a story inside. It read: Catholic bishop: Sex, celibacy and his own abuse.
I was sufficiently intrigued to pick the magazine up and have a closer look. What I read was not the usual banal froth associated with women’s mags, but a serious, substantial and well-written story about an issue of real importance.
The magazine was dated May 2010, but I hadn’t previously heard of retired Catholic bishop Geoffrey Robinson. Aged 72 (or more likely 73 now), he lives in a presbytery in the inner Sydney suburbs. The photo shows a neat, slightly built, gentle-looking man with a general appearance – clothes, hair, complexion – that I instantly recognised as characteristic of Catholic clergy of a certain age.
As someone who was brought up Catholic, and persisted with Catholicism well into adulthood before spitting the dummy, I found his story interesting. Bishop Robinson obviously came from a devout Catholic home. He was sent to a Catholic seminary at the age of 12 – a practice still common then, but which now seems unthinkably cruel. Robinson himself says he was abysmally young. “Sending children to the seminary was quite wrong,” he says. It was only later that he realised the many things he had missed out on – “missing the normal mixing with other people and, obviously, with girls”.
He was sent to study in Rome at 18 and at 22 was ordained a priest. Another photo shows him on his ordination day, clad in vestments and hands clasped in the standard gesture of piety familiar to all Catholics of that generation.
Robinson told the AWW that he was sexually abused by a man in his early teens. Like many such victims he buried the experience, but it was to prove strangely relevant much later in life when he found himself, as a bishop, placed in charge of Towards Healing, a programme created by the Church to help people who had suffered abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. At the time of his appointment no one knew, the magazine says, of “the dark memories it unlocked”.
He worked with victims of clerical abuse for nine years, “hearing the traumas inflicted by men representing the church to which he had devoted his life”. It was during this time that he took his own experience of abuse down from the attic, as he puts it, and confronted the fact that he too had been abused.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting. Robinson says his faith in Christ never wavered; in fact it was strengthened. But his faith in the church hierarchy took a battering. The Melbourne diocese headed by the famously conservative archbishop George Pell never adopted the Towards Healing programme, preferring to create its own version, and when Pell moved to Sydney in 2001, Robinson found him too difficult to work with. He eventually retired in 2004, partly for health reasons but also because of his disillusionment with the way the church was handling the abuse scandal.
In 2007, Robinson courageously published a book entitled Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. In it he called on the Church to rethink its approach to divorce, sexuality and papal infallibility. Robinson argues in the book that forced celibacy is one of the causes of sexual abuse in the Church, one that would be removed by allowing priests to marry.
He argues – persuasively, it seems to me – that celibacy is a gift not given to everyone. For Mother Teresa, in love with God and her people, celibacy made for a satisfying life; but for others in the Church, Robinson says, obligatory celibacy becomes a heavy burden that harms their ability to be good human beings. He says it can lead not just to abuse but also to alcoholism, misogyny or the seeking of power.
The book offers some intriguing insights. Robinson dismisses the theory promoted by Vatican cardinal Tarcisio Bertone that abuse by Catholic priests is all about homosexuality. Robinson believes the reason more boys than girls were abused was twofold. One factor was opportunity (priests looked after boys, nuns looked after girls) and the other, astonishingly, was that some offenders didn’t see the abuse of boys as a technical violation of their celibacy vow. “If it’s not an adult woman, then somehow they’re not breaking their vow.”
The reaction of the Church to his book was sadly predictable. He was forbidden from speaking on Church property and the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a public finding of “doctrinal difficulties” with the book.
I am often struck, when reading of such things, by the similarity between the Catholic hierarchy and the totalitarian regimes of the old Soviet communist bloc. The stilted language and the harsh intolerance of criticism have much in common. The overwhelming priority of the institution is to protect itself at all costs and to discredit the critics. The AWW quotes former priest and Catholic commentator Paul Collins as saying the hierarchy in Rome pressed the Australian bishops “to not exactly condemn Geoff, but to disown him”.
Robinson himself says one of the key problems of the Church is that the hierarchy is so caught up in its loyalty to Rome that bishops and cardinals “have in some ways forgotten their responsibility to be leaders of the local church”.
This quiet but courageous rebel’s comments resonated with me. I think I understand the theological (or perhaps I should say theoretical) arguments in favour of celibacy: total commitment to God and so on. But the insurmountable truth is that celibacy imposes a cruel, unnatural lifestyle on men who become priests, just as thrusting 12-year-old boys into the seminary did. The bizarre rationalisation of those priests who thought abusing boys somehow got around the problem of their celibacy vows is surely an example of the twisted thinking that can arise as a result of this unnatural state.
The other thing that struck me about Robinson’s experience, although it’s hardly new, is the intransigence of an increasingly isolated and ossified male hierarchy in Rome that brooks no criticism, is swift in resisting any perceived challenge to its power and control and seems so often to be in a state of denial. From what I know of Christ, it’s not the Church he would have envisaged.