In Australia, the Catholic Church is facing a Royal Commission on child abuse. The public hearing was set up on February 6 to inquire into the current policies and procedures of Catholic Church authorities in Australia in relation to child-protection and child-safety standards, including responding to allegations of child sexual abuse.
One participant is Bishop Vincent Long from Sydney, who was questioned by Ms Gail Furness SC, Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald and Ms Jane Needham SC. Responding to a query ‘that clericalism has been described as a factor or playing a role in the abuse of children and the response to that abuse…’ he said:
“I see the clericalism as a by-product of a certain model of Church informed or underpinned or sustained by a certain theology. I mean, it’s no secret that we have been operating, at least under the two previous pontificates, from what I’d describe as a perfect society model where there is a neat, almost divinely inspired, pecking order, and that pecking order is heavily tilted towards the ordained. So you have the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, religious, consecrated men and women, and the laity right at the bottom of the pyramid.”
Bishop Long continued: “I think we need to dismantle that model of Church. If I could use the biblical image of wineskins, it’s old wineskins that are no longer relevant, no longer able to contain the new wine, if you like. I think we really need to examine seriously that kind of model of Church where it promotes the superiority of the ordained and it facilitates that power imbalance between the ordained and the non-ordained, which in turn facilitates that attitude of clericalism, if you like.”
He also said that he thinks there is a link between compulsory or mandatory celibacy and clericalism in that compulsory celibacy is an act of setting apart the ordained. It creates that power distance between the ordained and the non-ordained. He claims the use of clerical and episcopal forms of address for priests and bishops identifies the laity as subservient.
“So I would say that in order to dismantle clericalism, we need to look at also the issue of examination and maybe abolition of those honorific titles, privileges and institutional dynamics, if you like, that breed clerical superiority and elitism… I’m not very comfortable with those sorts of practices because they encourage a certain infantilisation of the laity and that creation of the power distance between the ordained and the non-ordained…”
He has cited the need to promote the Church as a communion, ‘a discipleship of equals, that emphasises relationships rather than power’. He also said the marginalisation of women and the laity is part of the clericalism culture ‘that contributes not insignificantly to the sexual abuse crisis’.
The current church model only works upwards. You are accountable to the person above you. If the bishop has the backing of the Pope, he is safe. If the priest has the backing of his bishop, he is safe. “There is no accountability that reaches outwards or downwards. That discipleship of equals calls into question that upward accountability that is in operation as a result of that ecclesiastical model of a perfect society where everyone knows their place and the pecking order is strictly dictated by ordination.”
He said the laity have no meaningful or direct participation in the appointment, supervision and even removal of the parish priest or bishop. For the record, his full name is Vincent Long Van Nguyen, Bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta, Sydney. He was born in Vietnam. He was a ‘boat person’ in 1980, forced to flee his own country. He stayed in a refugee camp in Malaysia for sixteen months before he went to Australia, one day short of his twentieth birthday in December 1981.
“I was also a victim of sexual abuse by clergy when I first came to Australia, even though I was an adult, so that had a powerful impact on me and how I want to, you know, walk in the shoes of other victims and really endeavour to attain justice and dignity for them.”
Ms Needham: “Thank you, Bishop Long. No further questions.”