Writer and former priest Paul Collins is not a Catholic in the tradition of emeritus pontiff Benedict XVI. He is what may be called a progressive in the contemporary Catholic Church and a critic of some of the teachings and practices of the Vatican along with those of some members of the Australian Catholic hierarchy.
So Collins’s reflections on the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and the media’s coverage of its hearings and recommendations, warrant special consideration.
Writing in his Pearls and Irritations blog on December 12 last year, Collins said the royal commission had “focused unduly on Catholicism and that it can’t be absolved of unconscious elements of anti-Catholicism that has been the default position of Anglo-Australian culture since the 19th century’’.
This was evident in the way sections of the media, principally the ABC and Fairfax Media, reported the royal commission as if it were an inquiry into the Catholic Church alone. This overlooked the fact, whatever its sins of commission and omission, the Catholic Church in Australia began tackling this issue two decades ago.
This happened initially in Melbourne with the Melbourne Response in 1996 and elsewhere in Australia with the establishment of the Towards Healing process the following year.
This was well before pedophilia was addressed by other churches along with secular and government organisations.
Anti-Catholic sectarianism was at its height between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century. It began to fade in the 1940s during and after World War II.
It was not as if Catholics were excluded from society. After all, the Catholic Joseph Lyons was prime minister of the conservative United Australia Party government through most of the 30s.
Australia was a tolerant nation in the period under discussion. It is just that many Catholics (and Jews) felt they were regarded as less worthy than what was sometimes described as the Protestant establishment. This had all but disappeared by the end of the 60s.
However, as Collins argues, there are signs that anti-Catholic sectarianism is making a comeback, albeit in a different form. There is little if any antagonism to Catholics from other Christians. Now, opposition to Catholicism can be found primarily among secularists and atheists along with many disillusioned ex-Catholics. The last group is particularly strong in the ABC.
The most recent manifestation of anti-Catholic sectarianism can be found in Fairfax Media’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s finances. Last Monday, The Age’s entire front page was headed “The Church Inc” underneath a dollar sign superimposed on a church’s stained glass window. It was as if there were no other news that day, in Australia or overseas, worth highlighting.
The Age’s “special report” covered all of pages four to eight. Its findings? Well, the old hoary line that the Catholic Church owns much property. A half-century ago Barry Humphries mocked this argument when he played the character Edna Everage complaining that Catholic property adorned many a hill since Catholics “always get the best positions” and were running the country.
A half-century on, The Age is sounding Edna Everage-like. The newspaper identified some of the properties as St Patrick’s Cathedral (East Melbourne), St Vincent’s Hospital (East Melbourne), Loreto Mandeville Hall (Toorak) and Xavier College’s preparatory school in Brighton (except that it depicted a preparatory school in Kew). In other words, The Age complained of the value of a church, a hospital, a girls school, a boys school and more besides.
You would have to be a fool not to realise that the Catholic Church in Australia has considerable assets. They have been acquired across two centuries, primarily due to the generosity of Catholic laity who supported their faith’s provision of education, health and welfare services and contributed to the building and maintenance of churches.
Also, some church leaders, most notably James Duhig (1871-1965) in Brisbane, demonstrated considerable entrepreneurial ability when it came to buying land at bargain prices and building properties.
Catholicism is the largest religion in Australia. But other Christian churches also have considerable wealth, as do Jewish institutions and many other non-government organisations.
In subsequent editions, The Age says Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart lives in a “mansion” valued at $2.25 million in Kew. It’s likely that some Fairfax Media executives and journalists have more expensive digs. In any event, this is Hart’s home only as long as he is archbishop.
The Age also whinged about the fact Hart owns a beach house at Dromana valued at more than $1m. Unlike those who belong to religious orders, priests such as Hart do not take a vow of poverty. Like any other citizen, Hart is entitled to buy property and dispose of any inheritance as he sees fit.
On Wednesday, Michael Bachelard (The Age’s investigations editor) conceded that “St Patrick’s Cathedral will not, at least in the foreseeable future, be paved and turned into a rent-producing asset”. Phew, thanks for that.
He uses the term “Jesuitical” as a term of abuse and declares “the Catholics, all churches, need to show more willing openness about their wealth”.
English writer Malcolm Muggeridge, who was brought up in the Church of England, once said he had seen many a hospital run by Christians in India to care for leprosy patients. But not any financed by the secular socialist Fabian society. The present leaders of Catholicism have a duty to carry on the church’s generous work in education and health, along with assisting the aged and the poor.
The essential criticism of The Age is that the Catholic Church should provide greater compensation for victims of child sexual abuse.
But the church now provides settlements of up to $150,000, which is the amount agreed to by commonwealth and state governments in the wake of the royal commission.
There is no reason victims of Catholic pedophile priests and brothers should receive greater compensation than victims of similar crimes in Anglican, Presbyterian, Jewish, secular or government institutions. Only an anti-Catholic sectarian would argue otherwise.