Defying hierarchy, bishop urges change
Sex abuse stand inspires liberals
By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff | May 31, 2008
DEDHAM - He is an unlikely hero for the Catholic left: a
retired Australian bishop who served for years as an
aide to the very conservative cardinal-archbishop of
But now Bishop Geoffrey Robinson is under investigation
by the Australian bishops conference, and multiple
American bishops are trying to ban him from their
dioceses after he published a book suggesting the
Catholic Church examine the roles that power and sex
played in the clergy abuse crisis.
The Catholic left - whose weakened influence was
captured in a Time magazine essay this month headlined
"Is liberal Catholicism dead?" - has rallied to this
little-known bishop, packing his speaking appearances
and driving up sales of his book.
On Thursday night, Robinson drew a crowd of about 550 to
St. Susanna Church in Dedham, which he said was the
largest audience he has drawn on a US speaking tour that
began earlier this month. On Wednesday night, 110 showed
up to hear him speak at the Paulist Center in Boston.
"If we are ever to look to the future with a clear
conscience there must first be profound change within
the church," Robinson told a rapt audience in Dedham at
the start of a 60-minute talk, in which he questioned
the extent of papal infallibility and the rationale for
mandatory priestly celibacy. Perhaps most daringly,
given the adulation directed toward Pope John Paul II
since his death, Robinson repeatedly criticized the late
pontiff for not taking enough action against clergy
To those who despair of change within the church, he
said, "Communism changed. Apartheid changed. It just may
be the church might, too."
Some people traveled to Dedham from New Hampshire three
hours early to make sure they could get a seat, and the
event had to be moved from the basement to the church
nave to accommodate the crowd. Every copy of Robinson's
book sold out.
"The fact that this event attracted many hundreds of
Catholics, large numbers of whom traveled many miles to
attend, indicates to me that there is still significant
dissatisfaction among the laity with the church's
response to the sex and cover-up crisis to date," said
Deacon Larry Bloom of the Dedham parish.
Robinson is one of the first bishops since the abuse
crisis to break ranks publicly and call for a discussion
of the most sensitive issues in the Catholic Church. And
the hierarchy responded swiftly. The Australian Bishops
Conference issued a statement declaring "doctrinal
difficulties" with Robinson, in particular what it
described as his "questioning of the authority of the
Catholic Church to teach the truth definitively." A top
Vatican official and several American bishops asked him
to cancel his trip to this country.
"Canon 763 makes it clear that the Diocesan Bishop must
safeguard the preaching of God's Word and the teachings
of the church in his own Diocese," Cardinal Roger M.
Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, wrote in a letter
to Robinson. "Under the provisions of Canon 763, I
hereby deny you permission to speak in the Archdiocese
of Los Angeles."
But where Robinson was denied Catholic venues, he found
On Long Island in New York, he spoke at a Unitarian
Universalist parish, which waived its rental fee
because, he said, the congregation viewed the bishop and
his audience as "an oppressed minority." In New Jersey
he spoke at a Lutheran church; in southern California he
is speaking at a university, a community center, and a
In New England, the bishops have been quieter. Robinson
spoke at Fairfield University, a Catholic college in
southern Connecticut, as well as at St. Susanna Church
and the Paulist Center. Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley has
declined several requests for comment.
At the same time, Voice of the Faithful, the reform
organization founded in Wellesley, last week gave
Robinson its top honor as a "priest of integrity."
And Liturgical Press, the Catholic publishing house that
is printing Robinson's book, "Confronting Power and Sex
in the Catholic Church," said it sold out its first run,
of 3,000 copies, and is rushing a second run into print.
"What's significant here is that you've got a bishop
who, once retired, decided he'd speak his own mind for a
change - that rather than being part of the orchestra,
he decided he wanted to do a solo," said the Rev. Thomas
J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological
Center at Georgetown University. "It's clear there's a
real thirst among the laity and some priests for a more
open discussion of issues in the church, and this is the
kind of thing he's trying to stimulate. But it's not the
kind of thing the Vatican or the majority of bishops
want to see happen."
The sympathetic crowds coming to hear Robinson are
clearly heartened by his outspokenness. In Dedham, he
was given two standing ovations.
"He understands that the crux of the Roman Catholic
problem lies squarely with the Stalinist-style power
structure of the institutional church," said Peter
Hartzel, a parishioner who lives in Dedham. "He honestly
broached the 'hot' sexual issues with which the
bureaucracy is unable to broach in a realistic manner."
Robinson, 70, has spent a considerable amount of time
thinking about the abuse crisis and meeting with
In 1994, he was named to a committee charged with
coordinating the response of the Australian Catholic
Church to clergy sexual abuse, and from 1997 until 2003
he was the committee cochairman. Robinson said he is
also a victim of childhood sexual abuse, although not by
Of his work with victims he said, "It was an experience
that changed me in so many ways that even if I wanted to
I could not now go back to being the person that I was
Robinson said it is incumbent on Catholics to examine
"institutional factors" that contributed to the abuse,
as well as "the inadequate response to the abuse,"
which, he said, "created at least as much scandal as the
Robinson said that in an effort to prevent debate over
mandatory celibacy, the Vatican had blamed gay priests
for the abuse crisis.
"The scapegoat they found was priests whose sexual
orientation was homosexual," he said. He called that
argument "mistaken" and said, "Homosexuals are no more
likely to offend than anybody else," and, "It's an
avoidance of the truth in order to protect papal
Robinson did not spell out solutions, but called for
Catholics to use the moral force of the abuse issue to
push for greater conversation about the church's
teachings regarding power and sex.
"All church leaders have at the very least been through
a profound humiliation and embarrassment over this
issue," he said. "Deep within themselves they know that
the popes have not given them the leadership they would
have hoped for. However much they might pretend to the
opposite, they also know that we still have a vast
amount to do before we can look to the future with a
He praised Benedict XVI for his statements about abuse
during his recent trip to the United States, but called
on Benedict to make a public apology to victims from St.
Peter's Basilica, surrounded by the cardinals.
And he called for the pope to commission a study of ways
in which church teachings, including mandatory celibacy,
may have contributed to the abuse, and for an
investigation of institutional factors that contributed
to the moving of abusive priests from one parish to
another by bishops.
"He is living proof that bishops are not as united as
they might be thought to be," said Paul Lakeland, a
professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield. "They try to
paint him as a lone dissenter, a good man who has gone
slightly off the rails, but I think there are lots of
other bishops quietly cheering him on from the
Michael Paulson can be reached at
The New York Times Company
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Robinson spent 3 days in San Diego California June 8-10.
The following press release announced his schedule:
AUSTRALIAN BISHOP, EMINENT LAWYERS, AND NOTED AUTHORS
CONVERGE ON LA JOLLA TO DISCUSS CLERGY CHILD ABUSE
Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, author of the
compelling book Confronting Power and Sex in the
Catholic Church, who is on a month long speaking
tour in the United States will be in La Jolla for 3 days
during which time he will be joined by 13 prominent
lawyers from 7 states and 6 authors noted for their
writings on the clergy sex abuse crisis. Robinson has
been forbidden to speak at Catholic Church facilities in
some dioceses and Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles asked
the bishop to cancel his entire United States tour.
Bishop will deliver a public presentation in the Atkins
Pavilion of the UCSD Faculty Club on Tuesday June 10 at
6:30 PM. Admission is free. Prior to the lecture, books
will be on sale and he, along with the other authors,
will be available for autographs. Other discussions on
June 8 and 9 will be conducted in private.
Gallagher III, the Deputy District Attorney Special
Investigations Unit Philadelphia District Attorney’s
Office since 1974 who was the lead counsel that
conducted the Grand Jury that investigated sexual abuse
by clergy in Philadelphia, will be one of the lawyers in
attendance. He also led the team that wrote the
Philadelphia Grand Jury Report (2003), which
summed up the investigation by two sessions by the Grand
Jury and exposed the pattern and practice of sexual
abuse of minors in the Catholic Church across the United
Steve Rubino from New Jersey, Kelly Clark from Oregon,
and Jeff Anderson from Minnesota, all prominent
advocates for the protection of children, will also
participate in the discussions. Between 1984 and 2005
these three advocates alone helped 3,526 sex abuse
victims from all over the country.
Hamilton a law professor at Yeshiva University in New
York and Princeton University is one of the United
States’ leading church/state scholars, as well as an
expert on federalism and representation. She will be
present to sign her new book:
Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children.
Gail Frawley-O’Dea a psychologist and expert on the
traumatic effects of sexual abuse by power figures will
be available to autograph her authoritative book
Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic
Church. She addressed the bishops of the U.S. at
their 2002 meeting in Dallas where they defined their
response to abusive Catholic clerics. She told them
about the disastrous traumatic consequences of sexual
abuse by priests and bishops.
Blair Kaiser, a Newsweek correspondent has written an
intriguing book—Cardinal Mahony: A Novel—called
“cunning and mischievous,” will be present with other
authors on June 10.
three sponsors of the interchanges are Thomas Doyle, a
canon lawyer from Virginia, Patrick Wall, senior
consultant at the law office of Manly and Stewart,
Newport Beach, and Richard Sipe, a La Jolla resident.
The three co-authored the book Sex, Priests, and
Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2000 Year Paper
Trail of Sexual Abuse. These three men have
served as consultants or expert witnesses in hundreds of
civil cases of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic
bishops and priests in every state of the United States,
Canada, Ireland, and other foreign countries.
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ABUSE, THE CHURCH, AND THE LAW
A Discussion: June 9, 2008 / University of California
Robinson met for discussion of clergy abuse with 12 of the
most accomplished lawyers who have protected the rights
of victims of clergy abuse. The group together has
assisted more than 6,000 victims of sexual abuse by
American bishops, priests, and religious. Ten observers
who have been active in supporting victims by gathering
and preserving documentation of the crisis in the U.S.A.
were also in attendance.
A GATHERING WITH BISHOP GEOFFREY ROBINSON
Reflections By Thomas P. Doyle
1. Geoffrey Robinson’s US speaking tour presented an
opportunity for a meeting with some of the attorneys who
have been deeply involved in the clergy sex abuse crisis
in the U.S. as well as with some of the experts who have
been part of the overall response to this crisis.
us originally hoped that we would be able to provide
Geoff with significant factual information on the U.S.
bishops’ response to the crisis. We hoped he might be
able to take this information and share it with
officials in the Vatican curia. This hope was born from
our realization that the Vatican’s information sources
are limited for the most part to bishops whose reports
are understandably subjective and often inaccurate.
with this hope, however our expectations were changed
once we had conversed with Geoff and had realized that
he is clearly not an “insider.” The U.S. papal nuncio
had asked Geoff to cancel his tour. The prefect of the
Congregation for the Bishops (Cardinal Re) had initiated
the move to try to convince Geoff not to speak. The
archbishops and bishops of every diocese where Geoff was
scheduled to speak sent letters that were made public.
These letters were consistent in saying the same thing:
a) Geoff was not allowed to speak in any Catholic
building in the diocese, b) He should cancel his entire
speaking tour, c) His book is causing confusion and
disunity among the laity. By the time Geoff had reached
California he still had not seen any of the letters and
knew of them only through news reports.
obviously did not cancel his tour. He maintained the
original speaking schedule with the talks being given in
non-church related venues. In the western part of the
U.S. the secular press provided excellent coverage;
their primary interest, however, was the “dispute” as
they saw it, between Bishop Robinson and Cardinal
Mahony. Geoff took the “high road” and did not respond
to any invitations by media to escalate the “dispute.”
Geoff expressed it thus: he is here to speak about
clerical sexual abuse and the need to explore two areas
of systemic causality: the exercise of power by Church
authorities and the official teaching on sex and
sexuality. He was not here to engage in a dispute with
Cardinal Mahony or any other hierarch.
public talks and in his remarks at the meeting with the
attorneys and experts he repeated that Pope John Paul II
had not shown any leadership in the sex abuse crisis.
He also shared some of his personal experiences in
getting to know victims and their families in Australia
that led him to put the welfare of the victims above the
image of the Church. He also revealed much of his own
personal story and provided a good deal of information
about how the Australian Church has responded to the
sexual abuse problem.
2. There are significant differences between the
Australian and U.S. experience. The variance in numbers
of Catholics, bishops and priests is itself impressive.
Geoff said there are 42 active bishops in Australia and
he believed he could speak with and communicate with 30
of them. The comparison between the two countries is
Australia: 32 Dioceses; 3,115 Priests; 55
1 Cardinal; 27% of the total Population
U.S.A.: 194 Dioceses; 43,000 Priests; 486
17 Cardinals; 23 % of the total Population.
listing of bishops includes retired bishops and
auxiliary bishops. Presently Australia has 6 active
auxiliary bishops and a total of 19 retired bishops.
3. The attorneys and experts shared their
experiences in dealing with bishops and superiors of
religious orders in the United States. There is a
common element that is obvious from the reflections and
remarks of all attorneys: the U.S. bishops appear to be
working in concert to resist any and all attempts at
monetary settlements arrived at through the civil court
system. The bishops do not seem to have developed an
appreciable degree of pastoral sensitivity towards the
victims or towards their families and loved ones.
processes have been drawn out and made very costly
because of the commitment of church attorneys to use
every possible tactic to resist disclosure of pertinent
documents. In the course of the civil processes the
victims were generally treated as the enemies of the
Church. Church officials and/or their attorneys have
subjected victims’ (plaintiffs’) attorneys to public and
private slanderous attacks in a number of cases. Some
American bishops have even stooped to character
assassination of plaintiff attorneys and witnesses.
4. Some of the attorneys and experts are baptized
Catholics who had been involved in varying degrees with
the life of the Catholic Church. The involvement with
victims and the direct experiences with the
institutional church have left deep spiritual scars for
many. The experience of the attorneys present reflects
that of many attorneys who were not present:
representing victims of sexual abuse and seeing
first-hand the response of bishops and cardinals has
caused a serious crisis of belief. Many have simply
abandoned any involvement with the institutional Church
in their private lives and some have gone even further
and have seriously questioned the validity of most or
all of the teachings of the institutional Church.
5. There was a general opinion among all that it
is hopeless to expect the bishops to change their
approach. A few bishops have met with victims and a few
of the diocesan review boards have left positive
impressions on victims. However, in general the
experience in speaking with bishops, with diocesan
review boards or with victim outreach coordinators has
not been positive. In a significant number of cases the
victims and their attorneys have been savaged by the
Church authorities and by the church lawyers.
6. The Vatican officials do not appear to have
an accurate understanding of the nature of clergy sexual
abuse and the impact on victims and their families.
They do not comprehend how extensive abuse is throughout
the U.S. Like individual bishops, the Bishops’
Conference (USCCB) has concentrated on self-protection.
It has issued reports and created certain administrative
structures such as the National Review Board and Office
of Child Protection. These do not report to the
Catholic people in general but to the bishops. It gives
the appearance that their primary focus is maintaining
the bishops’ image (bella figura).
7. Bishop Robinson shared some of his own
experiences with victims. He was selected by the
Australian Bishops to be their representative to the
victims. He has met with and spent significant time
with hundreds of victims and with their families. These
experiences caused him to come to grips with his own
experience of sexual abuse as a young boy. As he
listened more and more and probed into the meaning of
sexual abuse he concluded that the systemic causes
required an honest and fearless look at the use of power
in the Church as well as the approach to human
sexuality. He is well aware that his statements have
caused concern on the part of Vatican officials. He
stated privately and publicly that he believes we must
address the problem honestly and follow the arguments
wherever they may go.
8. The discussion centered on our shared
experiences with clergy sex abuse victims. We also
discussed some of the financial mismanagement and
duplicity perpetrated by Church officials. Bishop
Robinson expressed his surprise at the extent of
financial impropriety. He also admitted that he was
quite surprised at the consistent problems we have
encountered with U.S. bishops and their response to
clergy abuse. We expressed that while he found it
difficult to comprehend that the bishops had acted as
they had, we, on our part, expressed our own surprise
that he could say, based on his experience, that he
believed the bishops in his country were not acting
maliciously. Our collective experiences have been quite
different from his in Australia. He made it clear to us
that he did not disbelieve anything he had heard but was
finding it difficult to assimilate it all.
9. Bishop Robinson does not believe that the
Vatican will ever respond adequately. In spite of the
pope’s words and gestures on his recent (April) visit to
the U.S., it is highly unlikely that Benedict XVI will
take any action against a bishop or cardinal who had
either been an abuser himself or had intentionally
We concluded by sharing the hope that our mutual support
and collaboration will serve to help us protect children
and vulnerable adults from abuse in the future. We also
shared the hope that our mutual support will provide
some degree of hope for those who have worked long and
hard for justice for victims and accountability by the