Bishop O’Kelly reflects on Spotlight

Still from 'Spotlight' | Image by Crux

Still from ‘Spotlight’ | Image by Crux

Dear Brothers & Sisters

Back in 2010 I wrote a Pastoral Letter to the diocese entitled “The Evil and Shame and Pain”. The Pastoral referred to the fact that our own diocese has suffered the presence of abusing priests, and we now live with a sense of the betrayal and pain that their crimes caused. In that letter I did admit that “there has also been an acknowledgement that the excruciating pain of the victims has not been sufficiently recognized and addressed …” That letter also acknowledged a certain slowness on our part as Church to accept the truth of what the media was revealing.

The film Spotlight deals with the Archdiocese of Boston some years ago, when investigative journalism brought to the light of day the extent of the abuse crisis in the Church, the number of clergy involved, the cover up and transfer of perpetrators to other parishes, and so on. It also reveals a society that was complicit in this cover up, involving not simply the Church, but also the law and the police.

Although our schools never seemed to have suffered disillusion among the people,and continue to be crowded with enrolments, the image of other institutions and our clergy has been seriously affected negatively. Any priest going out on to the altar when the latest scandal is being revealed, or the Royal Commission is displaying crimes from the past, knows that it is only human for our people to think twice about their priests. It is the saddest cross we priests have to bear.

The truth remains that it is not the humiliation inflicted on priests that is the main point at all, but rather that the victims are cared for as well as we can, and the need to take appropriate steps to ensure that such things do not happen again.

The incidents referred to in Spotlight occurred a significant number of years ago and the number of clergy spanned over several decades. According to an online Hollywood commentary on the film Spotlight, the number of clergy involved in such a large archdiocese over so many years equates to about six percent of the clergy, a figure the same as the general population, but the actual number takes your breath away. One would expect a different reference for the clergy, and the size and number of priests involved would surely reflect the inadequacy of the screening processes and the formation given at the time. It is a sacrificial life to which a priest is called, and a large part of that can be the loneliness of the vocation. It is therefore crucial that the formation be adequately geared to this condition.

I thought it may of interest to our people to hear what our diocese has done in this regard. Firstly,at the level of the seminaries, there has been in place for quite some years a total revision of the formation aspects concerning celibacy. The question of intimacy and solitariness is treated very seriously, over several periods throughout the course of the priest’s training. In my time it hardly copped a mention, but it is very different now. There are also screening processes and psychological testing geared to weeding out people whose attraction to the priesthood may be for the wrong reasons.

In our diocese since 2004 there has been a monthly teleconference involving the Bishop and personnel from the diocese and the schools concerning the crimes about which we have become aware. The meetings review and plan our work – work with victims and their families; with the Professional Standards Office in Adelaide; with the police; with the legal process when there is civil litigation against the diocese; and with reviewing and improving the Child Protection protocols of the diocese. This is a thoroughly systematic approach, with every effort being made that no name of any victim gets overlooked.

Special testing of people coming into the diocese has been in place for several years now. A visiting cleric must have a specific clearance from his Religious Superior, and must undergo an eight point process of screening and training, including a quite intrusive Screening Interview, asking very blunt questions. The Bishop and clergy and seminarians of the diocese have been asked the same questions and have done the same training. The protocols from “Integrity in Mission”, which govern how priests should interact with lay people, are well-known, and any complaints received by the Bishop about conduct are followed through. Victims have been invited to meet with the Bishop, and numbers of people have taken advantage of this invitation.

As people would realise, mandatory reporting applies to every employee and volunteer in every parish in the Diocese. The professional seven hour training for this is refreshed every three years in a three hour session. The appointment of Deacon Gary Stokes as Coordinator in this area has ensured that the proper protocols are observed, and that people are up to date in their training. These issues go under the title of “Professional Standards” and there is a Professional Standards section on the agenda of every meeting of school principals, of the Council of Priests, the Bishop’s Consult, Parish Pastoral Councils, Parish Child Protection Committees and so on. The same pertains for Centacare Catholic. At any meeting of the clergy, the topic is raised, all in the context of the need for greater transparency and justice.

So there has been development, and it would no longer be true to say that victims are not being cared for, and it would not be fair to say that there is a veil of ignorance or concealment about these issues when the clergy and school staffs meet.

For many years now, the Diocese’ commitment in response to reports of abuse of children or young people by a priest or other church person has been to urge the person making the report to take it to the police. Indeed, the Diocese has cooperated extensively with SA Police in bringing two historical perpetrators to justice. At the same time, a significant number of victims of abuse have found the Church’s Towards Healing process extremely helpful in assisting them to achieve justice and to move on with their lives.

The film Spotlight reveals what was a true situation. I really believe that as Church we have tried to learn from all of this as much as we can, to help restore our Church community as a place that lives by integrity and a genuine commitment to following the teachings of Jesus, who reminded us in no uncertain terms about the horror of maltreating little ones. So when you watch Spotlight, a prayer of thanks may also be in place that such media attention has helped the Church be more truthful and honest, and we are doing all we think we can to ensure the purity and integrity of our Catholic community.

If you have any concerns with the matters raised in Spotlight, or in this letter, you are most welcome to contact me. If you have a concern about a criminal matter, you are strongly encouraged, as always, to contact the Police.

Yours in Christ,

+ Gregory O’Kelly SJ
Bishop of the Diocese of Port Pirie