'I Ask Questions About
In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, a retired Catholic bishop calls for reform and conversation in the church.
BY: Interview by David Gibson
After April’s papal visit to the United States and the catharsis of Benedict XVI’s statements about the sexual abuse crisis, there was a tangible sense of a corner having been turned—that the Catholic Church could begin to move past this painful history. But a month after Benedict left for Rome, another bishop arrived in America from a distant country but with a far different message. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Sydney in Australia, was on a tour to talk about his new book, “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus,” a prophetic challenge to explore the forces behind the sexual abuse crisis and open church teaching and traditions for examination to prevent future scandals and renew the church.
Robinson, 71, knows the problems from the inside. In 1994 his fellow Australian bishops named him to coordinate their response to revelations of clerical sexual abuse. Moreover, he himself was abused as a child, something he declines to discuss in detail, noting only that his abuser was not a cleric. But his résumé has not stopped bishops from criticizing his work. In early May, the Australian bishops released a statement asserting that his book is dangerous because Robinson’s “questioning of the authority of the Church.” Robinson responded by calling the statement “disappointing” but not unexpected. Robinson’s biggest p.r. boost came, however, when Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony sent Robinson a letter attempting to bar Robinson from his June 12 speaking engagement in Southern California. Mahony noted that the Vatican wanted to stop Robinson’s U.S. tour, and he urged Robinson to return to Australia and work with a church investigation into his book. Other California bishops followed Mahony’s lead, generating media coverage, although bishops elsewhere in the country did not attempt to bar Robinson. Robinson’s cross-country tour was sponsored by the lay reform group, Voice of the Faithful, which invited him to the U.S.
Robinson clearly dislikes the role of a media darling, and bristles at the idea that he is a prophet. Yet while he is soft-spoken and studiously avoids sound bite sloganeering, he knows that he cannot remain silent. The morning after a lecture in Brooklyn, Bishop Robinson—dressed in green polo shirt and khakis but hardly relaxing as he fielded media phone calls—talked to David Gibson of Beliefnet’s Catholic blog, “Pontifications.” Robinson spoke about the tough questions about clerical abuse, what he thinks of Pope Benedict, and whether he sees himself as another Martin Luther—or not…
Have you had any direct communication from the Vatican about your trip?
I’m not keen about making myself the story, this is the point...Everything is trying to make the clash between myself and the American bishops THE story. And that would defeat my entire purpose…I’ve not the slightest idea whether any American bishop has read my book. And they probably haven’t.
I hadn’t realized until I read your book that you yourself suffered sexual abuse as a child. That is such a damaging experience, yet you seem to have worked through it, while so many other victims who became priests went on to become abusers themselves—and all-too familiar pattern. How did you manage to break that cycle?
Well, the real answer to that is, I don’t know. It stayed in the attic of my mind for 50 years. I always knew it had happened, it wasn’t repressed. But it wasn’t looked at. And it was only when I was talking with so many victims that I started thinking, well, what they’re saying I recognize, I respond to, because it happened to me. It was only then that I brought it down out of the attic. Until then, I had not come to terms with it. It had had effects on my life, but it was only then that I began to realize, through therapy, what those effects were.
People will want to know if you have an agenda—if you are going run off and get married, or leave the priesthood, or the church, and that might be your motivation.
Oh, I’m not about to do something drastic with my own personal life now, no.