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.
I’m retired. I live in a parish house in Sydney. I celebrate mass there every Sunday. I write, I give talks.
Has the dust-up over your book and with your fellow bishops in Australia affected your living status?
Not so far. But whether it will, I don’t know.
Amid all the turmoil, you seem like a man at peace.
Yes, I’ve written what I believe. How others react is up to them. I have no control. One of the difficulties I’ve had with journalists recently is they’re all asking me what other people think, and I can’t tell you that. I’m at peace with what I’ve written. No one has so far said, What you say on page such-and-such is wrong because…They’re saying it’s wrong because it’s contrary to church teaching. But no one has yet given me a reasoned argument against anything I’ve said in the book.
Why then is there this negative reaction from bishops?
Because I’m questioning, I’m saying that a number of church teachings need to be put on the table for discussion. That’s the consequence. Start from this: If we wish to respond fully to abuse we must follow wherever the argument leads. If it demands that obligatory celibacy be put on the table, we must put it on the table. If it demands that church teachings on sex be put on the table, then that must be put on the table. If it demands that church teaching on authority be put on the table, then that must happen. We must follow the argument wherever it leads. And it’s wrong to say, well, you may not question a whole range of things.
You did receive some criticisms in an otherwise supportive review of the book by the theologian Richard Gaillardetz in America magazine. (Read the review here.)
Why did he do that? It was quite favorable review and suddenly this one sentence kills the lot. And then the arguments he made just don’t add up. I was disappointed. I was told he was a good theologian…Two of the three objections simply misunderstood me. I thought, Has he read this?
When you talk about change in the church, are you talking about structures? Or theology? Doctrines? Or are they all intrinsically interconnected?
I do not believe that the way to oppose a set of certainties is by putting up another set of certainties. I don’t do that. Instead I ask questions because I want to start a conversation. The questions concern all church teachings, laws, attitudes, a church culture.
People will also say, if we pose all these questions, then where is the certainty? If everything is up for grabs, what will we have left?
There I would refer them to the Bible. God did not give us a long series of certainties. Instead the Bible is the story of a journey, and that journey involved a struggle toward truth. And in that story there were many detours. And God wants us to struggle toward truth because that is how we grow. To attempt to give people certainties on every subject is not helping them.
Can a church that is questioning itself flourish?
There are always the deep underlying certainties that I have never queried. I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in the church. I believe in the pope!
Is it really a question of ecclesiology then—of talking about the church?
It goes across a whole host of issues. For example I ask questions about sexual morality. Now if you want to call that an issue of the church, you can, because we’re talking about church teaching. But it concerns a lot of different matters.
I certainly don’t make any parallels between myself and Martin Luther. I have zero intention of founding any new church and would strongly resist any such idea.
Are there any other figures you’d draw inspiration from?
[Here he hesitates more than usual before answering.] I am not making myself equal to him in any way, but Oscar Romero called himself “the voice of the voiceless.” And perhaps I’m trying to do that, to speak for victims, and to speak for a whole lot of Catholic who ask questions similar to those I’m asking. And if I can be their voice, I’m happy to do so.
I’ve seen the tags on you already—“rebel” bishop, “dissident” bishop.
Those are tags. [He smiles slightly.] Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me. Not that kind.
How do you view Pope Benedict XVI so far?
He has gone much further than his predecessor. In particular, he handled the case of Father Degollado in a strong and open manner. That was most important because it wasn’t just words, it was actions. When he was in the United States, he went further than any pope had before, and he promised to do all he could to eradicate the problem. What I want to know now is what will he do, and when.
You also say that you want to have systematic studies and investigations to see what was behind the abuse.
Both of abuse, and of the response to abuse. And I want to see that go beyond the immediate issue of abuse and look at issues of power and sex, which are inevitably brought in.
Are you familiar with the John Jay College study commissioned by the U.S. bishops?
I most thoroughly approve of it. I thoroughly commend the bishops for commissioning it. It’s the best thing that’s happening anywhere in the world…Put that in, because I’m not contrary to American bishops on everything. They’ve done something no one else has done…[John Jay] is a respectable institute. It’s independent.
The pope is coming to Australia for World Youth Day in July. Will he need to address this abuse issue again?
It would be good. His major focus is World Youth Day. I would not wish to do anything to destroy that focus. But there will be opportunities and I would like to see him, somewhere, at sometime, address this issue. It will not be the dominant issue of his visit, because that will be World Youth Day.
In traveling around the United States, do you see differences between American and Australian Catholics?
I think the similarities are far greater than any differences. There are the same divisions.
Even in terms of questions you get at your talks?
There’s greater anger against the bishops here, I’m sensing that…I’m not saying there’s no anger there [in Australia]. I just can’t avoid the sense of a greater anger here.
On a personal level, what kind of toll has all this taken on you? Friendships and relationships?
That’s still to work itself out. I can’t answer that question. I think it’s too early. It’s probably made me friends and lost me friends.