Melbourne's new archbishop says promoting the Church as an 'institution' allowed 'great evils' to happen
Bishop Peter Comensoli, who will take up the leadership of Australia’s largest Catholic diocese on 1 August, said the abuse crisis was “paramount” in everyone’s thinking and required a response at every level in the Church.
Devastating findings by a recent royal commission found that 4,444 people alleged incidents of child sexual abuse against the Church, many of them covered up by bishops who had pursued a strategy of protection of assets against legal claims.
But speaking to The Tablet during a phone interview from Australia, the bishop explained that protecting the institution rather than its people was a counter-witness to the Gospel.
“The Church is the pilgrim People of God, it is the Body of Christ, and in manifesting that there are institutional dimensions. In the same way there are institutional dimensions in a family: we have meals at a certain time and we do things at this time. So there is an institutionality to the Church,” the soon-to-be-archbishop explained.
“But when that became paramount and started to usurp the Gospel, and usurp the Church as the people of God, that’s when the great evils were manifested in that context. It led to a loss of following of the Gospel.”
Bishop Comensoli will take over an archdiocese with 210 parishes, 330 schools and where more than 1 million Catholics make up almost 30 per cent of the population. All this, he says, is a rather “daunting thought” given his current Diocese of Broken Bay, a coastal region of New South Wales near Sydney, is made up of just 26 parishes.
Aged 54, Bishop Comensoli is part of a new generation of Australian bishops and his role in Melbourne will give him an important position on the national ecclesial and political stage. Describing his appointment as “entirely unexpected, though not completely unsurprising” he found out the news while watching the second New South Wales-Queensland rugby league match, the decider in the State of Origin three game series, when his phone rang.
“I looked down and saw it was the Nuncio so thought ‘ooh I better take this call.’ It certainly disrupted watching the game!”
The new Archbishop of Melbourne says that rebuilding trust in the Church requires looking at all governance structures while ensuring that safeguarding procedures are compliant.
“It is also about how do I, as a bishop, find a way of building a safe culture based on trust and compassion for those who have been abused, and for the families harmed by abuse,” he explained.
“But I also want to reflect that the Church is not essentially an institution, it is a pilgrim people and, essentially, the Body of Christ. The decency and goodness of God’s people within the Body of Christ remains and the Church is made up of a vast majority who are not abusers and did not obfuscate for abusers. There is substantial work that needs to be done to rebuild trust in the Body of Christ and the community.”
In a radio interview last week with Australian broadcaster ABC, Bishop Comensoli suggested that the Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson - who has been convicted by a court in New South Wales for concealing child sexual abuse - should stand down because “the path he is taking is not of benefit for God’s people”.
Archbishop Wilson is appealing his conviction and has not offered his resignation although has stepped aside from day-to-day leadership. While the archbishops had announced two of his vicar-generals would lead Adelaide in his absence Pope Francis stepped in to appoint an outside apostolic administrator to run the archdiocese in the short term.
Bishop Comensoli told The Tablet that the archbishop “emphatically states his innocence” and fully supports his legal right to defend himself.” He added: “The matter of stewardship of the Archdiocese of Adelaide lies with Archbishop Wilson and the Holy Father.”
Born to an Australian mother with Irish-German roots and an Italian father who came to Australia from Brescia, he was ordained in 1992 for the Diocese of Wollongong and before entering the seminary studied economics during which he also worked as a bank teller and loan clerk.
After ordination he studied for a Masters in moral philosophy at St Andrew’s University under Professor John Haldane - a Catholic - before receiving a doctorate in theological ethics from the University of Edinburgh under the guidance of Anglican priest and academic Oliver O’Donovan.
In 2011 he was named an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Sydney under Cardinal George Pell and was administrator of the archdiocese when Pell left to oversee Vatican finances in Rome. The cardinal is now back in Australia defending himself against historic sex offences.
The incoming archbishop will also be an important part of the “Plenary Council” - Australia’s national synod-style gathering taking place next year - which is to address questions such as the role of laity, governance, schools, healthcare, welfare agencies and the role of women. When it comes to women’s role in the Church, the bishop says “half of my own leaders” in the diocese are female including his senior adviser, chancellor and financial administrator.
“And they just get on with it at the service of the Gospel,” he said.
Given his moral philosophy background, the incoming archbishop has a focus on life matters including euthanasia and later this year is to take over the chairmanship of the Australian bishops’ commission for Life, Family and Public Engagement.
On assisted dying he finds the “regional variations” on legislation, where the State of Victoria has allowed the practice while New South Wales has voted it down, “alarming” as it suggests the lives of people can be measured by “state laws.”
“These questions concerning the sick and dying are now being removed from the question of their care to the question of their existence,” he said.
“What is particularly challenging is the religious voice, the voice of faith, is becoming harder to express in our country, for all sorts of reasons at all sorts of levels.
"The secular voice can’t be the only one: we are a pluralist country, not a secular country, where more than 60 per cent believe in a divine presence. I think it is perfectly possible to have a level of civic friendship with people, while holding different positions.”
He said that while the abuse crisis had made bishops more “reticent” to speak out there are many Catholics who want to defend life but “finding it difficult when they encounter ignorance about faith in political circles and resistance in academia and the mainstream media to their position.”
The bishop stressed, however, he was happy to live in Australia rather than “any number of countries where there is a genuine repression of the Christian faith.”
This Pope, he says, has laid down a challenge for bishops to walk “a path of tenderness and closeness.”
“I would never describe Pope Francis as an easy-going Pope. He throws down a challenge to me, but it’s a good one. He wants me, as a bishop, to be a steward, that’s how he talks,” Bishop Comensoli explains.
He also rejects a distinction between Francis as simply a pastor and the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, as simply a theologian.
“My own sense is that you cannot do the pastoral unless you’ve got the theological, otherwise the pastoral simply becomes social work. We come to the pastoral through the gift of faith,” he said.
“I do read and understand how Pope Francis has witnessed to the pastoral imperative in ways that are illuminating, but that doesn’t mean he’s not theological. I also know that Benedict XVI, when he was at the CDF [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] would spend many evenings when he walked back home from his office tending to the poor of Rome and talking to them. The idea that there are either pastoral or theological heavyweights is a false distinction.”