This week the second round of public hearings into child sexual abuse allegations across the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese began in the Newcastle Supreme Court. As such, The Maitland Mercury will resume its series of reflections of Hunter members of the Catholic Church.
Through their own words these church members have endeavoured to answer the highly complex question: How do you keep the faith?
This week East Maitland lay person Pam Tierney reveals how she left the church because of paedophilia and also explains her reasons for returning. Compiled by EMMA SWAIN
Some years back I was experiencing a growing disenchantment with the structure and hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Australia, especially in relation to women.
This came home to me during the 125 year celebratory mass of the Sisters of Mercy Order, held in my parish several years ago.
A number of priests filed down the aisle in their vestments for the entrance procession. Gathering around the altar they all took part in the various rituals of the Mass.
Not one nun had a role, or spoke in any way; rather they sat watching these men, whom I suppose, felt they were honouring the Order the best way they could.
The only saving grace for me was catching the twinkle of light on a Sister’s earring. Good for you, I thought, for expressing your individuality, your womanhood.
This disenchantment had come late in the day for me. The Sisters of my day had already tackled what some perceive as misogyny in the Catholic Church.
I saw that some Orders accepted the line of authority as it was, while not under-estimating their own capacity to serve the people of God.
I well recall the Sisters of St Joseph running McCauley House at Carrington, and their absolute dedication and compassionate love towards victims of AIDS. This was at a time when the disease was spoken about in hushed tones and the victims shunned.
But while dissatisfaction continued to grow steadily in me, ultimately producing a form of cynicism towards the Catholic Church, there was still a craving and love of prayer and meditation. A thirst for God.
Then the bombshell hit – paedophilia in the ranks of the Catholic Church. To me this felt so repugnant, I likened it to a trail of slime over the Word of God.
I judged the Church to be utterly hypocritical, too concerned with saving face to even have a strong enough desire to go running after its slain children, its fallen parents, its bewildered parishioners.
I saw that pride had taken the place of grief, and so I left. I felt free and glad to have shaken off the institutionalised culture of which I had become a member, and wondered how many others had also left from grief and shame, or just plain disillusionment with a restrictive and discriminatory hierarchy.
During the following years meditation and prayer became a more disciplined way of life. I kept praying about the whole issue of paedophilia in the Church, and felt the heaviness of the burden being carried by Bishop Michael Malone.
After three years away, I gradually came back to the Church, finding firstly a Christian meditation group, and later joining the St Vincent de Paul Society, whose call in life is to serve the marginalised and poor. This movement echoed more for me what following Christ is all about.
Eventually I went back to weekly mass. I found that it was an isolating experience for a Christian to not belong to a believing community. I had also to deal with my own cynicism, which implied a sense of superiority.
But more than that, through meeting victims of clergy abuse and their families, I came to realise more deeply the early shattering impact on young, trusting lives when subjected to the wickedness they had endured.
I came to understand the extent of their fear, which, if left unaddressed, can forever imprison. I heard their deep longing to be held and believed, to be comforted and told over and over, ‘ it was not your fault, it was not your fault.’
In retrospect I see that my actions in leaving the Church contained some elements of selfishness. I was concerned for my own pain, not caring about the pain of others, least of all the victims.
I am now a member of a voluntary lay group which seeks to reach out to victims of clergy abuse and their families. I also belong to another voluntary group who have undertaken the difficult task of offering insight, knowledge and healing to damaged parishes. In our area, we are particularly wounded.
Wounded too, are the families of the perpetrators. So many victims. I have made sure too, that my local Parish Priest, a good and decent man, knows that he has my support in the face of such calamity and disgrace.
Like Bishop Bill Wright, I was relieved at the Prime Minister of Australia’s decision to hold a Royal Commission into sexual abuse of children by institutions. I was relieved also, to discover upon my return, the many efforts the Church had made in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese to institute solid reforms towards the protection of children, and provide safe avenues of healing and support.
But my personal belief is that the issue has the potential to undo the Catholic Church as we now know it in the Western world; that it is a scandal of such magnitude that restoration to ‘what was’ will be almost impossible.
And who would want it?
Undoubtedly the Church will take on many of the expected recommendations of the Royal Commission, and rightly so. But I do believe that it will only be through our broken-heartedness for our broken children, and through humbling ourselves before God, that we may receive in a new way the grace, hope, comfort and strength of Jesus Christ, to become again the People of God we are called to be.