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Bishop says church mustn’t fear questions, or conversation

c. 2008 Religion News Service NEW YORK _ Sit down over a cup of coffee with Geoffrey Robinson, a soft-spoken, silver-haired Roman Catholic bishop from Australia, and you’d be hard-pressed to see him as a fiery prophet or an angry dissident. Nor does he come across as any of the other far less flattering names […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

NEW YORK _ Sit down over a cup of coffee with Geoffrey Robinson, a soft-spoken, silver-haired Roman Catholic bishop from Australia, and you’d be hard-pressed to see him as a fiery prophet or an angry dissident.

Nor does he come across as any of the other far less flattering names he’s been called since writing his powerful new book, “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus.”

In fact, he doesn’t seem much like a bishop at all, or at least not the kind of bishop Americans are used to. As Robinson sat in the cafe, he was wearing a green polo shirt and khakis, looking ready for a round of golf, which he would clearly prefer to the media spotlight where he’s recently found himself.

“I’m not keen about making myself the story,” said Robinson, 71, who retired in 2004 as an auxiliary bishop in Sydney, because he felt he could not remain in an administrative job while asking tough questions about his own church _ about sex, celibacy, power and authority.

Yet even in retirement, Robinson remains a bishop in full, and he recently completed a North American tour to talk about his book and his ideas for reforming the Catholic Church after the sexual abuse scandal.

Rather than simply expressing revulsion at the abuse, or lamenting the “mishandling” of some cases by bishops, Robinson calls for a wholesale discussion of Catholic traditions and teachings that gets to the root of the problem of sexual abuse in the church.

“We can never stop at the individual person, we must look at the institution,” he told listeners at Brooklyn’s St. Francis College, his voice growing impassioned as he went on. “So we must have the freedom to ask the questions that must be asked.”

Perhaps it is a sign of the times _ scandal fatigue, a desire to rally around the pope, or the fear of Vatican censure _ but voices like Robinson’s are rare, and they are not drawing wide notice. That’s not to say the hierarchy isn’t listening to what Robinson has to say, or that there is no concern in Rome.

The anxiety is that as a bishop, Robinson knows the hierarchy and the sexual abuse crisis from the inside. He was active as a bishop for 20 years and holds degrees in philosophy, theology and church law. In 1994, he was named to coordinate the Australian bishops’ response to revelations of clerical sexual abuse. Moreover, he was abused as a child, something he declines to discuss in detail, noting only that his abuser was not a cleric.

Robinson is stirring the pot just a few days before Pope Benedict XVI is to land in Australia for the July 15-20 World Youth Day festival. Preparations have been marred by controversy and financial woes, and the 125,000 young people expected to attend are fewer than church officials hoped for. A survey of churchgoers showed that weekly Mass attendance among Australian Catholics continues to drop, down to just 14 percent.

So it was no surprise that in May, Robinson’s fellow bishops issued a statement that lauded Robinson’s “help and healing” for victims of sexual abuse but criticized “doctrinal difficulties” in his book that undermined the ability of the Catholic Church to teach the truth “authoritatively.” Robinson called the statement “disappointing” but not unexpected.

He drew the most attention when Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony attempted to bar him from a June 12 speaking engagement in Southern California. Mahony urged Robinson to return to Australia and work with the hierarchy’s investigation into his book.

Robinson politely but firmly rejected the appeal, and the efforts to bar Robinson only gave him more publicity.

Robinson remains a man of the church who wants to revive rather than wreck the institution. That he wants to work for change from within may make him more of a threat. He dismisses any parallels to Martin Luther _ “I have zero intention of founding any new church and would strongly resist any such idea” _ and when pressed, cites as a hero the Salvadoran archbishop, Oscar Romero, who was slain for challenging the government on human rights.

“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 Catholics who ask questions similar to those I’m asking. And if I can be their voice, I’m happy to do so.”


Robinson insists he has never questioned the “deep underlying certainties” of the faith. “I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in the church. I believe in the pope!”

Indeed, he is not a bishop-basher, as many would like him to be, and doesn’t think the folks in the pews should be picking fights with bishops, many of whom are “good or intelligent leaders” who made terrible decisions. Part of the solution, he said, must redress the balance of power in the church that leaves bishops choosing between Rome or their conscience.

“Between being a pope’s man or a victim’s man, I found I could not be both,” he said.

He offered measured praise for Benedict, but said the pontiff needs to go beyond expressions of shame and instead publicly apologize to victims at a penance service in St. Peter’s surrounded by all the cardinals.

Above all, he wants to see an honest, in-depth examination of church teachings on sex, which would entail debates on the role of authority and tradition.

“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.”


Can it happen? Robinson paused as he contemplated the answer he would give his listeners in Brooklyn. He says they should have no illusions, that there are few reasons for optimism, but that they should have hope. He says the bishops are indispensable allies, and the sexual abuse crisis “is arguably the one issue that has the energy to bring about change.”

The answer was likely not the call to arms some wanted, or the reassurance most looked for. Then again, Robinson may be the best testimony to his own argument _ that asking questions can lead to a deeper, if not comfortable, faith.

“If you do not see the ugliness, you are closing your eyes,” Robinson said. “If you do not see the beauty, you do not know the church.”

(David Gibson is the author of “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World.” He wrote this article for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)


Eds: a version of this story is also being transmitted by Newhouse News Service

A photo of Robinson is available via

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