Archbishop Mark Coleridge acknowledges the abuse problem - better late than never

After 36 years in the Catholic ministry, Canberra Archbishop Mark Coleridge has finally confessed that it took "people like me a tragically long time" to see the faces and hear the voices of sexual abuse survivors in the church.

In a pastoral letter to parishioners on Sunday 23 May 2010, Archbishop Coleridge admitted that a culture of discretion had been used to conceal crimes by sexually-abusive priests and to protect the reputation of the Church.

Mark Benedict Coleridge (born in 1948 in Melbourne) was ordained a priest in the Melbourne archdiocese in May 1974.

Broken Rites remembers the mid-1990s, when Father Mark Coleridge was the spokesman for the Melbourne archdiocese. At that time, Broken Rites used to publish a printed newsletter which was posted to church sex-abuse survivors and also to bishops and priests throughout Australia. This newsletter performed the same function that the Broken Rites website serves now, containing articles (for example) about clergy being convicted in the courts for sex-abuse crimes. The newsletter was financed by small donations from church-abuse survivors.

But Father Coleridge used to return his newsletter envelope to Broken Rites, unopened, with the envelope marked "Return to Sender". Undaunted, Broken Rites continued to report the church-crime scene, and in 1999 the newsletter evolved into the Broken Rites website, receiving worldwide attention.

Meanwhile, Mark Coleridge went to the Vatican, where he worked as a functionary in church administration before returning to Melbourne. In June 2006, he was appointed as Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, the first Australian episcopal appointment of Pope Benedict XVI.

Now, 15 years after returning those newsletters unopened, Mark Coleridge is finally starting to see the light.

The Canberra Times (24 May 2010) reported Coleridge's 2010 pastoral letter thus:

  1. Archbishop Coleridge said victims had sometimes been treated as if they were to blame for abuse at the hands of priests and members of religious orders.

    The former Vatican official said it had taken him decades to realise the scale of sexual abuse within the Church.

    "For too long they [victims] were unseen and unheard. To see their faces and hear their voices has taken people like me a tragically long time," he said.

    Archbishop Coleridge said that triumphalism, institutional pride and "clericalism understood as a hierarchy of power, not service," had all contributed to inadequate responses to sexual abuse.

    Charity often commanded that discretion be used to protect the dignity of people, Archbishop Coleridge said.

    "Yet this culture of discretion turned dark when it was used to conceal crime and protect the reputation of the Church or the image of the priesthood in a country that has never known the virulent anti-clericalism of elsewhere," he said.

    "The Church may also have underestimated the power and subtlety of evil."

    Several factors had combined to make the problem of paedophilia cultural rather than merely personal within the Australian Church, including a poor understanding of the Church's teaching on sexuality.

    "The discipline of celibacy may also have been attractive to men in whom there were paedophile tendencies which may not have been explicitly recognised by the men themselves when they entered the seminary," Archbishop Coleridge said.

Mixed messages

Broken Rites has examined the text of Coleridge's letter. It contains some mixed messages.

On one hand, Coleridge says: "I have asked myself often enough who has been to blame in all this. Clearly the victims were not, though we have treated them at times as if they were. Just as clearly, the offenders were to blame and must bear the full weight of judgement both human and divine. The bishops? Yes, insofar as they concealed or denied the abuse."

On the other hand, some of Coleridge's phrases are still defensive. For example, the pastoral letter says: "...My sense is that those living with paedophile clergy knew nothing of the abuse that was going on and were horrified when it came to light."

This is similar to the evasive, defensive comments made in May 2010 by Adelaide's Archbishop Philip Wilson, when he was asked what he knew in the 1970s and 1980s about his paedophile colleagues in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese — Father John Denham, Father James Fletcher and Father Denis McAlinden.

At least, Coleridge's May 2010 statement is an improvement on Wilson's attitude.

On the whole, Broken Rites welcomes Mark Coleridge's pastoral letter — better late than never. However, we believe that there was no excuse for church leaders not understanding that rape, sodomy and child sex-abuse were a crime. Church leaders have been more concerned for the criminal than for the victim.

A twenty-year journey for Mark Colridge may have brought him some enlightenment on the subject. We don't want to wait another twenty years for action that brings proper justice for victims and a full apology for the church's culture of cover-up.

In particular, many victims feel as though they are re-victimised when they attempt to obtain justice through the church's in-house "Towards Healing" process. Many find that "Towards Healing" is evasive and defensive.