INTERVIEW | Anne Lim
Monday 14 December 2015
Bishop Geoffrey Robinson was born into a world of faith. But in another life, it’s quite likely that he would have been happier as a family man and may not even have been a priest.
The retired Catholic bishop is aghast when he looks at 12-year-old boys today because at that tender age his mother, a good Irish Catholic, sent him to the seminary.
“Looking back, I would say that my mother belonged to that category of Irish descent who desperately wanted to have a child who was a priest,” says the bishop, who went on to reject his mother’s brand of Catholicism and campaign for a radically reformed Catholic Church.
He believes his father would have stopped her sending him away so young if he had not died from a heart attack the year before.
The young Geoffrey thought little of the consequences, though they came to weigh on him later.
“It means that at the age of 12, I was committed to a life of celibacy,” he says.
It’s clear that relationships are very important to this white-haired gentleman who is as much loved for his oratory and pastoral work as he is criticised by the hierarchy for his progressive views on obligatory celibacy, homosexuality, divorce and women’s ordination.
While he admits he would have liked to be married when he was young, it’s a bit late now for the 78-year-old, who is being treated for terminal cancer.
However, there’s one thing he will never regret – being a crusader for justice and healing for the victims of sexual abuse by clergy.
Bishop Robinson devoted ten years of his life to fighting for fair compensation and support for adults who had been abused as children by Catholic priests.
“It should never, never, never have happened,” he growls. “These are priests we’re talking about, goddammit.”
Speaking to Eternity in his cosy cottage behind St Joseph’s Presbytery in Enfield, in Sydney’s inner west, Bishop Robinson says his journey to help victims was also a personal one because he too was abused as a child, although not by a priest. He becomes emotional as he remembers victims’ stories. There’s no doubt, he says, that his own experience made him more determined to fight for justice.
“They all touched me. I met with many, many victims right here in this room. I met with a couple of hundred together on several occasions, very stormy and difficult meetings. I spent countless hours on the phone,” he says.
“I’d been abused myself, so what I was hearing from them was my story as well.”
He had survived, he says, by putting his trauma “up in the attic” where he couldn’t see it. But while counselling victims he “had to take it down and had to look at it, and that was a profound experience too.”
While he gained benefit from therapy, it did nothing to still the anger he felt at the church, at certain bishops, and the Vatican.
He maintains that when Pope John Paul II was given a report about the widespread nature of sexual abuse by clergy in the late ‘80s he should have publicly declared the church would fight it tooth and nail.
“But because he was silent, the loyalty of bishops became loyalty to silence.”
Bishop Robinson says he had no idea there was a problem of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church until 1987, when a talk by two priests revealed the scale and seriousness of the problem.
In 1994, Bishop Robinson was brought in to stir up the church’s national committee for professional standards, which was slowly drafting a protocol to provide compensation and pastoral support to sexual abuse victims.
He took over the drafting and endorsement process and, amid fierce debate, pushed through the Towards Healing protocol in 1996.
“It was very difficult because there were older bishops who had handled and mishandled cases themselves and so felt threatened by what this young upstart was bringing forward,” he says.
Bishop Robinson regrets that he was unable to achieve his aim of setting up an independent body to handle cases.
“I had to work according to what I could get out of the bishops … And they were never going to give away the power to determine how much money they paid.”
Bishop Robinson is hopeful that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – at which he gave evidence in August – will lead to a better system: “for example, a body that’s totally independent of the churches investigating cases, levels of compensation, trying to look at factors within the church that have contributed.
“They are the three big things you have to do: deal with offenders, help victims and prevent abuse. All three are essential. Also the bishops are not doing nearly enough to look at things that might cause it and the Vatican is doing nothing.”
While he believes payouts are still too small, he says money will never fully satisfy victims.
“If you go deep enough with victims, what you find is they want someone to turn history around and make the abuse unhappen, and you can’t do that.
“That’s why I always maintain money is not the number one priority; it may be number two but it’s not number one.”
Bishop Robinson has been on a journey of personal and theological discovery since going to Rome to study at the age of 18.
“That was great in many ways, bad in others. It was great in so far as it was a fire-and-water experience; I was in a college with people from 45 different nations, mainly non-European, so that was very, very interesting. But I was ten years straight without getting home – that was not good.”
When he did finally come home at age 28, he found it very hard to reassimilate into Australia.
“I had been out of my culture for those very formative years.”
The seeds of Bishop Robinson’s progressive approach to theology and church hierarchies had been sown during the Second Vatican Council in Rome in the 1960s.
“The big thing the Second Vatican Council did was change forever in the Catholic Church the balance between Scripture and authority, or Scripture and the Pope.”
Fairly soon, Bishop Robinson rejected large sections of his mother’s Irish Catholic world.
“That was not for me. It didn’t mean I was a better person or a better Catholic than her. On the contrary, I think she was a much better Catholic than I ever was. She had a faith that was so deep it was daunting. I got the feeling that I could never live up to that … But I went on a fairly profound journey there that led to ideas that would later make me controversial.”
It was those controversial ideas that brought his career to a sudden halt, he believes. It’s been speculated that he would have been the next Archbishop of Sydney but for his advocacy for fair treatment of victims of sexual abuse. But Bishop Robinson says he had blotted his copybook years before.
A couple of months after he was ordained as a bishop in 1984, a paper he had written about giving communion to divorced people came to light in Rome and “I was put down as never to be promoted.”
As it turned out, he was happy with the freedom his position as an auxiliary bishop gave him.
“If you’re a cardinal archbishop you can’t stay silent – it’s demanded that you speak out and say things like ‘No woman will ever be ordained till hell freezes over.’ And I couldn’t say that because I don’t believe it.”
Bishop Robinson retired in 2004 after 20 years as a bishop, the second decade being consumed with the sexual abuse crusade.
“It had taken up about 80 per cent of my time. Because it had been such a personal story as well and so many battles, I was exhausted. And I was also pretty disillusioned, mainly with the Vatican because it had not come out and taken a much stronger line against one of the most massive scandals it had ever had to face.”
He also had a few health issues, but the main reason for retiring, he confesses, was that he couldn’t work with the then archbishop, now Cardinal George Pell.
“We were chalk and cheese,” he says, adding that he couldn’t back Cardinal Pell on his insistence that homosexuality was “perversion”.
“I thought, ‘This is impossible. My integrity is at stake over a whole lot of things that he stood for’, and I just felt I couldn’t continue, in all honesty.”
After his retirement Bishop Robinson finally had the time to put his thoughts on paper. And that’s when he really got into hot water. His 2007 book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, identified obligatory celibacy as one of the systemic causes of child sexual abuse and called for radical reform of church authority and teachings.
However, he bats away the accusations bishops made against him of dangerous heresy – that was just to keep Rome happy, he insists.
“It was a case of official disapproval from on high but enormous acceptance by any number of people.”
Bishop Robinson wants to see obligatory celibacy for priests abolished because “you’ve got so many people who are living an unwanted, an unaccepted and unassimilated celibacy and that has to be dangerous.
“There are too many priests who are not merely celibate but, more importantly, they’re living without love … no young person in his right mind should ever give up love.”
Still sporting a healthy head of hair and good colour in his cheeks, Bishop Robinson says his cancer is currently in check and he is thinking of writing another book.
“It would be on the same theme of a passionate belief in the Catholic Church but a radically reformed church. That sums it up.”
He is not yet ready to turn his thoughts to the next world.
“My hopes would be that the cancer will be kept at bay for some time. The oncologist is already talking about the next treatment she’s got … My hope is that it will keep it at bay and when it doesn’t it will all happen quickly.”