A retired prelate analyzes the sexual abuse scandal

Times Staff Writer

It WAS easy to let my imagination run wild about “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus,” written by retired prelate Geoffrey Robinson, auxiliary Catholic bishop of Sydney, Australia, for two decades.

The book has generated swift reaction and harsh words from leaders in the Roman Catholic Church. Robinson’s fellow bishops in Australia labeled his positions problematic, claiming that his views question “the authority of the Catholic Church to teach the truth definitively.”

And the Vatican and a dozen American bishops -- including Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Tod Brown of Orange and Robert Brom of San Diego -- recently asked him not to speak out on his book tour lest he “be a source of disunity and cause of confusion among the faithful,” in Brown’s words. (He ignored their wishes.)

With that dramatic buildup, reading the first few chapters of Robinson’s book was like watching a horror movie where the spooky music swells as someone slowly opens a closet door, only to find no monster there.

It’s a little disappointing, because the boogeyman created by church leaders turns out to be a thoughtful, gentle, humble theologian and canon lawyer with a deep love and respect for the church. His scary ideas that caused so much consternation within the Vatican and among fellow bishops can be boiled down to one premise: The church needs to understand and address the root causes of the clergy sexual abuse scandal in order to heal itself.


The only scary part of the story is that Robinson, himself a victim of sexual abuse as a child (not by a cleric), stands virtually alone among the world’s Roman Catholic bishops in openly questioning a system that has resulted in thousands of children being molested and raped and the crimes of the perpetrator priests being covered up by church leaders.

Under an avalanche of lawsuits and media coverage, Robinson’s colleagues (surrounded by a battery of attorneys and public relations specialists) were forced to enact reforms such as not allowing priests who had molested to serve in ministry. But the underlying causes have, for the most part, not been addressed.

In “Confronting Power,” Robinson explores how the church could get it so wrong.

As the title suggests, Robinson believes the molestation scandal was the result of an abuse of power and sex. He argues that the church over the centuries has concentrated too much authority within the clergy and especially within the papacy -- leaving no room for debate on church teachings that, in theory, could be changed.

He says Catholics suffer from the doctrine of “creeping infallibility,” where declarations by the pope are thought of as infallible -- and therefore not open to discussion -- though they don’t officially carry the label of “papal infallibility.” (The concept of papal infallibility wasn’t introduced until 1870, and the only infallible statement issued by a pope was in 1950 when Pius XII declared that Mary, upon her death, was assumed bodily into heaven.)

Robinson, who handled sexual abuse claims in Australia from 1994 to 2004, said creeping infallibility effectively stops even a discussion on issues that may have caused the sexual abuse scandal, including mandatory celibacy and an all-male priesthood.

Reliance on direction from the pope is so strong, Robinson argues, that when Pope John Paul II was silent on the emerging sexual abuse scandal, his bishops and priests believed the church wanted them to continue to manage the problem as they had been.

Robinson writes: “I am convinced that if the pope had spoken clearly at the beginning of the revelations, inviting victims to come forward so that the whole truth, however terrible, might be known and confronted, and firmly directing that all members of the church should respond with openness, humility, honesty and compassion, consistently putting victims before the good name of the church, the entire response of the church would have been far better.”

A multitiered system of checks and balances that includes the pope, bishops, priests and the laity would allow the church to escape its self-built “prison of the past,” Robinson writes, and face the idea that it may be time to revise certain church teachings, including on aspects of sexuality and a celibate priesthood.

“Far too often the Catholic Church has believed that it had such a level of divine guidance that it did not need the right to be wrong,” Robinson writes.

“As a result, both theologically and psychologically it can be bound to decisions of the past.”

Overall, Robinson’s book reads like a paper written by a Catholic policy wonk rather than 95 theses nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

He’s careful to build his case, giving historical context that may be too basic for many Catholics. He also lays out his vision of a reformed church in so much detail that it tends to read like the first draft of a memo.

Many critics will label Robinson a liberal, and that’s fair enough. But he’s not a heretic. He doesn’t challenge church doctrine deemed immutable (such as the statements of faith contained in the Nicene Creed).

Many of his ideas call for a return to earlier days when the power in the church was less centralized. In that way, he could be considered a conservative.

What makes Robinson’s book such a threat to the church’s hierarchy is that it contains a historically sound, common-sense approach to reforming the church by reducing and checking the power and authority of the papacy and priesthood and allowing the laity to be part of the decision-making process.

It will be surprising to many readers that this modest book from an obscure publisher has generated such a disproportionate response from the Catholic hierarchy.

But then again, a call for openness, debate and sharing of authority can be very dangerous to those in power.


William Lobdell spent eight years on the religion beat for The Times. His memoir, “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Covering Religion in America,” will be published in February.