Reaping the Whirlwind

On October 10, an inquiry into the extent of child abuse and its cover-up by the Catholic Church in Victoria opened with some startling figures. Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton (Victoria Police) told the inquiry that police now had complete figures on reported child sexual abuse cases linked with the Catholic Church since January 1956: 2110 offences against 519 victims, overwhelmingly perpetrated by Catholic priests and mostly against boys aged eleven or twelve. Not one of these crimes had been reported to the police by Church authorities.

Ashton also noted that certain Church authorities had engaged in a pattern of obstruction and concealment: alerting offenders to investigation, destroying evidence, hiding documents, seeking injunctions, moving offenders, and discouraging victims from reporting or seeking justice through the courts. Furthermore, he argued that this had not really changed, even though new protocols were introduced in 1996 to address these problems more rapidly and justly.[1]

Christopher Akehurst (Quadrant, October 2012) has written at length on what he perceives to be the negative impact of Vatican II on the Catholic Church in Australia and worldwide. Both this inquiry and his article—and the fact that this October marked the beginning of celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II—have given me much food for thought. On the whole I have a far more positive view of the Council and its impact than Akehurst. Yet I would not for one instant trivialise the abuse of minors by clerics and other people in positions of authority in the Catholic Church.

Rather, I want to do two things. First, I want to offer some thoughts on how this process of obstruction has been used by the same Church authorities to neutralise protest against other obvious abuses of liturgical practice and doctrine. Second, I want to show how this process—and the bad theological thinking behind it—began well before the Council, and how the rot that appears to have followed it actually predates it.

Sowing the wind

I have to speak from personal experience, as well as from the experience of those around me and known to me over the last two decades, and the story could be repeated hundreds of thousands of times over. I grew up in the immediate post-conciliar Church in Australia, where we had a good Catholic parish priest who in the mid-1970s was sent to attend a course in the United States. He came back some months later and proceeded to dismantle and remake the parish along the latest liturgical lines, including the customary “wreckovation” of the sanctuary to turn it into something rather like a Protestant worship space.[2] Hymns were replaced with songs, and we experimented with dialogue sermons and other fun and games.

My family watched in bewilderment and dismay, and then left the parish—only to find that the same changes were happening everywhere else. I also attended a Catholic girls’ school run by increasingly feminist nuns (star graduates include former West Australian premier Carmen Lawrence, Compass presenter Geraldine Doogue and self-deprecating comedian Judith Lucy). We started with liturgical dancing in the 1970s, and quickly branched out into female altar servers at Mass. Neither of these innovations was sanctioned by the documents of the Second Vatican Council, but there they were, nonetheless. What the school taught as religion also gradually became a mish-mash of good intentions, social justice and psychology, underpinned by a genuine devotion to reliable contraception.

What on earth was going on? A copy of the late Anne Roche Muggeridge’s book The Gates of Hell (1975) then made its way onto my family’s dining table, and our eyes were opened. Muggeridge was the first to document the destruction of Catholic education, liturgy and church interiors that took place in Canada in the name of something called the “spirit of Vatican II”, which bore no relation to the documents and promulgations of the same Council. Priests ran amok, nuns ran away, and bishops stood by with their hands over their eyes. It all sounded very, very familiar.

So we began the process of making formal complaints to relevant Church authorities about what was going on in our parishes and in my school. We were not the only ones complaining, but we were strongly encouraged to believe that this was the case—that we were the lunatic fringe, the odd-bods, the crazy ones. Everyone else was happy, so why weren’t we?

This can only go on for so long before the like-minded begin to organise. Newsletters appeared, mailing lists developed, and periodicals from fellow sufferers in the United States also began to flood in (such as Catholics United for the Faith’s Crisis magazine). In Melbourne, the courageous Brian and Maureen Schaefer put their livelihood into a small co-operative, the John XXIII Fellowship, which supplied excellent books from the newly-founded Ignatius Press and other small printing houses which were trying to salvage something from the ruins of diocesan-approved liturgical “experimentation”. The Schaefers also published Fidelity magazine, which proved a lifeline to isolated and marginalised victims of liturgical and doctrinal abuses across Australia and New Zealand.[3]

Yet at no time in those dark days of the 1970s and 1980s did anyone seem to have any luck complaining to their local bishop, or to the Papal Nuncio (the Pope’s official diplomatic representative in Australia). Those of us who compared notes always found the same responses: priests were informed by prelates that specific individuals had complained about them, and there would be personal attacks outside the church after Mass. Letters and dossiers of evidence went missing from diocesan offices, or never reached the bishop in question (I remember one story circulating in the 1990s about how a cleaner found a certain named Australian prelate’s waste-paper basket full of such letters.) Avant-garde parish priests who could not face down local opposition were moved elsewhere, or were given teaching posts. Above all, we were encouraged to shut up and stop complaining. “Who are you,” I was told on one memorable occasion in Tasmania, “to argue with a priest with ten years’ theological training?”

The impact of these changes on Australia’s seminaries was significant. I didn’t know anyone who was undertaking formation at the time, but later the stories emerged—homosexual cliques, bad doctrine, alcoholism, pornography, and above all the deliberate exclusion of anyone who did not fall into line with the “new” liturgical and doctrinal ways. Those who managed to enter and stay were subjected to constant ridicule and isolation. Many left; many never entered at all. The massive decline in the number of priests has been shown since then, especially in the United States, to have been largely a product of artificial suppression rather than the much-vaunted “lack of vocations”—Michael Rose’s study Goodbye, Good Men (2002) crunched the numbers and provided a mass of anecdotal evidence from two generations of would-be seminarians.

In Australia the tide began to turn in the 1990s. In 1994, the Western Australian Law Reform Commission investigating the sterilisation of developmentally disabled young people received submissions from the L.J. Goody Bioethics Centre, Catholic Care for Intellectually Handicapped, the Catholic Community Care Commission and Bishop Robert Healy. These submissions were rumoured to be at odds with the Church’s publicly stated position, but it was difficult to prove this when copies could not be obtained either from these agencies or through Freedom of Information. Once copies were tracked down, concerned laity went through the (unsatisfactory) local channels, and then went directly to Rome, which forced an intervention and the submissions were withdrawn.[4]

Then in 1998 came the now-infamous ad limina visit to Rome, which bishops make every five years. One layman in particular, the late Paul Brazier, was tireless in collecting documentary evidence of liturgical and doctrinal abuses in the Australian Catholic Church. Brazier was a barrister who knew the value of due process, and was patient enough to allow for the fact that the Catholic Church’s administration moves in geological time.

It was Brazier who organised by-now angry and frustrated Catholics across Australia to collect and document liturgical and doctrinal abuses committed by priests (and endorsed by silent or evasive bishops). Brazier also ensured that these complaints were put in statutory declaration form and sent as a dossier to Rome, and put into the right hands rather than the waste-paper basket. The Australian bishops were sent home from their ad limina with a flea in the ear and a Statement of Conclusions which exposed their years of silencing and denial.[5] Brazier and his supporters were then accused of “spying”, and roundly denounced as “un-Australian”[6]—the ultimate insult from clergy who had to come to regard partisanship and the covering of each other’s backs as a doctrine in itself.

It is clear now in the light of Graham Ashton’s comments that the techniques used to silence those who complained about sexual abuse were identical to those used to silence those who complained about liturgical and doctrinal abuse. Both groups responded to their deliberate marginalisation in similar ways. They formed their own grassroots support networks, their own newsletters and their own dossier collections, and there was also some crossover between the two movements. Melbourne writer Margaret Joughin, who originally wrote for the Schaefers’ Fidelity magazine, later went to work for Broken Rites, the Australian support group for victims of clerical sexual abuse, and made the same link between the doctrinal abuse cover-up and the sexual abuse cover-up.[7]

The outcomes in both cases have also been the same. Angry, disenfranchised and ostracised Catholics have organised themselves and fought back, producing public relations disasters which could have been avoided by prompt, just and appropriate action when the complaints were first made. The Church authorities who failed to deal with these problems have only themselves to blame for these outcomes.

The problem of sexual abuse is not new in the Catholic Church; it is not new anywhere, but its neglect has historically been reprehensible. For centuries Catholics as individuals and groups have also been trying to do something about it, usually in the face of episcopal lassitude—if you want an eleventh-century version, try St Peter Damian’s Letter 31 on the subject.[8] According to the Sisters of St Joseph, complaints about a local priest abusing children were also the reason Bishop Laurence Shiel excommunicated the complainant, now St Mary MacKillop, in 1871.[9]

Irish Jansenists like Shiel had one way of dealing with things; Italians had another. An example which should make the Australian bishops glad that they only had statutory declarations to deal with is that of Pasquale Gagliardi (1859–1941), archbishop of Manfredonia on Italy’s south-eastern coast. A notoriously unchaste and corrupt prelate, his chancery office was swamped with complaints from his people: that he showed a preference for homosexual priests, refused to remove from his assignment a priest convicted of sodomy in two courts, and promoted another convicted homosexual priest. A third priest was promoted even though Gagliardi knew that he was guilty of “continual and habitual pederasty”.

Then one day in 1919, enough was enough, and in the town of Vieste where he was celebrating Mass, a riot broke out. An angry mob of some 600 people attacked the church and bashed the sixty-year-old Gagliardi until he was rescued by two priests and the police helped him to escape. The mob then pursued Gagliardi through the streets and recaptured him, and a group of women with knives stripped him and were preparing to castrate him when more police arrived and rescued Gagliardi again. He was bedridden for a month afterwards.[10]

Vatican II and all that

So what has all this to do with Vatican II? Christopher Akehurst has complained that the Council damaged the Church’s historical liturgy and introduced widespread disorder and chaos, and that Pope John XXIII was simply engaging in grandstanding without any clear plan or direction. I have no idea what was going on in the Pope’s head at the time of the Council or during it, but I am still grateful to him for calling it.

The reasons why are this. The sexual abuse crisis has shown us that the Church in Australia before the Council had serious problems. These reported abuse cases in Australia alone stretch back to 1956, two years before the accession of John XXIII and six years before the Council opened in 1962. There must also be decades of unreported cases before that. Similarly, the history of doctrinal and liturgical abuse stretches back to well beyond the Council, and again, like the sexual abuse, it was conducted privately and with no recourse by people whom their victims had every reason to trust.

From 1910 to 1967, clerics who held teaching positions in the Catholic Church had been obliged to take an oath against the heresy known as Modernism.[11] Whatever else you may think of the Catholic Church’s attitude to liberalism in economics or in social policy, there is no doubt that Modernism as a doctrinal influence was highly corrosive to its established body of teaching. As far as it can be seen, all these teachers took the oath, but many of them lied when they did so, and decided to dissent from Church teaching while keeping the collars, the sinecures and the respect that went with their office. Even Pope Pius X—who introduced the oath—is said to have concluded that he had not destroyed Modernism, but had simply driven it underground.[12]

The best proof that he was right is in the impact of the Council itself. John XXIII’s greatest gift to the Church—whether he intended it or not—was that he got these men to break cover. Every crypto-Modernist in the Catholic Church who had up till then been wearing the uniform and playing dumb could now emerge triumphant in the light, speaking openly and freely; publicly dissenting, challenging and thriving. It was the Catholic equivalent of the Hundred Flowers Movement, but without any purges immediately afterwards: such a huge tide of dissent could not have simply formed overnight.

It is common for critics of Vatican II to focus on the architects of the Novus Ordo, or “new” Mass which came into general use, particularly Annibale Bugnini (1912–82). But again, who were these men? There were ten clerics on the original Commission for Liturgical Reform, the youngest of whom was Bugnini (who was forty-eight in 1960) and the oldest of whom was Alfonso Carinci (1862–1963, who attended the first session of the Council, aged nearly one hundred). Bugnini et al were not young long-haired radicals when they put together their new Mass—they were well-established men in mid-career, and the products of the covert dissent and bad teaching that was already in place well before the Council.[13]

Akehurst is, however, right to focus on the liturgy, because it’s at the heart of Catholic practice. Yet bad liturgy was never an intention of the Council, and anyone who reads the Council documents will quickly discover this. I don’t believe the embarrassingly home-made liturgies of the 1970s onwards were the cause of the problem, but I do believe that they were a manifestation of bad doctrine and bad belief which was already present in the Church before the Council. Priests who truly understand and believe in the Mass don’t suddenly decide to improvise with card tables, brown lunch rolls and gran spumante. But priests whose bishops have sent them on courses presented by well-educated and well-spoken liturgical experts, and who have been exposed to what everyone else is doing, and who have been mocked for not going along with the other guys, soon learn how to do just that.

I want to advance the hypothesis that the Church in Australia fell into chaos after the Council not because of changes to the liturgy (as Akehurst argues), but because it was already rotten from the inside. It was not just the sexual abuse issue, although that was certainly there as well. Struggling as second-class citizens, Catholics were too eager to invest in bricks and mortar—schools, property, big building projects—and in doing so lost sight of the need to build up the spiritual body of Christ. There was too much factionalism and too much politics, and while it’s easy to understand why this happened, its consequences were to prove far-reaching.

I believe that the mass desertions of priests and nuns came in part from a similar warped formation. Priests and nuns with a strong faith and clear understanding of their vocation don’t just leave at the first sign of trouble—although I do acknowledge that in some cases it took years of attack before some finally left. But many embraced the changes enthusiastically, and perhaps this is proof that there were too many “social vocations”: families who wanted a priest son, or women who wanted to avoid the burdensome and troubled marriages they saw around them. Anyone who has read any Church history will recognise this sifting as a tragic but integral part of any major ecclesiastical shake-up, including the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent events described as the “Counter-Reformation”, which were in fact part of a process of genuine reform in the Catholic Church.

Reaping the whirlwind

So yes, there has been a lot of covering up, and it has taken years for justice to be done and for marginalised, scandalised and angry voices to be heard. For both child abuse victims and those who have fought against bad doctrine and liturgy, there have been painful casualties. Child and teenage abuse victims have left the Church or have committed suicide in despair. Liturgical victims have also endured years of ridicule, and some left to form schismatic groups like the Society of St Pius X, or have joined other Catholic rites where the liturgical tradition has not been altered. Some, like the Traditional Anglican Communion’s Archbishop John Hepworth, fall into both camps and have been doubly wounded.[14]

But there are blessings buried here. The exposure of the sexual abuse scandal both in the Church and in secular organisations has made ordinary people much more alert to it, and its victims less isolated and stigmatised. Doctrinal dissent in high places has also forced a lot of ordinary Catholics in Australia and elsewhere to learn their faith well enough to defend it against their parish priest, Catholic school principal or local bishop. Sadly, thousands chose not to, and decided instead that the new low-calorie Catholicism—child-proof, affluent and socially indistinguishable from mild agnosticism—suited them better.

Unfortunately we cannot use the strategy of holding a Vatican Council with an amnesty on child abuse to make more offenders break cover. What we can do, however, is start being honest about the relationship between bad doctrine and bad morality. Human beings are weak; we have the capacity to compartmentalise our lives so that we can preach strict morality for everyone else and yet not practise it ourselves. This is not restricted to the sexual realm, nor is this failing unique to the Catholic Church.

We can also be more honest about the fact that Catholic priests and bishops (and parish councils and liturgy committees and scary nuns on various quasi-authoritative bodies) tried—and continue to try—to silence, ostracise and marginalise good people who complained about the misrepresentation of Catholic belief and practice. This includes the Catholic media in Australia, notably diocesan-run Catholic newspapers and periodicals which have for the most part sung from the same post-conciliar song-sheet.

However, time is passing. The generation of Catholics who still believe Vatican II allowed a free-for-all is just beginning to die out. Many Australian bishops have now been removed from their dioceses and replaced with men who we all hope will be more vigilant shepherds. There is still an entrenched layer of people in flourishing diocesan bureaucracies who maintain the 1980s party line, but they are now reaching retiring age.

And what do we already have in place to succeed them? A more alert and better-informed laity, who will act swiftly to counter any hint of sexual abuse and who will not be put off by prevaricating, weak-willed or dissembling clergy. There has been a revival of the Latin form of the Mass in many parts of Australia, and while this may not be the ultimate solution, it certainly shows by its growing numbers of young attendees that it is meeting a genuine pastoral need. The homeschooling movement is combatting the failure of Australia’s Catholic schools to provide a Catholic education. The two children of low-calorie Catholics are easily outnumbered by the families of four, five, six and more, where parents have decided to give their children siblings to play with, rather than X-Boxes. The career nuns are fading away, their place taken by both old and new thriving religious communities with young and genuine vocations, many cloistered, and all wearing habits.

The downfall, implosion and destruction of the Catholic Church is always predicted to be just around the corner, and so far it has disappointed everyone except those who believe its founder’s promises. It will always have problems; it was promised that as well. The best cure for present pessimism, even when faced with grave scandal, is to read Church history: we have been here before, and somehow we survived, and we will do so again. This awful chapter in the history of the Church in Australia has left us much sadder, but also much wiser. Hopefully we will retain these lessons, even if it only ensures that we now listen to those who complain, and believe them.

[2] The classic study of this process is still R Michael McGrade [pseudonym of Rod Pead], Death of a Catholic parish: the Benalla experiment, Benalla, Vic, 1991. Michael Rose has more recently produced a guide to the restoration of such ‘renovations’, Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again, Forthright, 2001.

[3] Not to be confused with the American Catholic magazine of the same name, nor of the Society of St Pius X publication, also of the same name. This in itself speaks volumes about the confusion which has dominated the post-conciliar Church. The National Civic Council’s AD2000 magazine was by contrast a relative latecomer to the scene, beginning in 1988.

[4] The WA Law Reform Commission document can be accessed at—see the footnote on p 132.

[5] The full text of the Statement of Conclusions can be found at:

[6] Michael Baker, ‘Paul Brazier’, eulogy, reproduced in full at Attacks have even continued after Brazier’s death——accessed 22 October 2012.

[7] Margaret Joughin, ‘The Catholic response to clerical corruption’, Christian Order, June-July 1996,—accessed 22 October 2012.

[8] Owen J Blum OFM (ed), The Letters of St Peter Damian, 31-60, The Fathers of the Church—Medieval Continuation series, CUA Press, 1994; Letter 31 is available for preview on Google Books.

[9] See for example—accessed 22 October 2012.

[10] C Bernard Ruffin, Padre Pio: the true story, Our Sunday Visitor, 1991 (revised and expanded edition), pp 187-188.

[11] The text of the Oath can be found at—accessed 22 October 2012.

[12] I cannot find a reliable source for this alleged statement, which is nonetheless frequently repeated in discussions of the Oath and its effectiveness.

[13] There are many and varied claims that Bugnini was also a secret Freeemason. My point is that he did not need to be a Freemason to do damage to the Church; his private track record of Modernist belief and practice was enough.

[14] There is ample material in the public domain on this issue, but there is a useful summary at—accessed 22 October 2012.

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