Then there are those periods in our life

Tempe, Arizona

In Shellharbour, NSW, one afternoon in 2018 waiting at school for my children. Courtesy: Michael Family archives.

In Shellharbour, NSW, one afternoon in 2018 waiting at school for my children. Courtesy: Michael Family archives.

Then there are those periods in our life when it would seem are reserved for the darkest thunderstorms. And the heavy rains keep coming. Most of us can look back on our lives, especially as we move deeper into middle age and pinpoint three or four of the toughest times. If we could survive those trials then surely we can survive the present ones and those yet to come. It is critical if we should feel ourselves becoming overwhelmed that we look back on those testing weeks, and months and sometimes even years, to see how we pulled through and what lessons can be drawn. Life is indeed a series of ‘ups and downs’ with the ups ever fleeting while the downs have a tendency to linger. This is why I will often refer to one of my favorite maxims gleaned from the desert dwellers that our existence is one of “joyful sorrow”.[1] I have also through my own ups and downs found great comfort in the words of Saint Paul:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8.18).

In recent months it has been one of those periods for me. They have been emotionally and physically difficult. I have had to navigate five deaths each one holding a specific significance in my life with three of these opening up an abyss of triggers affecting my mental well-being. Physically I was once more experiencing severe pain owing to a dental procedure to do with my jaw. We witnessed our eldest boy dealing bravely with having his boyhood dream taken away from him. Nepotism is a terrible thing. A fortnight ago I also left my beloved UOW to go into possible retirement. A self-identity crisis [and I’ve had a few of these] are not good at any age. And in recent weeks I was preparing for my flight to the United States to catch up with the children and Katina. A trip I was greatly anticipating. Except I now have a fear of flying after almost dropping out of the sky and into the Caribbean on board a small Cessna a few years ago crossing over from Anguilla to Puerto Rico. All these things started to gradually overwhelm me. My blood pressure too rose dangerously which can give rise to other complications. I wept but these were not always the tears of prayer. If truth be told I was suffering in ways not too dissimilar to those earlier dark times, despite my being older and I would hope a little wiser.

The details behind these recent trials do not matter. They remain peripheral to this entry. For you can be certain that someone somewhere is battling with darkness more impenetrable than our own. Like my beloved Aunt Stella whose entire family was wiped out within the twinkling of an eye or Leo who everyday educated me mowed down riding his motorcycle by a drunkard who until he died one morning could only speak by flicking his eyelids. You try to reason through all of this? You either risk losing your faith or going mad. There are no shortcuts either. You cannot go round suffering. You confront it at the center and by sheer force you compel yourself forward. It can be brutal. It can be ugly. But it is the only way, and it is worth the struggle to get to the end of the race. It is the one true place where we discover our name. There is light on the other side and it is there waiting our entering. “I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4).

But I would like to share with you how this storm too was pushed through that I can now sit down and write these few paragraphs in the relative calm of our little apartment in Tempe, Arizona. I would like especially for the next few minutes to resonate with my younger readers. One of the deaths I spoke of above had in fact to do with the tragic loss of a beautiful young boy. And this is mourning beyond words. Together with the deaths of the bishop who had ordained me into the priesthood my first father confessor His Eminence Stylianos with whom after years of estrangement I had not reconciled and weeks later the sudden passing away of one of my dearest friends our national poet, Les Murray, brought mortality directly into my heart and it did wage war against me one more time. I was taunted amongst other doubts that my own life had been of little if any merit and that for the greater part my few talents had been wasted.

In dealing with the above experiences which came parceled in one hard fist and which not surprisingly released the ‘black dog’ together with an exacerbation of my OCD invariably following behind like a beast in pursuit of its prey, I went through a series of extreme emotions and temptations. And so it happened during these ‘visitations’ that a number of life’s sufferings and impulses arrived closed together: the raw impact of death, the specter of hopelessness, the unbearable thought of the loss of grace, lost opportunities at reconciliation, the weightiness of an overriding guilt, hurting through the unfair treatment meted out to my eldest son, the onset of a melancholia, frustration and anger, the crisis of identity, and strong physical pain. I had confronted such distresses in the same battlefield before but I was younger and more vigorous in spirit. The closest and the most terrifying yet, even more potentially devastating for me, the agonizing aftermath of my leaving the priesthood and the technical issues behind our multiple attempts of trying to save my doctorate which would at times quite literally delete line by line before our eyes. I do not wish for anyone to experience anything of this which was unremitting in its persistence and seemed to me an almost catastrophic situation that would not come to an end. During these times the soul does struggle in its efforts to pray. Do not be alarmed if this is happening to you. It is a natural phenomenon as the ideal situation for prayer is peace, and tribulation is not a peaceful condition. Christ Himself labored in prayer during His most difficult hours on earth: The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:43f.). It is vital to persevere in our own ‘garden of the soul’.

So how can one deal with these multiple attacks? If there is a general formula I would like to know it. There is no such thing and we each walk into these green fires on our own, and one way or another, we emerge different beings to what we were the hour before. There is no ‘general formula’ except for tears and the disquisition of whether to live or die. You can choose to live or die in a multitude of ways. This is because each one of us carries single life experiences into the ‘fire’: a present informed by a different past; a different set of values and beliefs even though we might belong to similar faith communities; we are of different ages and significantly of varying degree of resilience. In the extreme, and there are those amongst us who have been to this frightful place, suicidal ideation infiltrates our waking moments right through to our sleepless nights.[2] Yet, there is common ground, even if by virtue of our shared elements of flesh and blood. There is a ‘soft’ intersection of experiences where the crux of the human condition is at its most visible and sensible. It could be that place which Frankl has memorably called ‘man’s search for meaning’[3] or “the will to life” described by Schopenhauer as the fight for self-preservation.[4] For those who move and breathe within a belief-based community both these great pillars of hope and action can be summed up for example by Saint James’ connection of faith to perseverance through trials (Jas. 1:2f.) or to Buddhism’s teaching of Virya Paramita the perfection of perseverance through courage.[5]

Irrespective of our background or philosophical perspectives what these and other deeply felt insights borne from the observation of humans striving to survive, are saying at their root core: there is meaning to your life, so will yourself to live.

It is possible, others many before us, have gone through these green fires and have come out alive the stronger and the more compassionate. They practice forgiveness of themselves and towards others. Suffering which never lies can do this to us. Adversity can be our most trusted friend. Blessed are they who mourn. It has been done before, and if we should persevere but another day, this too, it will pass.

 

Postscript Yesterday morning after I dropped off Eleni at summer school classes, I took my long walk down Southern Ave., Tempe. The heat would be unbearable if not for the fact it doesn’t ‘burn’ you like the summer scorchers back home in Australia. The forecast for today is 110 ℉! My ritual has been to take an initial short break at the Back East Bagels for a light morning breakfast. Then the much longer trek retracing my steps back past the school left into Rural Rd., to spend the next three hours at Tempe Public Library. I love spending time in libraries. Cicero well compared libraries to gardens. This evening George is leaving with his Arizona rugby teammates for Denver, Colorado, to contest the Regional Cup Tournament (RCT). Tomorrow morning Eleni and I will be flying out to join him to catch some of the round games.

And yet this impromptu postscript had another reason. On my way to the library yesterday turning left into Rural in the corner of the road my eyes caught sight of a little bird lying motionless in a ditch. It could have been a House Finch. I am not sure. It was dead still. It faced upwards its wings folded around its brown breast like a cloak. Eyes and mouth closed. It might have died for the lack of water. I don’t know. We can never know the whole truth. Not even about ourselves. I wept like a child. Is this normal? Do these things happen to you as well? I thought of the thousands of men and women and children who would on that day likewise die anonymously in the world whether of thirst or famine, homeless somewhere on a city street, or by themselves in a hospital bed. Anonymously and alone like this little bird which, too, had a history and stories to tell.

[1] https://pittsburghoratory.blogspot.com/2012/05/joyful-sorrow-compunction-and-gift-of.html

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CIq4mtiamY

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/mans-search-meaning

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_to_live

[5] https://www.learnreligions.com/virya-paramita-perfection-of-energy-449709

Providence, Coincidence or Meaningful Decisions

homer.jpg

Providence is mostly connected to theological reflection and generally associated to divine purpose. Coincidence on the other hand is normally thought of in terms of luck, fate, or chance. In some other instances coincidence has been thought of in the context of meaningful decisions, perhaps it is here where it ‘coincides’ with providence.[1] Ultimately, whatever our definitions [throwing in the ‘problem of evil’ to boot], both can be understood as forces of influence which determine destiny. In the Homeric writings ‘destiny’ is more coincidence with providence connected to ‘divine intervention’. Destiny is fate [moira] for Homer, it cannot be escaped. Divine intervention, however, can manipulate destiny even with the direct involvement of human agency.[2] The stories of Achilles and Hector as described in the Iliad are good examples of destiny as a combination of divine intervention and human agency. And this complex interaction between divine action and free will is a fundamental principle in the New Testament, accordingly Saint Paul writes to the Christian community in Philippi that both human responsibility and sovereign control are at work in the Christian life (Phil 2:12-13). What is it that drives us to understand something of these impenetrable forces and to try to put a name to them? An illuminating response from a contemporary piece of literature can be found in Christos Tsiolkas Dead Europe. The protagonist and not irrelevantly a photographer, the young Greek-Australian Isaac, reflects in one place when asked to use his camera to document events of the past, “[t]his desperate need to confirm the relevance of history…”[3] I did have significant problems with some of the content in Tsiolkas’ book, but the masterly use of time and space in this admittedly disturbing novel leave their mark.

Flemington Markets

Katina had turned nineteen and was in the second year of her BIT at the University of Technology Sydney and I at thirty-three had started on the MA Honours at Macquarie University. I needed to find some payable work, we were managing with the help of our parents and our scholarships but our personal finances were starting to run low. My pride and self-belief suffered a severe blow when I joined the ranks of those on unemployment benefits. I was now no longer someone who was greeted with the respect accorded to a professional, let alone a clergyman. It did not matter too much during the time when I was alone. I had already lived in this ‘post’ existence of mine for a number of years, but now what affected me would also have an effect on my younger wife [who as events would prove was blessed with wisdom beyond her years]. From Reverend or Father I was now a “number” doing the rounds knocking on doors and looking for work. This could be anything from stacking sheets of tin in warehouses to selling encyclopaedias in shopping malls. It was humbling, I have to confess, to be asked if I understood or knew how to complete the paperwork relating to my new found unemployment. This process of ‘deconstruction’ had begun a number of years earlier upon my return from Europe where I had worn my favourite black cassock for the last time. Things were made all the more grim for my former “employer” the Archdiocese would not supply me with a reference. The exception was the heroic Father Themistocles Adamopoulo who by this time was himself persona non grata.[4] I asked some other good men from there as well, but their support was qualified. They wanted to know beforehand “where” their references would be going. Walking away from the priesthood is viewed very dimly. Even by formerly trusted friends. And I did understand. As I still do. I thanked them but declined.

It took some weeks getting used to, but I began to love going to my new job at Flemington Markets, more exactly at Paddy’s Markets.[5] It was a time of long stretches of peace and a new type of learning. I was hired as a cleaner: toilets, floors, potato conveyers, fruit crates, large vats, giant coleslaw mixers, windows, walls, and more. If it had to be cleaned, I was the man! But this had a potentially serious health implication for I had been using some very harsh chemicals without any appropriate protection. For afterwards during my service in the Cypriot National Guard the medical investigator was concerned with the state of my lungs, there were some “shadows”, he said. I was told it might be tuberculosis or lung cancer. On my return to Australia I was given the all clear and in another place I will say more on this experience both in terms of divine intervention and human agency. I was also proud of my new ‘vestments’: a pair of weatherproof boots, gloves, overalls, and a yellow raincoat with a hood. The hours as well, they suited an old night-owl like me. Work started eleven at night and I would clock off the following morning around seven, it was not full-time so I had rest days in between. There were many things I enjoyed during those few months that I was able to stay at Paddy’s before I left to entirely focus on the first dissertation, the one dealing with the infamous “666” and the antichrist conundrum. Each night I looked forward to greeting my new ‘con-celebrants’: the Asians who would cut and prepare the salads; the sunburnt farmers; the busy stall owners; the testy truck drivers; and every now and then the pest-control fellow who would also moonlight as a Reiki Master.

The coffee-breaks were history classes in themselves. I heard many stories in that small kitchenette by well-weathered men who had seen much and just about done it all. These were tough but honest folk, people you could trust and where you quickly learnt to "call a spade a spade.” They reminded me of the abattoir workers I used to help load meat trucks in the early hours of the morning to supplement my allowance when I was a student in Thessaloniki. They were also not lacking in the stories department. During this time at the markets I would read whenever I could steal a few minutes during the morning breaks or in between my scheduled jobs. The Philokalia[6] and the Art of Prayer[7] were invariably within reach, together with the lives of two saints whose personalities had especially attracted me, Saints Seraphim of Sarov and John of Kronstandt. Yet again I would be taught that wonderful and encouraging lesson often heard on Mount Athos: it is not the place, but the Way. Other times it might be as simple as the positive energy good spirits [people] release into the air. 

Given my earlier life at the café this was not unfamiliar territory. I was in my element in these environments. I look back over more than thirty years later when I first put on the cassock and I realize it is with these ‘straight-talking’ people at places like Paddy’s and King Street, Newtown and in the side streets of Egnatia Odos, where I am most happy and comfortable. And I would have stayed at the markets for much longer if not for my pride “this perpetual nagging temptation” as C.S. Lewis has so well put it and because I knew in the words of one Martin Heidegger that I had “unfinished business”.

Of course, much had happened even before this time. I had spent a lengthy period in the Palestinian desert with the monastic community at the Holy Lavra of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified [also known as Mar Saba] and had privately tutored and taught a number of subjects at secondary school. Later I will speak at length on these wonderfully significant experiences which would afterwards greatly impact upon my life. Providence, coincidence or meaningful decisions? To be at least prepared to walk through those doors which we might reckon belong to the right provenance. 

[1] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/providence-divine/

[2] http://legacy.owensboro.kctcs.edu/crunyon/HRS101/Homer/03&4-Iliad/Fate_Schein.html

[3] Christos Tsiolkas, Dead Europe, (Vintage Books: Australia), 2005, 151.

[4] http://www.abc.net.au/news/programs/one-plus-one/2015-11-26/one-plus-one:-rev.-themi-adamopoulo/6978258

[5] http://paddysmarket.com.au/history/

[6] https://orthodoxwiki.org/Philokalia

[7] https://www.amazon.com/Art-Prayer-Orthodox-Anthology/dp/057119165

Pastoral experience and the practise of compassion

“Compassion is born when we discover in the center of our own existence not only that God is God and man is man, but also that our neighbor is really our fellow man.” (Henri Nouwen)

Many times I would be humbled if not completely heartbroken by my pastoral experience and it was this practical expression of the priesthood which often gave meaning and dimension to my calling. It was an education into the human condition not taught in institutions of higher learning and only occasionally captured in literature dealing with loss and suffering. It is difficult, if not impossible to be taught compassion. It is like a naturally good singing voice, you either have it or you do not. To be confronted head-on with absolute loss, some of this sudden and violent, some of it slow and agonizing, was a fast and hard lesson into the reality of unfathomable pain and the dreadfulness of death.

The one thing I could not accept even from the start of my little ministry was the ‘pious’ response to death, and I did try hard to avoid it. I am sure, however, that even with the best intentions I was not always successful. It was above all painful to listen to indefensible nonsense when it involved the death of a child when the words came from the mouth of a priest who should have known better, “A. is now with God, the Lord needed another angel.”  This is not the loving Creator of things both “seen and unseen” but little more than a cosmic psychopath. C.S. Lewis reflected with brutal honesty on the heavy grief of losing his beloved wife:

“It is hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter. I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?”[1]

Mother Maria of Paris writing agonizingly and yet without the abandonment of hope, after the death of her beloved child:

“Into the black, yawning grave fly all hopes, plans, habits, calculations and, above all, meaning: the meaning of life… Meaning has lost its meaning, and another incomprehensible Meaning has caused wings to grow at one’s back… And I think that anyone who has had this experience of eternity, if only once; who has understood the way he is going, if only once; who has seen the One who goes before him, if only once- such a person will find it hard to turn aside from this path: to him all comfort will seem ephemeral, all treasure valueless, all companions unnecessary, if amongst them he fails to see the One Companion, carrying his Cross.”[2]

It goes without saying, I do not hold the answer, but I have made some reasonable peace with the hard reality of loss both in the context of my own faith and in the discernible movement of transfiguring love.[3] Like many of us, I too have experienced profound loss, and like most of us, it has for a season come close to paralysing me. I have yet to completely come to grips with the passing away of one side of our entire family or my darling Katina’s four miscarriages. I spoke of ‘transfiguring’ love, for this has been the implication and consequence of Christ’s own death and how from that darkest day in our human history, came the greatest solace to the human race, that death is not the end.[4] But this belief founded in a religious faith does not exclude those who are not religious, for the underlying lesson, the ‘meaningfulness’ of the resurrection [even if we should only accept it as a metaphor] is that death does not mean inertia. It is a movement and a response [both for the living and dead] from one condition into an other. There is hope for a better tomorrow, and should we endure through the dark night, there will come a time when at least something of our suffering, will make some sense. As impossible as it is to accept when pain has no words, a time of solace will come. And this ‘dealing’ will arrive for each one of us differently, at a different time and in a different way. For suffering is almost always an intensely personal experience. Even if in the meantime our loss is to be redeemed no more than with our dignity in the face of an overwhelming blackness, and our refusal to be fully broken.

My brave young friend Leo

I have been blessed to have encountered genuinely courageous souls, amazed at the vast and often immeasurable endurance of the human spirit. Hospitals and grave-yards are the unadulterated universities of our world. It is in these places of unmistakeable reality we can measure ourselves and learn to heal and to forgive. I met Leo when I was still in the early stages of my ministry, starry-eyed and believing that I could make a difference. I would often make unannounced visits at hospitals and do not remember ever being turned away. In a pocket to my cassock I kept a carefully folded piece of white paper. On it I would register the names of all those I would visit and next to their name put down the colour of their eyes. There you are, I share with you one of my great secrets. We should look into each other’s eyes more often. It is all there, the unabridged history of a life.

Leo K., a young man in his early twenties had been involved in a horrific accident with the worst of all possible results: quadriplegia with locked-in syndrome [LIS]. He was fully conscious but trapped inside his body. Neither able to move nor to speak. A drunkard had disregarded a stop sign and crashed head-on into the beautiful boy who was riding his motor-cycle. The next time my brave young friend was to wake up it would be without movement in his limbs and without his voice. Until his death a few months later, he would only be able to communicate with his eyes. I would pray some silent prayers. Other times I would want to hold him in my arms. Did he like to dance? I am sad that was something I never had the chance to ask.

Leo and I would communicate using a magnetic board with red letters. I would point to a letter and he would blink at the right place. Then we would move on to the next one, soon we managed to work out short cuts and this made things simpler. So we were able to drift into other places and explore additional modes of communication. Not once did he complain or express a desire to die. Often he would be smiling. His heart was at peace. Of course, needless to say nothing of this was easy. It took titanic strength. Years later when horrifying thoughts of suicide would unrelentingly torment me, I would many times recollect him and hold back until the next day. I asked Leo if it was okay for me to bring a recording of the Gospel of John. He replied, “Y.” I asked him if he still believed. It was the same response, “Y”. There were other things we spoke about as well, including rugby league. He told me he was a fan of the Sydney Roosters. Leo, who had the most penetrating green eyes, died from pneumonia a few days before he was due to fly out to Moscow for some cutting-edge treatment.

One afternoon I visited Leo with a new seminarian. He said to me, “[w]e have nothing to complain about, look at Leo.” This especially upset me. We should not find comfort in the suffering of another nor look upon suffering with pity nor patronize the wounded. ‘Feeling sorry’ helps no one and can diminish our companion’s understanding of hopefulness. On some bowed stringed instruments we find metal strings, they vibrate in sympathy with the stopped strings. These are not touched with the fingers or the bow. They are called sympathetic strings. Compassion is something like that, to feel sorrow for the sufferings or misfortunes of another. Compassion [from the L. compati ‘suffer with’] has much in common with that glorious word: sympathy. What is sympathy? It is derived from the Greek sympάtheίa which literally means “feeling with another.” It is good to be a ‘sympathetic string’. Yet it is not always easy and it can only happen in small increments of grace like the baby steps we take to enter into the mystery of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37).

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

At the conclusion of the last class when I was teaching regularly at the university, I would suggest a reading list to my students which was outside our information and communication technology (ICT) bibliography. This list included authors such as Primo Levi, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Viktor Frankl, and Jean-Dominique Bauby. JDB the editor of the French fashion magazine ELLE was made famous by his incredible book (which was published two days before he died), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.[5] In 1995 at the age of 43 he suffered the brain stem stroke (the brain stem passes the brain’s motor commands to the body) which causes locked-in syndrome. Bauby with the help of some good people, particularly Claude Mendibil, wrote and edited his memoir one letter at a time with the only part of his body that he could still control… his left eyelid. He did this similarly to the way I would communicate with Leo, by using a board with letters. This type of system is often called partner assisted scanning (PAS). And like Leo, he too, would die of pneumonia.

 

[1] The Quotable Lewis, Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root (editors), (Tyndale House Publishers, Illinois, 1990), 149f.

[2] https://incommunion.org/2004/10/18/saint-of-the-open-door/

[3] ‘The paradox of suffering and evil,’ says Nicholas Berdyaev [whom Bishop Kallistos cites in The Orthodox Way], ‘is resolved in the experience of compassion and love.’ These oft quoted words point back to the Cross but also to Saint Paul who understands suffering as a participation in the mystery of Christ (Phil. 3:8-11).

[4] The Paschal homily of Saint John Chrysostom (c.349-407) read on the Sunday of the Resurrection continues to inspire and to comfort believers across Christendom: http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/sermon.htm

[5] https://www.amazon.com/Diving-Bell-Butterfly-Memoir

On uncovering a wicked evil

Very near to a decade ago I penned the letter which you are about to read, and which I present here without edit or additional comment, at an hour similar to the one we have only recently witnessed. That is the latest royal commission [1] into child abuse in which Cardinal George Pell has revealed a shocking lack of discernment.[2] How many more of these ‘commissions’ will we need? Wilful ignorance in this instance is no excuse and clergy who remain silent are in one way or another complicit in the crimes.

Given my increasing anguish at the situation I also wrote the letter because at the time I had become a first time father to a baby boy. This open letter was posted to major media outlets, relevant policing authorities, and clergy not only at some considerable risk to me, but also to my family.[3] The response was disheartening, maybe if memory serves me right, one or two private responses at best and an encouraging note from a paper in Western Australia. However, what really intrigued me was that during the evening broadcast of an SBS News presentation, an item appeared connected to the ongoing investigations at the time making direct reference to a number of points in my letter.[4] So somewhere at least, someone was listening and had found the fundamental positions of my letter in some way useful.

Right away I must add, that no religious group however lofty its claims or high profile in our community is “clean” and none are transparent on this most vile of all crimes. At the same time, to lay the blame squarely on the Church herself [if we are in this instance dealing with the Christian community] without any qualification is to make a serious error. The militant church unlike the triumphant church is neither spotless nor blameless.[5] It is made up of both clergy and lay members of various type and character [both saintly and wicked and ‘in-betweeners’] and is a microcosm of our world and society at large [as too are the legal and policing institutions]. We are living and moving and breathing not in an ideal world, but in a broken and corrupt world. Neither religion nor justice is to be condemned wholesale here. It would be like diminishing and doing away with the glory and honor of parenthood because some parents have committed crimes against their young. A ‘diseased’ mind which is prone to such dreadful and violent behaviors belongs to a sick person in whatever place or space you might find him or her. And yet they too need our help and a chance at the healing of this illness. Any form of vigilantism is wrong and it benefits no one. No social institutions, whether they be secular or sacred, are immune from treachery and corruption. “Social trust” is not an infallible thing.[6]

What I wrote during those difficult days was not a legal paper, and no doubt there are plenty of legal holes. It is one man’s simple deposition and small effort to contribute a practical footnote to this awful subject. It is depressingly sad that the document which follows is as unconditionally relevant today, as it was all those years ago when it was mostly ignored. More recently, a discriminating article (in the context of Cardinal George Pell’s latest testimony) appeared in one of our major newspapers where amongst other things, the author made two telling points which have been central to my own position: (I) The mandatory reporting of child abuse by the clergy to the relevant authorities, and (II) A change or an amendment to canon law to reflect this mandatory reporting.[7]

 

“On the most heinous of crimes and why some good people choose to remain silent”

By (Dr) M. G. Michael

Should we scratch beneath the surface, under that show of indignation which most of us would feel obliged to express in respectable company, many of us would rather not think about the subject too much. We might even allow for ourselves to be duped into thinking that the problem is not as widespread as some might reckon or that those in elected or responsible positions are seriously engaged in eradicating this wicked evil. I am speaking of child sexual abuse. It is a horrible, sickening topic. The facts are that this crime is widespread and that those in ‘high places’ cannot or will not face up to the reality. In this essay I am principally concerned with the church, though the template which follows would, in fact, match most organized institutions.

As individuals and as a community we are capable of both heroic and magnificent deeds. We are equally capable of terrible violence and unspeakable atrocities. Some people come close to the ideals of the heroic, whilst others nearer to the violent. In the absolute, however, both of these conditions are exceptional. Constrained by our natural abilities and opportunities, we amble at different rates somewhere in-between these moral states, “neither cold nor hot.” We struggle to do our best, having also to contend with compromise and diplomacy which play a vital part in the quest to reach our goal. According to how desperate we are to become the ‘top dog’ we might give up ethical ground and walk over others who refuse to go along or whose purpose has been served. Many of us should we be honest enough to admit it, have sold out, convincing ourselves that we have done the right thing at a time when more was required.

During this process of advancement, leagues or networks are established and woe and betide any member of these groups who does not fall into line or who does not follow the rules. Worse still, if for any ‘disloyal’ reason they go outside the select group, they are persona non grata and are to be summarily destroyed. There are resourceful ways, nowadays, both public and legally recognized, of going about this dastardly act of bloodless execution. These exclusive groups network by design and with intent, so we have the establishment of powerful and well-regarded brotherhoods where the rewards and stakes for the members become even higher. Outside well known criminal fraternities, we find this ancient and social phenomenon of the ‘brotherhood’ especially active in the religious, legal, and political establishments. Some of the world’s most horrifying evils have been hatched, fostered, and passed down from within these fraternal environments. It is true that the more access you have, the less likely you are to reveal.

It is in this atmosphere of fraternization and of pragmatic alliances that appalling crimes can be concealed, where even the perpetrators themselves might be lionized as citizens who are above suspicion and awarded grand honours. Authority and power beget even more authority and power. This promotes and fosters institutionalism, prestige, and influence. Almost, if not totally impregnable, these three foundation blocks behind authority and power are invariably supported and magnified by propaganda and by some docile sections of the media. To become the ‘prince’, we must serve the ‘prince’. History is weighed down with tragic examples of this ‘blinker’ loyalty.  It is true that even heroes may well envy the power of crass and venal men.

I am not speaking here of the everyday foibles and weaknesses common to most. We are fragile. We do crack under pressure. An elemental part of being a human being is to make mistakes. We hope to learn from these mistakes and to correct them, and where possible to ask forgiveness and to make restitution. At the end of the day, we pray to have walked closer to nobility of spirit than nearer to base animalism. All that has been said to this point has to do with ‘us’, the mature adults who have come of age and who are able to reason and to discern between what is obviously right and blatantly wrong. That is, men and women, of whatever station or rank, who possess the cognizance of consent. For the better part, as free thinking and responsible adults we ‘deserve’ each other, and must be prepared to suffer the consequences of our decisions.

There are some things however, that cannot be justified, which are outside this developmental process of our private and collective growth which the moral law, innate in most healthy human beings, has from the beginning testified against. One of these is the wilful killing of another human being. Not even manslaughter, but ‘wilful’. The other is the sexual abuse of a child. Both acts are abhorrent to the spirit of most people irrespective of culture, education, or religion. It is the second subject that I wish to address here in this abridged essay. I speak about this now, a little time after the matter again made the headlines, to make the point that we cannot simply move on to consider it the news of yesterday. We must deal with it immediately. We must do something real and precise to make sure that we come close to entirely eradicating this evil from within our society, beginning with the Church. Neither the various ecclesiastical confessions nor the State have appeared to be serious minded about meeting this awful wickedness head on. And so it is imperative to ask “why”? What is it that stops these two most powerful institutions from acting with all the due force available to them to fight this most heinous crime against children?

To what extent do the network and the loyalty code of the brotherhood come into force here? How do these strong, in effect intoxicating dynamics of ‘loyalty’ and ‘secrecy’ shape and determine the process of our private, public, and political decision making? Why would a royal commission into this monstrous evil -the sexual abuse of children in whatever institution or context- not be considered as the most urgent of all priorities when we would spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on firecracker displays, political advertisements, and ticket tape parades. What are we to believe then? That we cannot afford to hold a royal commission? Or that the problem is not sufficiently serious enough to warrant such high level investigation? The political, or rather the electoral expediency of throwing token money at the problem will, of course, not solve anything. Am I wrong, but is there not something dreadfully inconsistent and plainly rotten going on here? In the first instance, as it relates to the church, the only people who can put a stop to this crime are the religious ministers themselves. Clergymen, who are well intentioned and suffer with the knowledge that there are those from within their own ranks who are child abusers, normally cannot or will not come forward for two very specific reasons.

The first reason should be quite obvious. Religious understandably fear the terrible consequences, both to themselves and to their families, of their becoming publicly ‘executed’. The established ecclesiastical system in its corporate and bureaucratic incarnations (like most of the other established organizational systems) can be entirely pitiless. When it wants to it is fast, systematic, and always well-connected. The ‘defector’, nowadays ‘the whistle-blower’, is slandered himself through the ‘reputable’ channels of the network. Accusations of “betraying the faith,” psychological warfare, threat of income loss (in other examples churches, themselves, have become de facto ‘lending’ institutions to their ministers) and a host of other well tested and successful strategies are increasingly becoming commonplace. These high-level sponsored tactics –effectively shutting us up- have crushed and marginalized many individuals, both religious and secular.

The second reason, more often than not sensationally caricatured in novels and films, is less well known, and much more complex. Clergymen and most of the religious themselves, who belong to the historic churches, either confess to their superiors in what is known as the ‘sacrament of confession,’ or if they belong to the protestant evangelical tradition they will ‘share’ in counsel to an elder or to a senior pastor. Confession is no simple matter. For some zealous and sensitive souls it is not only a question of reconciliation with God, but also indispensable for their eternal salvation. So one can only begin to imagine the control that a confessor can exercise over a penitent, especially a priest who opens his heart and literally, one by one, numbers both perceived and actual sins (whether venial ormortal). And what if it is ‘sexual’ transgression? The exercise of power is more often than not, linked to information, which invariably translates to control.

Few religious have led completely holy and blameless lives, and those that have, will usually arrive at their sanctity through a tangled, and occasionally scandalous private history. Would the priest be willing to risk the wrath of his superior and potentially have his confessions made municipal if he himself should go public about something as ‘damaging’ to the militant church as child sexual abuse? It is nothing new, sad to say, to break the ‘seal’ of confession in an effort to ‘discredit’ and silence the messenger. There are a number of underhand ways in which this act of betrayal can be carried out in order to ‘protect’ the actual identity of the aforesaid confessor (who would under normal circumstances face defrockment and universal censure for breaking the seal of trust). Should the religious confessions be made public, there is his reputation and good name to think of, the pain and grief to his family by association, the ‘divine’ vengeance of his concelebrates who remain faithful to the ‘prince’, the agonizing and lonely process of his societal destruction. And the stinging accusation from within that he has betrayed the church which should at all costs be presented as being without “spot or blame.” Centuries of codified traditions are not easily broken. So in the history of the church, it is one of two types of men and women who have taken the risk and have gone public for a range of ‘unspeakable’ issues. The religious who comes forward is either exceptionally courageous or plain stupid.

A possible solution or at least a practical approach to the problem of the ‘confessional’ does exist. There is a way that we can help these men and women who want to speak out but who for one reason or another cannot. For if these religious do not come forward the problem will not go away; in our increasingly amoral and networked society (which includes the ‘online’ community) it will get worse. Let us as a community provide these individuals with the absolute guarantee of anonymity. Set up a royal commission. Make each of the churches in Australia publicly accountable by asking their ecclesiastical hierarchy to openly and legally support the establishment of such a commission. And if they do not, let them be condemned through their own inaction and be penalized on the levels of repute and financial support. The modern church, too, in the high places, is for the most part oiled by prestige and hard currency. At the conclusion of such a commission and after the presentation of the findings, let there be established an independent, properly constituted, and ongoing board of adjudication with a nationally respected figure as its head.

This select board would have special powers, recognized and approved by the Federal Government, to hear and consider incidents or suspected incidents of child sexual abuse and then to recommend to the appropriate authorities whether there are, in fact, grounds for further investigation. The recommendations themselves, however, should not be made public. Anonymity of potential witnesses would be a critical factor, to protect both the child, and in some instances, an innocent church minister who might have been wrongfully accused. There are, to be sure, such cases in point as well. The innocence of these individuals who are erroneously or maliciously accused for whatever reason must be protected with equal force. I am not a legal expert, I am simply, and perhaps naively for some, presenting a rough draft of what is theoretically possible if courage and goodwill existed. This model could be made universal, that is, the select board could be mandated to consider all cases of child abuse from all institutions and levels of the community.

There is perhaps a running contradiction in my terms. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?: Who will guard the guards themselves? Is not a royal commission just another “network” or “fraternity”? Perhaps it is, but for the present there is nothing more superior or more reliable as a body of inquiry with statutory power. At least the channels of corruption would be severely minimized; nevertheless, this would require a leap of faith in itself. The religious, political, and legal fraternities have become so enmeshed in the machinations and finances of the other (in some instances the same players stride across all three institutions) that it is becoming increasingly difficult to demarcate where the influence of the one ends and where the other begins. At the same time I certainly do not wish to give the impression that I am saying “all” networks are inherently wicked or corrupt. That would be a broad sweep and plainly wrong. The first of many positive support networks that most of us will be introduced into is our extended family. At the same time neither is this a blanket condemnation of all those in religious orders, on the contrary. For the greater part, these are individuals of unimpeachable character and of inspiring presence. They are faithful ministers of the Word who can be trusted with both our confessions and our alms. Nor do I wish to insinuate that every religious has to inevitably have knowledge of concelebrants engaged in this monstrous transgression of trust; nor that they remained silent if they did, in fact, possess such information.

It is a wise admonition, indeed, to let those who are without sin “cast the first stone.” Most of us, including this present essayist, live in a glass house. Each individual has a private history to consider, a biography which includes both high triumphs and unmitigated disasters. However, this is not the case here. It can never be the case here. We must not let it be the case here. We are dealing with children. Adults who harm even one hair from the heads of these little ones must have the full force of both the church and the law to reckon with. We must, therefore, not only throw stones at the crime in this instance, but boulders, and even mountains. There is no higher virtue than the protection of our children, and to the extent that we are prepared to protect these innocents whatever the personal or collective cost, we put every other virtue to the test. This might also account for the inescapable harsh words of Christ Himself in (Matthew 18:6) against those who would harm “one of these little ones.”

Finally, should anyone imagine that the author of this present essay is stealthily presenting himself as one of the “courageous” few, they would alas, be very much mistaken. If that, indeed, were the case, he would have written this essay long ago. Neither is he stupid. The truth of the matter rests elsewhere. Not least that he is the proud and protecting father of a three-year old son. It is to him that I dedicate this essay, and to every other child in need of a voice; rough and imperfect my own grown-up voice might be.

 

[1] http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/royal-commission-to-consider-george-pell-ronald-mulkearns-appearances-20151223-glu3gw.html

[2] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-03/cardinal-george-pell-key-moments-in-abuse-inquiry-testimony/7216742

[3] Nowadays, as a great poet has somewhere written, there a lots of different ways to “execute” somebody, it is no longer mandatory to set them up against a wall.

[4] Though my memory in recent years is nowhere near what it used to be, some things of long ago still remain clear. In this instance, I distinctly remember the news reader that night was Mary Kostakidis. A number of the things she read out during that news item mirrored opinions from my letter.

[5]  John Chryssavgis’ Soul Mending: The Art of Spiritual Direction (2000) is a seriously thoughtful and confronting reflection on where the church as a community can get it wrong and how that can be possible in a sanctified space which preaches both the vital importance of holiness and the unqualified dimension of trust. Ultimately, it will invariably be as a terrible consequence of “The Misuse of Spiritual Authority” (VIII). In one of his other chapters (IX) he deals directly and openly with child abuse in the Church.

[6] An article published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2007) which reviews the difference between “trustworthiness” and “trust propensity” and considers the measure of our willingness to vulnerability is useful reading: https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~reetaban/triple%20helix/trust%20and%20decision%20making.pdf

[7] Canon Law [or ‘ecclesiastical law’] in contradistinction to divine revelation can and has changed many times during the centuries. It is akin to civil law in secular society.