Retired Sydney bishop doesn't want fight with U.S. bishops over book

Regina Linskey

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A retired Australian bishop who has been asked by several U.S. bishops to cancel his book tour said he stands behind his critique of authoritarian and sexual abuses in the church but does not want a battle.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, retired auxiliary bishop of Sydney and former head of the Australian bishops' panel investigating clergy sexual abuse, told Catholic News Service May 21, "A fight between me and the (U.S.) bishops is really something I'm not interested in."

Noting that he is not sure if any U.S. bishop has read his 2007 book, "Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus," Bishop Robinson said, "I've written about what I believe."

In a telephone interview from New Jersey, a stop on his U.S.-Canadian speaking tour, he also commented on a May 6 statement from the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference expressing concern about doctrinal problems in the book.

Bishop Robinson said the Australian bishops "did what they felt they had to do and I have no problem with that."

Before he left Australia, Bishop Robinson sent a letter notifying several U.S. bishops of his speaking engagements in their dioceses. His May 16-June 12 tour was to include stops in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ontario, Ohio, Washington and California.

In response to Bishop Robinson's letter, U.S. Bishop Tod D. Brown of Orange, Calif., asked Bishop Robinson to cancel his June 11 visit to the Orange Diocese.

"Lest your visit be a source of disunity and a cause for confusion among the faithful of our local church of Orange, I want you to know that you do not have my permission to speak in the Diocese of Orange, and I ask you to cancel your speaking engagement here," Bishop Brown said in the May 16 letter.

Bishop Brown said the reason he was unable to accept Bishop Robinson was that Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and 10 other U.S. bishops, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, had asked Bishop Robinson to cancel his tour. Bishop Brown also mentioned the Australian bishops' " notice of concern" about the book.

CNS obtained copies of Bishop Brown's and Cardinal Mahony's letters but was unable to obtain the letter from Cardinal Re.

Cardinal Mahony's letter, as well as the letter from the 10 other bishops, was dated May 9 and reflected concerns similar to those listed in Bishop Brown's letter.

Meanwhile, the Australian bishops' statement lauded Bishop Robinson's "help and healing" for victims of clerical sexual abuse and his work in forging strong protocols of professional standards for the Australian church.

However, the bishops said there were "doctrinal difficulties" that undermined the ability of the Catholic Church to teach the truth "authoritatively," casting doubt on Bishop Robinson's certainty about the "knowledge and authority of Christ himself."

Responding to the Australian bishops, Marist Father Michael Whelan, director of the Aquinas Academy in Sydney, Australia, said: "We have a right to know precisely what is doctrinally unsound with what Bishop Robinson has written and why it is unsound.

"It is a serious book and it demands a serious response," Father Whelan added in his statement posted on the Aquinas Academy Web site May 19.

The "imprecision and vagueness" in the bishops' "bland and defensive" statement, Father Whelan said, is a "sad and discouraging reflection on the leadership of the Catholic Church in Australia, likely to confirm those who are unlikely to read Bishop Robinson's book and alienate those who find it worth reading."

Father Whelan said the Australian bishops' concession in their concluding paragraph that church authority "may at times be poorly exercised ... in shaping policy and practice in complex areas of pastoral and human concern" raised many questions for the "new vision" of church asked for by the Second Vatican Council.

"It seems to trivialize the serious matter of the church's ability to get it wrong. ... Could we claim, for example, that our ecclesiology -- both in theory and practice -- over the centuries has always been utterly in accord with the person and teaching of Jesus Christ?"

Since the release of their statement, the Australian bishops have declined to comment further on its content.

In his May 16 written response to the Australian bishops, Bishop Robinson described the objections as "disappointing."

"My book is about the response to the revelations of sexual abuse within the church. Sexual abuse is all about power and sex, so it is surely reasonable to ask questions about power and sex in the church," he said.

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Contributing to this story was Dan McAloon in Sydney.

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