Though it’s hard to imagine this line drawing many laughs outside a philosophers’ convention, Archbishop Anthony Fisher could be thought of as the punchline of a joke about how many Thomists it takes to turn an archdiocese around.
A Dominican and an avowed disciple of St. Thomas Aquinas in terms of his intellectual formation, the 58-year-old Fisher took over in Sydney, Australia in 2014 after the controversial Cardinal George Pell left for Rome. He came into office just as a mammoth government-sponsored “Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse” was heating up, a four-year probe that put a grueling spotlight on the Church’s failures when it comes to abuse, both in terms of the crime and the cover-up.
Along the way, Fisher also saw his predecessor and mentor, Pell, testify before that commission and eventually face charges for “historical sexual offenses” himself, charges which Pell vigorously disputes.
Throughout it all, Fisher has tried to bring his preternaturally calm demeanor and his penetrating intellect to the task of keeping the Church on course in one of the world’s most egalitarian and secular cultures, and a place especially scarred by the abuse scandals.
Most recently, Fisher was part of the Australian bishops’ response to a series of reform recommendations delivered by the Royal Commission. The bishops accepted the vast majority, but they stirred yet another domestic firestorm by refusing to countenance any compromise to the seal of confession - generating incomprehension and, in some quarters, outrage by refusing to direct priests to report cases of child abuse they may learn about in the context of the sacrament.
Referring to the row over eroding the confessional seal, Fisher used a bit of Aussie-speak in terming it a “huge furphy” - meaning, a distraction that would either have no impact at all on solving child abuse, or actually make the situation worse.
Recently, Fisher sat down with Crux in his Sydney residence to discuss the controversy over confession, the broader state of the reform effort on the abuse scandals, and the prospects for the Church “Down Under.”
Crux: What’s your reading of reaction to the bishops’ response?
Fisher: I think of the 81 recommendations from the Royal Commission that were either directed at the Catholic Church or which affect us because they affect all the churches, the fact that we were ready to say we accept entirely or in principle, or to refer to Rome those that can only be resolved by the Vatican, the vast majority, I think there was generally a good feeling about that in the community. I think there was probably a fear in some quarters that we were going to block half of them, or a third, or whatever, and the fact that we accepted or accepted in principle 98 percent was, I think, good news amongst our own people and the broader community too.
It’s interesting … some people in the media will focus every time on the celibacy question, or the confessional question, or the hierarchy question. Those are really the only three [about which] we got further questioning from reporters and even from some of our own people. The good news story behind it all is that we accepted what the community has said about the many ways we have failed, and our determination to fix those things. Indeed, I think I can say hand on heart that with many of those recommendations, we’re well advanced in addressing them already.
Is it hard for you to explain what the seal of confession means inside Catholic faith and practice when these things come up?
I think a lot of the people who’ve taken a position on this have never been to confession themselves. They have very little idea, and think of it as a dark, scary, gothic room that they’ve seen in some movie, so it’s some version of that. From that, they think there’s something very dark and secretive going on. I think they’d be very surprised if they knew just how mundane confession actually is, and actually how quick and relieving it is more often than not, not this dark, scary and probing thing that goes on in their minds.
In all honesty, this is a huge furphy …
A huge what?
Sorry, that’s Aussie-speak for a big distraction.
You mean a red herring?
Yes, that’s another good term. It’s a big distraction. If you knew what had been said in every confession in history, you would be no closer to solving the child abuse crisis. If you bugged all the confessionals from today going forward, and there was some office set up to listen to every confession, it would be a disgraceful interference with people’s religious liberty - but if you thought that was important enough, because it’s how you’re going to solve the child abuse issue, it wouldn’t help at all.
That’s because this is hardly ever confessed. We know that these perpetrators have a pathology in which they don’t even believe they’re doing anything wrong. They actually blame the victim, they blame everybody but themselves. They’re terribly deceitful and cagey. What would happen, though, if you abolish the seal of confession, or the state recognition of it, is that the very rare perpetrator who might confess, or the very rare victim who might bring it up during their own confession - that one chance you might get to say to the perpetrator how wicked that is, to confront him with how evil what he’s doing is, and to press him to turn himself in, to be getting psychiatric help, to be addressing his problem seriously, is lost. He’s never going to come to confession again, if he ever was. Likewise, the victim, who might tell you something along the way in his or her confession, will not trust the confessor. Where you might have had a chance with a child to say you’ve got to tell mom and dad, you’ve got to tell a teacher, or tell me outside confession, but you’ve got to tell an adult so we can help you to get to safety, you lose that one opportunity.
Because of the strange view people have of what goes on in confession, they think the way to solve this problem is to abolish the seal of the confessional. In reality, it’ll either have no effect at all or it will actually make children less safe.
You remember the struggles here in Australia over the third rite of confession, loosely known as “group confession.” Do you think the pressures on the seal of confession might revive interest in the third rite?
Interestingly, some of the people who have more or less accepted this recommendation from the Royal Commission that we ought to abolish the seal of confession are saying we would never have had this problem if we had kept the third rite, because people wouldn’t actually be confessing their sins but just their ‘sinfulness’ and then everyone would be given an absolution together. In fact, of course, we know that even when the third rite was practiced more commonly, if you were aware of serious sin you still had to go have a regular confession. So, it doesn’t address that at all.
What people really want is a fourth rite of confession, which is to forgive yourself and not have to bother with the confession thing at all. That’s what they’re really asking for, and the third rite, I think, is a bit of cover for that. Of course, this is already what most people do most of the time, they just talk to God and hope he’s merciful rather than going to confession.
But for those who do care about the sacrament of mercy, I think for the state to be proposing to interfere in this way, to start effectively bugging confessionals by requiring confessors to repeat what they’ve heard, is really an attack on their ability to practice their faith. I think that’s a very bad precedent for this country, and there are many other countries that would immediately recognize that’s a step too far.
You’ve said before there’s a lot left to do on the fight against child abuse. Can you get concrete and tell us what you have in mind, not just here but in the global Church since this is a global problem?
I’ll give a few examples. One is that we’ve done a lot of work with our clergy, our seminarians and our school teachers, people who most often, day-to-day, interact with young people. But there’s lot of other groups out there, there’s lot of lay groups out there, engaging with young people all the time, or at least some of the time. It’s hard to get to them, as they’re not as easily structured in because they don’t have regular professional development days run by the diocese. We’ve got to get to every corner of the Church with this spotlight and this determination to fix things and make them better. Even though we’ve made huge progress, we can’t be complacent.
Here’s another area where there’s still so much to do. This was, I think a crisis among what you might call the ‘ruling elites’ across our society, whether it was in the Church, the police force and the law, the medical profession, the Boy Scouts … there are lots of different areas where people sexually offended against children and it was covered up. That whole culture of how you lead, and of no more gentlemen’s agreements of just shaking hands and then forgetting it, will take years to change. That’s not something you fix just by a report or a decree from the bishops. It takes years of trying to change people’s thinking, demanding of each other and of ourselves much greater transparency and accountability. There can be more quarantines from the expectations made of everybody else in the community. That’s obviously a challenge for me as a bishop, because bishops are among those elites. We’re very protected, and often have behaved very badly in these situations.
Are you bullish about the prospects for the Church in Australia?
St. Thomas Aquinas used to answer almost every question with both ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and I’m very much trained in his way of thinking. I think there are some really grave challenges, and in this area [child abuse], our recovering trust but more important, actually deserving their trust, doing the things we need to do to be the most trustworthy and safest place for any child, the most honest and up-front about the ways we’ve failed and the most determined to learn, there’s still a lot to happen there even if we’ve made big progress. There are other areas too, such as the ongoing secularization of our society … there are many challenges, and I don’t diminish those for a moment.
But the Church in Australia, certainly in my own city of Sydney, has enormous strengths too. We have a huge school system, a huge parish system, major contributions to health care, aged care, welfare care … all sorts of areas of the life of the country depend hugely on the Catholic Church’s continuing involvement. We have the multi-ethnic, diverse, interesting group of people at any one of our Masses, anytime we gather. We bring them together by bringing them into the Catholic Church to worship. I look at, for instance, the number of young people when we put on a youth event. We put on a local Australian youth festival here just before Christmas, and 20,000 young people came to that celebration. It was a wonderful time.
So while we’ve got some real challenges, we’ve also got some real strengths to build on.