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22 October 2017

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You are dead right Jakub.

Trial by media is becoming all too prevalent in Australia, mainly thanks to the tabloid press.

First up, whether or not any abuse took place, that priest should be severely reprimanded for abusing the sacrament of confession, and perhaps should even have his license withdrawn (priests must be given permission, called a license, by their bishop in order to administer confessions).

There is no room for "playfulness" when it comes to administering sacraments, and nowhere is this more true than with confession, where a person bares their soul before the priest. There can be no informal gestures there, and especially touch.

That's why most traditional confessionals (evidently not in use here) had the priest on the other side of a wall from the penitent, with a lattice window for communication. So regardless of any abuse, this was wrong, and it indicates the priest in question has been very badly trained.

In regards to the overall situation, however, I would suggest caution in assessing it. It is true that many bishops in the past have made incredibly grave errors in judgement. It is also unfortunately true that various bishops continue to make such errors in judgement today.

Furthermore, it is also very sadly true that in various cases both in the past, and most likely in the present as well, it wasn't about errors in judgement but wilful participation in evil, whether because of an intention to conceal it, or because of actual personal involvement.

That is one side of the situation. But here's the thing: these days, priests are almost invariably "found guilty" by the media the moment any allegations arise, regardless of their truth or falsehood.

In the eyes of the media (especially the Australian media), any person making allegations against a priest is automatically more credible than the priest or anyone else defending the priest.

This is partially due to sensation-seeking, and partially due to a naïve assumption that it is better to err on the side of a potential victim than on the side of the potential abuser - a naïve assumption because if it goes wrong, then the result is a very real victim on the other side.

In this sense, "listening to the voices of the vulnerable" also most certainly includes the priest. It is all too often forgotten that a false allegation of sexual abuse can literally destroy a person, by effectively permanently placing them under a cloud of suspicion.

Considering these two sides of the story, I think that when a bishop is willing to defend a priest in public in this manner, this also needs to be carefully thought over before anyone launches into criticism.

Certainly, in the present situation, it seems near-suicidal for a bishop to side with a priest when there is a strong indication of abuse. To do so, then, would be far more than merely naïve - unless the bishop is truly convinced that the inquiry was right, and that there was no abuse involved.

In that case, the bishop's duty is then to protect the priest under his care from unjust allegations. And this is no less important than protecting the victims of abuse, because such allegations, when false, can destroy lives.

There are known cases where priests were unable to take the pressure of being presumed guilty, and suffered great trauma or even committed suicide, only to ultimately be exonerated by the secular legal system.

It most certainly would not be right for the bishop to reassign the priest just to calm things down, if the allegations are false.

There needs to be a balance. Careful inquiry, yes. Severe penalties for the guilty, both of any abuse, and of concealing abuse, definitely.

But you cannot simply assume that a bishop deciding in favour of an accused priest is failing in judgement.

Bishop Rolando Santos is naive about the sensitivity surrounding the specific circumstances regarding Fr Neil Lams' public relations. These are serious allegations raised in the Church's own internal investigation.

Fr Neil has lost integrity and public trust among the students. I do not understand why Bishop Santos' insistence on appointing Fr Neil back to this ministry. Bishop Santos should also listen to the voices of the vulnerable.

Living in Australia in the midst of the Royal Commission in the last two years I have realised that it was not just the institutional sex scandal that rocked the Australian Catholic Church but also the lack of prudent judgement from the leaders in religious congregation and bishops.

It is time we learn to let go power and listen to those voices that call us to change.

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