Kevin Dillon: Father Protector

Kevin Dillon: Father Protector

Barney Zwartz has a good article in today’s Saturday Age on Fr Kevin Dillon.

As you might imagine, the article contains several clangers. I think we all know that fact-checking isn’t Zwartz’s strong point. Still, this is a good profile of a good man, whom I’ve blogged about before.

The hierarchy has long insisted that the clerical sexual abuse crisis peaked decades ago, and there are rigorous processes now in place which reliably safeguard children. This is no mean feat given the horrifying scale of sexual abuse of children, still ongoing, in the broader community. Credit where it’s due.

But I do think the treatment of survivors of abuse can be improved. Less legalistic, and more pastoral. Fr Dillon can attest to this first-hand, given his extensive contact with many survivors.

Fairfax content is now behind a paywall, but for reasons which escape me, Zwartz’s article doesn’t appear on The Age’s website at all. The column is, however, freely available on another Fairfax website, so I reproduce it here in full.

Kevin Dillon was stopped at traffic lights a couple of years ago when a passing pedestrian peered in the car window at the gold crosses on his collar, recognised him as a priest, and said: “Oh, off to molest a few children, are we?”

13 Jul 2013, THE AGE – by Barney Zwartz

Dillon was cut to the quick. As it happened, he had not long got off the phone from an hour-long conversation with a victim of childhood sexual abuse.

Being accosted that way has probably happened to most priests these days and has made “a world of difference to the way priests feel about their ministry”, Dillon admits.

But in the murky world of suspicion most Catholic priests have to inhabit, alongside the despair they feel at the truculent attitude of the hierarchy towards critics, few priests have so won the respect and admiration of the survivors of abuse as the 68-year-old parish priest at Geelong’s St Mary of the Angels Basilica.

He spends at least a dozen hours a week with victims, gave important evidence to the Victorian inquiry into how the churches handled sexual abuse and has become an unofficial and rather reluctant spokesman for those inside the church unhappy with the present system. He has done all this while running one of Victoria’s biggest and oldest parishes, Geelong, where he tends 4000 families.

“I think I’d be dead if it weren’t for Kevin,” says Catherine Arthur, a former nun who was a victim of clerical abuse as a child, then an adult. “I was being treated so badly by the church. He’s just been enormously helpful, he’s so kind. He found me the unit where I am living and got on eBay and got me all my furniture.”

People don’t know what he does for others, Arthur says. “He gave one victim the jacket off his back and a small wardrobe of clothes to another victim who is the same size.”

Last Christmas Eve, she says, he got home from a meeting at 2am, the phone went and he had to go to the hospital. He got home and it went again – back to the hospital.

“He just gives and gives and gives. It’s really costing him, dealing with the victims. He’s aged. We all think he should be a bishop. But he’s too outspoken, speaking up for the truth and for what could and should be done – he won’t get any medals for that.”

Dillon is indeed generous, so much so that he actually gave away his home 10 years ago. An Anglican woman sought his help to find a big house in Geelong for respite care for people with terminal illnesses. “And I thought, I live in a big house in Geelong. So we found a smaller place for me to live over the road,” he recalls. “Anam Cara House has become a respected part of Geelong’s community care.”

Dillon made a notable mark in the Melbourne church. He was parish priest at Mitcham for 16 years before being posted to Geelong, served for seven years as director of vocations and was Victorian director of the 1986 visit by pope John Paul II.

“That was a bit like organising the grand final and Melbourne Cup within 24 hours,” Dillon says. “We had 100,000 at the MCG on Thursday night and 120,000 at Flemington racecourse on the Friday afternoon.”

Despite being the public face of dissenting Catholics when it comes to treatment of childhood sexual abuse victims – contradicting the hierarchy, who claim the problems have been virtually solved – Dillon considers himself a conservative priest. He has always liked the middle of the road and is a reluctant rebel. “I’ve never had an official challenge. I’ve never sought media coverage of my own views but I made a promise to myself and to the Good Lord that if I was asked, I would say what I thought.”

He criticises policy and processes, not people (such as bishops), and sees his work with victims as a vocation within a vocation. But his human and – above all – patient approach to dealing with victims of sexual abuse by the clergy has put him on a different trajectory to Catholic officialdom. This became explicit when he told the Victorian inquiry in February that the formal church protocols must be scrapped.

“Time is up; the church has had more than a fair chance. The Melbourne Response and Towards Healing have lost all credibility and are beyond repair,” he said, lamenting that the response had been heartless and adversarial and showed “a culture of denial” about the impact on victims.

Dillon first got involved with victims about 20 years ago when a woman being abused at home rang him. “She didn’t know me, she dialled me because I was the next number. It was 3am and I talked to her. She eventually took her own life.”

Then in 1998 he was rung by another woman, “an adult victim of a sleazebag priest who assaulted her in hospital. That call began at 8pm and finished at two in the morning.”

As the abuse crisis unfolded, he looked on aghast, like many Catholics. He crossed his Rubicon after the infamous remark by now Parramatta Bishop Anthony Fisher about the Foster family during the 2008 Australian visit of pope Benedict XVI. Fisher described the Fosters – two of whose daughters were repeatedly raped in primary school and one of whom had killed herself five weeks earlier – as “dwelling crankily on old wounds”.

Dillon recalls: “I got furious and rang Neil Mitchell on 3AW and said, ‘I just cringe’. I identified myself and people started to contact me, particularly through [victims’ advocate] Helen Last.” Now he has spoken to about 50 victims, most of them regularly.

“There’s been lots of cappuccinos at the local coffee shop round the corner,” he says. “So many victims have never contacted anyone and for every victim, perhaps another dozen people have been scarred and feel helpless.

“It’s interesting that they want to talk. Many of them have had nothing to do with priests for years. But Catholic faith becomes part of your DNA, so when there’s a glint of understanding and support they grab it.”

That is what saddens Dillon most about the official response: so many do not find that sense of support. “I have yet to see anyone who has been through the system and is happy with it. People say I’m only talking to the grizzlies, and that may be right, but if there are so many people happy with the system, where are they?” He also asks why the church does not follow up victims and why it has not established support groups.

“If the idea was to save money it’s been a great success, I don’t think. Look at the number of people who have walked away from the church, who no longer volunteer, who change their wills. How do you calculate that?”

Now he spends a dozen hours a week talking to victims, in person or on the phone. “Some ring me late at night, they’ve maybe had a few drinks. All I can do is listen.”

It’s not that they expect a resolution but it’s important to give them time – he might just be keeping someone alive. Add this to a frantic workload – four Masses every weekend, half a dozen baptisms a month, 80 weddings a year and perhaps 300 funerals – and Dillon concedes it takes a toll. He has to go from happy (wedding) to sad (funeral) in moments and he does feel these emotions.

“Where the toll is, it’s not just people in distress – psychologists do that all the time. The most difficult thing is that [abuse] brings into the spotlight that the church I love – that I have been part of all my life – behaves to these very wounded people in ways that are inconsistent with its mission.”

All they want is a sense of their own dignity or worth, he says, so when the church is adversarial “it is taking advantage in a horrendous way. If you buy something from Myer and take it back, Myer is pretty good about that. If the reaction of the staff is argumentative and defensive, you get angry. People come back to the church, which teaches, ‘Love one another as I [Christ] have loved you’, wanting us to reach out in love and support. The first contact should be pastoral, not legal – tell me your story.”

That pastoral emphasis is certainly Dillon’s strength – he likes people. At funerals, for example, he does not stand on ceremony. On a cold winter’s day he is burying a great-grandmother whose husband he buried three months ago. The family is stoic and dignified and Dillon gives them plenty of freedom, including allowing a Geelong Cats flag to flutter by the coffin.

The daughter is a staunch Protestant but she is quite content. “Kevin’s been absolutely wonderful and it’s all about respecting what they would like. It’s not whose theology is right,” she says.

Funerals are time-consuming but Dillon sees them as an essential part of what he does. “It brings us into contact with a lot of people who may not have a lot to do with the church, so it’s important to make this a positive experience for them at a time of great pain.”

Strictly speaking, he shouldn’t allow a football club flag at a Catholic service but what head office doesn’t know won’t hurt it. “Too often with funerals, and even weddings, we see that people are coming into our space and should do what we tell them, but in reality they are inviting us into a critical part of their lives, whether of great sadness or joy.”

Bishops can lose sight of this, he believes. Priests need constant interaction with people on the ground floor, which is easiest in a parish. “If I were pope I’d make sure every bishop was serving in a parish. They’d belong, be grounded. Bishops don’t do the weddings and funerals of the real people.

“Imagine if we had had 12 regional bishops in Melbourne [there are three] and each had a small parish.”

How does he nourish his own faith, give himself the spiritual energy to keep going and giving? “I made a commitment and I’ve maintained it for 51 years since I went to seminary, of daily connection by the Mass. I’ve never been one of those people who can sit in church for hours praying. The value of the Mass, and the sense of God’s presence in the Mass, is very important – it’s my touchstone, because it’s something only a priest can do.

“It’s an expression of identity. I’m lucky that 44 years down the track [from being ordained] I still enjoy what I do.”

Another ritual that keeps him sane is a weekly trip up the Geelong Road to Glen Waverley, where he has a coffee with his siblings – sister Geraldine, the prototype TV chef who had a cooking program on Channel Nine for 20 years, brother John, a semi-retired solicitor, and brother Brendan, the parish priest at Glen Waverley. The children of Victoria’s first ombudsman, they share a sense of the importance of a fair go.

“I try to get up here three times a month – it’s the closest I get to a day off, Sunday afternoons,” he says.

But despite everything, he has never doubted his vocation or the church. “With the church, for all its faults, of which we are all well aware, it may be a case of you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Church is one of the few places where people come regularly and are encouraged to live a life of service and care for each other.

“A lot of other places, it’s pretty dog eat dog. So even if the people giving the words of wisdom don’t live the way they should, putting forward the Christian gospel can make a difference to them and to society as a whole.”

Evil’s accomplice

Evil’s accomplice

When Hannah Arendt covered the 1961 Eichmann trial, she coined a famous and memorable phrase: “the banality of evil.”

Adolf Eichmann was a senior Nazi and major organiser of the Final Solution, who fled to Argentina after the war. He was captured by Mossad agents in 1960 and transported to Israel where he was tried and convicted for crimes against humanity.

Arendt — a Jewish American who fled her native Germany in 1933 — was a nationally renowned thinker and writer. She covered the trial for The New Yorker, sparking a controversy which still fuels debate fifty years later.

Arendt concluded that Eichmann was neither anti-semitic nor psychopathic, much less the evil monster of popular imagination. In fact, Eichmann’s sheer mediocrity put the lie to evil’s mystique, instead exposing it as shallow and banal.

We can easily forget that evil is banal, thanks in large part to the portrayal of evil in fiction. I think Simone Weil is spot on in this:

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.

From Gravity and Grace.

A recent film depicts Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial. It looks like great viewing:

However, the movie — like Arendt’s original coverage — has sparked a fierce debate, at least among “New York intellectuals.” The New York Times has weighed in with a thoughtful and compelling defence of Arendt’s claims. It’s well worth reading in full.

Of particular interest is the characterisation of Eichmann as “a joiner.”

In his own words, Eichmann feared “to live a leaderless and difficult individual life,” in which “I would receive no directives from anybody.” . . .

“What stuck in the minds” of men like Eichmann, Arendt wrote, was not a rational or coherent ideology. It was “simply the notion of being involved in something historic, grandiose, unique.”

It isn’t monsters or bureaucrats who enable evil, but joiners. People who sacrifice their own moral convictions for “the greater good” — usually the good of some movement which gives their life meaning.

Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.

I think this is what happened in the cover up of clerical abuse. Good men tolerated evil in the name of a greater good. We could go further: good men facilitated evil in the name of a greater good. What a moral travesty.

It helps us understand what happened though, and how it could happen again — even on a more benign scale, in our own lives. God forbid that we should justify means by their end.

And God forbid that we should sacrifice our independence — our intellect and freedom of conscience — to the Great Beast. (There’s another blog post in this, but it can wait for another time.)

The Ugandan martyrs

The Ugandan martyrs

Today is the feast of St Charles Lwanga and companions.

Between 1885 and 1887, King Mwanga of Buganda (in modern-day Uganda) executed several dozen royal pages for who refused to renounce their Christian faith.

The king nursed many grievances against Christianity, but one of them stands out. Mwanga was a pedophile and ephebophile who resented the sexual mores of the new Christian religion. The Christians among his court — which was basically intended to be a harem — consistently refused his sexual advances. In the months leading up to the ‘Namugongo holocaust,’ Charles Lwanga is reputed to have protected several boys from the predatory king.

On the morning of Thursday 3 June 1887 — the Feast of the Ascension — Charles was cruelly burnt to death. Several dozen young men and boys joined him in death, though the means of execution varied: some were burned alive, some speared, and others hacked to death.

A photo of many of the martyrs

A photo of many of the martyrs

In light of today’s feast, I offered all my prayers and sacrifices for the survivors of clergy abuse.

When I sat in the gallery of the Parliamentary Inquiry a few months ago, one of the most heart-rending testimonies I heard came from a man who grieved his loss of faith. He cited two reasons for this loss:

1. The Catholic religion had become repugnant to him, because it was so closely related to the abuse he suffered from ‘men of God.’

2. Even more tragically, in his darkest hours, he is still susceptible to the lie that the abuse he suffered is his sin. The rapes he endured are his crimes, which causes God to turn away from him in disgust.

Would that he and others survivors had a Charles Lwanga who could have shielded them. But I am sure St Charles’ prayers, and the prayers of Charles’ companions, intercede for him and other survivors.

A theological basis
to clerical celibacy

A theological basis to clerical celibacy

Professor Paul Mullen is probably very gifted in Forensic Health, but his grasp of Catholic theology ain’t great.

He has suggested that clerical celibacy is a discipline not a dogma. So far so good.

He says clerical celibacy has financial implications:

“I’ve have heard a Catholic bishop say that the reason celibacy is maintained is that they could not afford to pay priests, they couldn’t afford to pay them pensions, they couldn’t afford to pay them enough if they had a wife and children.”

Yep. Wouldn’t dispute that.

But according to the press, he also says “celibacy has no basis in theology.” (Now I don’t know if he actually said that. It’s only what the media has reported. They’re not always the same thing.)

This is wrong. There is a theological basis to clerical celibacy. And even if Pope Francis relaxed the requirement of clerical celibacy tomorrow, that theological basis is not negated.

“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” (Mt 19:12.)

These are our Lord’s own words. So to start with, we can dispense with the idea that clerical celibacy is unnatural and displeasing to God (or at best, God is indifferent). Jesus himself sets us straight. “Anyone who is able to live this calling, live it!”

Jesus himself was a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom. His celibacy was counter-cultural. A rabbi was expected to serve God by marrying and bringing up children. But our Lord didn’t do this. Why?

For starters, Jesus knew his mission would culminate in premature death. How could he, in good conscience, expose a wife and children to destitution? (Financial implications again! I’ll come back to that.)

But more importantly, our Lord’s celibacy also speaks to the very meaning — the very theology — of marriage, not to mention ecclesiology (the theology of the Church).

1. Theology of marriage.

Man alone is incomplete. Woman alone is incomplete. But in marriage, the two become one and they are more complete. The very etymology of “sex” speaks to this. Put another way, man alone is an image of God. Woman alone is an image of God. Man and woman together is a more perfect image of God.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

The nuptial union signifies the promise which awaits each of us in eternity, when our incompleteness is perfectly resolved by our union with God. As St Augustine famously observed, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Jesus, of course, is an exception to this. Unlike the average Adam, Jesus is already complete. Marriage cannot complete him, because he is already the perfect image of God. Jesus is God. It could be argued that it wouldn’t make theological sense for Jesus to marry.

2. Theology of the Church.

Jesus’ celibacy also has ramifications for the Church. Christ is the bridegroom; the Church is his bride. He consecrated himself to all of us equally, which precludes an exclusive married relationship. In the same way, priests who are celibate consecrate themselves to the Church, which precludes an exclusive married relationship.

Moreover, “eunuchs for the kingdom” — be they clerical or lay, male or female — witness to God’s love just as husbands and wives witness to God’s love. Marriage is sacramental. The love and shared life of spouses is a material expression of the nuptial relationship between Christ and his Church. Celibacy is not sacramental. But it is a prophetic sign of what awaits us in eternity.

So it seems our Lord’s celibacy had practical implications, and theological ones. As it is for Jesus, so it is for the Church. There are financial implications in the discipline of clerical celibacy. But there is also a theological basis.

At its most basic, and speaking personally now, I’m celibate because Jesus was celibate.

The Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry

Incidentally, Professor Mullen’s remarks were made at a hearing of the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Child Abuse. I attended one of these hearings a few weeks ago. I’m glad I did. It’s important, I think, to listen to abuse survivors. Not only in the name of justice, but also in the name of healing. Survivors have insights which can heal the whole Church, not to mention wider society.

I too easily tire of the media coverage of the clergy abuse scandal. The darkness is overwhelming. It almost threatens to choke one’s faith in goodness and humanity.

Attending the Inquiry itself was a different sort of experience. It actually increased my faith in goodness and humanity. Hearing the stories was still torturous, but hope prevailed. The courage of survivors and whistle-blowers evoked the words of St John.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (Jn 1:5)

Fr Kevin Dillon & the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry

Fr Kevin Dillon & the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry

Father Kevin Dillon supports the Geelong Cats to a fault. And his suggestion that popes should be elected for fixed terms strikes me as a disastrous invitation to conciliarism. So I certainly don’t agree with everything he says.

However, I think his submission to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the handling of child abuse commands not only respect, but also admiration. It adds the voice of a pastor to the public debate. Moreover, the fact that he received a standing ovation after his testimony last week indicates that his is a voice which is loved and appreciated by survivors of sexual abuse.

It’s probably not prudent for me to comment in detail on his submission, but nor is it necessary. It speaks for itself. So go ahead and read it yourself!

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