03 Mar 2019


St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney


Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for our Solemn Mass. As we gather, we can’t help being affected by last Tuesday’s news of Cardinal George Pell’s conviction. It has left many bewildered, angry, demoralised. If you find yourself struggling, I urge you to speak with someone about it. And let me assure you, I feel your shock and pain, and the Catholic community with you.

We are all shaken by reports about the shameful actions or inactions of Church people towards children and vulnerable persons. Apart from the terrible harm this does to the victims – who are our first concern – we know it also undermines people’s faith and trust. Followers of Christ must reverence every human person, especially the most vulnerable; we must welcome truth, however confronting it might be; we must do justice, however challenging to achieve; above all, we must demonstrate compassion for those who are hurting.

The legal process regarding the Cardinal is not yet complete, and so I will not comment on it. I urge people not to draw any final conclusions until the appeal judges have had their chance to review this matter. Amidst the heated emotions of the present, I also pray for public calm and civility.

To all those who have suffered abuse at the hands of clergy or other Church personnel, to their families and the entire community, I repeat my many expressions of shame and apology. I renew my commitment to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all young and vulnerable people in the Church.

I welcome concelebrating with me this morning the Auxiliary Bishops of Sydney, Most Rev. Terry Brady, Tony Randazzo and Richard Umbers.

In a very real sense Lent has come early for the Church in Australia this year, and we may feel somehow contaminated by the darkness surrounding us. In a Lenten spirit of penance and plea for God’s mercy, I invite my brother bishops to join me in kneeling for our Penitential Rite…


St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney


The blind leading the blind. The disciple disregarding the teacher. The hypocrite taking splinters from people’s eyes while there’s a plank in his own. Today Jesus convicts Israel and the Church of these failings (Lk 6:39-45). Little ones cried out to be heard, and too often met only selective blindness, infidelity, hypocrisy. Now our credibility is shot, and we are convicted not just before the tribunal of this world, but by Christ the Just Judge…

That annual examination of conscience we call Lent has come early this year. Ben Sirach in our first reading is direct: shaken up in the sieve of introspection, the rubbish of our character faults is all too evident (Sir 27:4-7). Tested in the kiln of public scrutiny, the pottery of our deeds has been found cracked. Judged by the fruit of our professed ideals, we are found wanting. The Church is not beyond such scrutiny too.

Some years ago, I had a lime tree outside my presbytery that sported luscious leaves but bore no fruit. I told a woman who helped me in the parish that I planned to cut it down and replace it. Like the man in the Gospel (Lk 13:8), she persuaded me to let her dig round it, fertilise it, and water it occasionally. Sure enough, it was full of fruit the following year. A person might look flash and say all the right things, but be fruitless; another be thorny or ungainly, yet do great deeds of service. By their fruits shall we know them, Jesus says (Lk 6:43-4; cf. Mt 7:15-20). And beyond the merits or demerits of our actions, our heavenly Father sees into the hearts from which they emerge: “The good man draws what is good from the goodness of his heart,” says the Lord today, “the bad man what is bad from his store of evil.” (Lk 6:45) Again, the challenge to the Church at this time is clear: do we walk our talk, or are we like my fruitless tree, all show but no lime? And do the talk and walk reveal something deeper within?

Well, left to our own devices we can get such judgments wildly wrong – as I did when playing gardener. We can be expert at identifying the shortcomings of others and not notice the planks in our own eyes. We are good at blame and for all its relativism this age wags its finger easily. Perhaps that is why in the verses immediately preceding our ones today, Jesus says “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned” (Lk 6:37). But misjudging a tree is not just a matter of mistaken facts or partiality: it can also be about patience and hope. We want the good fruits to be evident and now, and so are quick to judge; God sees the potential and takes the long picture. Good character and behaviour are life-long projects and their fruits may take years to emerge. So we must be patient and hopeful, with ourselves and each other, while God digs around, fertilises and waters.

The Word of God speaks directly to our current concerns. As the Cardinal’s matter is ongoing in the courts, I cannot comment on the substance; others have done so, and some have raised serious questions for the appellate court to examine. If we are too quick to judge, we can end up joining the demonisers or the apologists, those baying for blood or those in denial. Our readings remind us that things are not always what they seem; that we must look beneath the surface and allow truth and justice to unfold in God’s good time.

Many feel disheartened, and are uncertain how to go on believing, worshipping, living the Christian Gospel; indeed, some are not even sure they want to. But as some crimes cry out to heaven for vengeance or vindication, so it is to heaven that we must look for truth and for repair. We should not be afraid to place our bewilderment, anger or demoralisation before God. As he awaits the conclusion of his legal process, the Cardinal is offering this time for all innocents who suffer; we faithful can do likewise with the shame and sorrow we are feeling. I pray that the Church will emerge from present trials purified, humbler, more compassionate. After pruning comes growth; after the Cross, Resurrection: this is our Paschal wisdom and hope.

What must the Church do if it is ever to recover from this dark chapter? Much, we know, has already been done to examine the facts and causes of child sexual abuse in many institutions, including the Church. Many reforms have followed, in governance, complaint handling, redress and healing, safeguarding training, vocational discernment, formation and supervision; more is yet to come. We are absolutely determined to make Church situations the safest possible for the young and vulnerable.

But regaining public credibility and deserving people’s trust will require more than new protocols, more even than all the thousands of good deeds done each day by the parishioners and clergy of Sydney, in our schools, hospitals, welfare services and beyond. Only a deep spiritual and moral conversion of hearts, cultures and institutions will suffice. People must see we have changed, deep down, drawing from a store of goodness in our hearts. Then, seeing our love in action, in those works of mercy that are our Church at its best, people will judge us by our fruits. For this deep conversion we must pray, often, and perhaps especially this Lent. We must rest in God when big emotions threaten to engulf us or numbness to paralyse us. We turn to Him in intercession for truth, justice, compassion, confident that He can bring good out of any evil. “Therefore, beloved brothers and sisters,” says Paul today, “Stand firm. Be steadfast. Give yourselves fully to the Lord’s work, knowing that in the Lord your labour is never in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).