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Mahony asks bishop to drop tour for clergy-abuse book

June 07, 2008|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Four of California's leading Roman Catholic bishops, including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, have taken the extraordinary step of urging an Australian bishop to cancel a monthlong tour of the United States to promote his controversial new book about clergy sexual abuse.

Following direction from the Vatican, the California religious leaders and eight other prominent bishops around the country have asked former auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson of Sydney to steer clear of their dioceses because of his "problematic positions" on priestly celibacy and other issues.

In his book, "Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus," Robinson argues that the church's celibacy requirement has contributed to the sex abuse crisis. He openly criticizes the papacy for failing to provide leadership. And he wonders whether the Catholic Church has been more concerned with managing the scandal than confronting it.

Those positions have put Robinson squarely at odds with church leaders on three continents.

In a joint letter last month, Mahony and nine other American bishops warned Robinson that his visit could be "a source of disunity and cause of confusion among the faithful of the particular churches we serve."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, June 10, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Voice of the Faithful: An article in Saturday's Section A about a book tour by former Australian auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson of the Roman Catholic Church said that a group supporting him, Voice of the Faithful, pushes for doctrinal change in the church. The group works to reform governing structures of the church.

They cited an investigation of his book by Australian bishops, who found "doctrinal difficulties" and pointed out that the head of the Vatican office in charge of all bishops had asked Robinson to cancel his trip.

"I hereby deny you permission to speak in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles," Mahony wrote to Robinson last month, citing a bishop's authority under canon law that was repeated in separate letters from Bishop Tod Brown in Orange County and Archbishop George H. Niederauer in San Francisco.

But Robinson, 70, said he has no intention of canceling any part of a trip that began May 16 in Philadelphia and brings him to California on Tuesday for appearances in La Jolla, Costa Mesa, Culver City and San Francisco.

"I'm not looking for any confrontation," Robinson said in a telephone interview. "I'm saying, 'Let's start from abuse and follow that where it leads. If we find that obligatory celibacy has contributed to abuse, we must put that on the table.' "

Robinson's California swing comes eight weeks after Pope Benedict XVI met privately with sexual-abuse victims during a U.S. visit and expressed "deep shame" over the scandal, which has cost the American Catholic Church more than $2 billion in legal settlements.

He also told the nation's Catholic bishops that they have a "God-given responsibility as pastors to . . . foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged."

Robinson's sponsors -- led by the Catholic reform group Voice of the Faithful -- say his tour is meant to further that mission, and they plan to press ahead despite what they believe is a campaign to silence him.

"Is this the way American bishops respond to Pope Benedict's call to do everything possible to heal the church?" asked Dan Bartley, president of Voice of the Faithful, which pushes for doctrinal change in the church.

"In light of the pope's comments, we believe that blocking an open and honest discussion about what caused the crisis is appalling."

Robinson served as auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Sydney from 1984 to 2004. Midway through his tenure, he was elected by fellow bishops to a national committee coordinating the church's response to clergy sex abuse in that country. He served as the committee's co-chairman for six years.

"I felt sick to the stomach at the stories that victims told me," he writes in the introduction to his book.

"Those years left an indelible mark on me, for they led me to a sense of profound disillusionment with many things within my church, typified by the manner in which, I was convinced, a number of people, at every level, were seeking to 'manage' the problem and make it 'go away,' rather than truly confront and eradicate it."

The victims' stories also stirred Robinson's memories of being sexually abused in his youth by a stranger unaffiliated with the church.

Robinson said he came to the "unshakable conviction" that the church needed to undergo "profound and enduring change," particularly as it related to issues of power and sex.

He openly questioned its monopoly on definitive truth. And he criticized Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, saying their unwillingness to reexamine obligatory celibacy for priests has undercut the church's credibility.

Robinson said he ultimately concluded that he could not continue to serve as a bishop of a church that left him with such "profound reservations." He resigned and began to write his book, which was published last year.

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