Comment Cover Story

‘It never occurred to me the synod would be quite so staged’: an interview with Archbishop Anthony Fisher

Archbishop Anthony Fisher on threats to the Seal of Confession, the youth synod and what to do about ‘bad bishops’

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney was one of the leading protagonists at last October’s youth synod in Rome. In an outspoken address, he apologised to young people on behalf of Church leaders for the abuse crisis. Later he bluntly criticised the synod’s final document, saying that it had been “rushed” and that its focus on “synodality” did not accurately reflect the bishops’ discussions. Some, he said, were left “feeling manipulated”. We caught up with him in Washington, DC, where he took part in the annual March for Life en route to World Youth Day in Panama.

JORDAN BLOOM What do you make of pro-life politics in America?

ARCHBISHOP ANTHONY FISHER I would say in Australia we are not as serious about ideas in general. We don’t get as aggro about it.

JB What do you mean by “not as serious about ideas”?

AF I think historically there are a number of reasons why we did not have bills of rights or civil wars or anything that meant people had to nail their colours to the mast, they had to make a decision for an idea. We didn’t have anything like that happen to us in Australia. Australians also have a comfortable life. We are a very affluent society. And so you try and raise a big intellectual contest and a lot of Aussies would just say, “Oh, I’ll break open another beer and go lie on the beach. We don’t need to argue about big ideas.”

There’s upsides and downsides to that. The upside is we don’t kill each other over ideas in Australia. There isn’t a permanent culture war going on about everything. The downside is I think we can be intellectually very lazy, and not see there are some matters that deserve your passion, and your attention, and intellectual engagement.

So from an Australian’s point of view, the seemingly endless culture wars in America seem somewhat alien, at least the degree of passion about them. But I think that’s something to teach our young ones: that some things, like the sanctity of life – we’ve got battles about euthanasia, the other end of life from the abortion debates – these things you really need to engage with. So I think if they see that here, that young people like them are willing to go out into the streets over an issue like this, I think that’s a good thing for them to see.

JB There have been legal threats to the Seal of Confession in Australia. Could you talk a little bit about what those are?

AF The background is that we’ve had a whole series of scandals around clergy sexual abuse, just like you’ve had in the States. There’s a lot of anger in the air, especially in the media, and a desire to lash out at the Church and punish it in some way. And I think that is very much in the background of this debate about the Seal of Confession, because no one seriously thinks you’re going to address the problem of child abuse by abolishing the legal recognition of the Seal of Confession.

By any evidence there is, it’s hardly ever confessed, this sin. The perpetrators have a pathology, but they don’t even believe what they’re doing is wrong, or they blame the victim, or blame everybody except themselves. They’re the least likely people to go to Confession, I’m sad to say. You wish they did feel more shame and guilt, but that’s not, it seems, what occurs with these people.

But I do strongly believe that if the Seal of Confession is abolished, you’ll either help not a single young person or you’ll make the situation worse for young people. That’s for two reasons. First, for the rare offender who might confess, [having the seal in place] gives the confessor the chance to really emphasise how terrible this thing is that they’re doing or have done, and why they must get help – they must go to the legal authorities, to a psychiatrist, to whoever, to make sure this doesn’t ever happen again. But you effectively wipe out Confession by wiping out the seal, you lose that opportunity for someone to confront that guy, and say how bad this is and what he’s got to do about it.

And secondly, the rare victim that might bring this up in Confession, a child in Confession, the seal would not apply to the child. Whether it’s a perpetrator or a victim, the priest would have to report it to the police. If you say to children, the confessional is effectively bugged, they might not bring it up if they otherwise would. And again, it’s a chance for you to say to them: “Look you’ve got to tell this to your parents, or to a teacher, or to some adult you trust. Or to me outside of confession, because we’ve got to get you to a safe place.” And we’ll lose that opportunity if you effectively wipe out the practice of Confession, or at least in these cases.

So I think whatever the anger or irrationality is in the air to slap the Church around, or a genuine concern for these children, I think the opposite is going to happen: you’re actually going to harm some children or take away a chance to help them.

We don’t have in Australia as robust a culture of human rights protections as you have in the States. So there isn’t the immediate recoil or reaction that there is here to the state intruding into the practice of the sacraments. And I wish, again, that we had more resistance to that in Australia, because the history of America begins with the wars of religion and people fleeing intolerance and coming to this country to find religious freedom. That’s not part of our story in the same way. So there’s not the same consciousness of the risk of states intruding into religion.

JB You made what was called an “intervention” at the end of the youth synod. Why did you feel the need to do that and do you feel your comments have held up well?

AF I got a lot of very positive comments at the time from synod fathers and people that heard the comments afterwards. I do think we’re a very diverse Church, and there are cultures that still have not faced this problem at all, regarding child sexual abuse, or aren’t aware otherwise that we’ve let young people down. And part of my intervention was to say this is a huge and horrible one, but otherwise young people have been let down too. There are parts of the Church that only see this as an American problem or an Anglo problem, and don’t realise they’re going to have it in their own backyard too. Or who perhaps have a lot of young people around so they don’t realise that there are different ways they might be letting them down.

We’re kind of ahead of the game on some of this and my hope was that we could have some things to teach people, so they can deal with the problems now and not face the sort of problems we’ve had to face.

JB What did you think when the stage-managed testimonies started to appear?

AF Maybe that I was a little naïve. It never occurred to me that it would be quite so staged, or some parts of it. Whereas actually that’s just politics, that’s human life, that’s what happens at big meetings. But I think that it means the discussion that happened between the synod fathers didn’t always mirror what came out in the formal results.

That’s odd, because these documents only have any authority because they are the result of the discussion and prayer of the bishops. If that’s not what appears in the documents, then that should alarm us, or at least raise questions about what’s going on. So that’s what I was indicating anxieties about.

JB We’ve heard a lot about bad bishops. What can we do to support good bishops?

AF The very starting point I’d say is to recognise there are some. Don’t throw all bishops together as the same thing, or all priests together as the same thing. We are as diverse as other human beings, and other Christians. Some are more faithful than others. And I suppose for people to have the generosity to recognise that range, and find some way to love and support and pray for us all. And perhaps the ones we regard as bad bishops, to pray for them all the more, and to be exhorting them all the more, rather than giving up on them. And those who people think are doing their level best to be faithful to tell them so every so often. We live in a culture that doesn’t always honour that.

And to be praying for courage and wisdom, because it is a hard time to lead in the Church. There is a risk that people are not going to put themselves forward as Church leaders because it’s so hard. And that’s not going to make the situation better, that’s going to make things worse.

Jordan Bloom is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC