LOOKING BACK: An old photo from The Northern Star files of St Carthage's Cathedral in Lismore.
LOOKING BACK: An old photo from The Northern Star files of St Carthage's Cathedral in Lismore.

Culture of Catholic Church must change, says priest

CHANGING the culture of the Catholic Church is the best apology the institution can give its victims, a priest of nearly 45 years said in his thought-provoking testimony this week at the Royal Commission into child abuse within the church.

Dr Michael Damien Whelan, whose passion for the priesthood flourished while growing up on the Northern Rivers, gave evidence at the commission hearing on Monday with fellow priest Dr David Gerard Ranson, of Broken Bay.

Dr Whelan said shifting the mentality of the clergy away from traditional power structures and hierarchy would be a key driver in better protecting its community.

"I'm just thinking to myself that the most powerful apology we can make is to change," Dr Whelan said.

"What has been done - the hurt, the terrible pain - it is. We can apologise, but words are not enough.

"The best gift we can give those who have been hurt is to move down the track that David is saying whereby we become a different kind of organisation with a different culture, a more relational culture."

The 69-year-old is confident the commission will expose the truth behind an alleged systemic lack of accountability and transparency in the Catholic Church.

"David and I would not be sitting here if it hadn't been for the courage of victims and the persistence of the courts and the journalists who brought this commission into being. We would have done something to tidy it up but we would not have got to the truth of it," Dr Whelan said.

Before moving to Sydney to begin his journey of priesthood at the age 17, Dr Whelan attended Ballina High School and said he was inspired to join the Marist Brothers through "tangential connections" with St John's College at Woodlawn, where some of his friends went to school and where the Marist Fathers taught.

"What has been done - the hurt, the terrible pain - it is. We can apologise, but words are not enough. 

Dr Whelan later took aim at the role of seminaries in educating the next generation of priests and called for them to be shut down.

"Seminaries are like boarding schools and I don't think they are healthy environments for maturation to take place. Let the would-be ordained minister live in the community, and a lot of the formation would go on in that context, as it were, de facto," Dr Whelan said.

During his seminary years, Dr Whelan said he suffered back pain and migraines from what he puts down to tension brought on by the pressures of the establishment.

He told the commission he had "no professional teacher training" before he was posted to a Catholic college in Tasmania, other than courses he undertook on initiative during holidays.

"Buy yourself an instrument of discipline" was the parting advise Dr Whelan recalled his provincial superior at the seminary giving him before his departure.

"I think this really was a serious lack. There was no mentoring. I just turned up with my cane from Pellegrini, and a lot of goodwill and naivety, and set about probably being quite a bad disciplinarian and teacher," Dr Whelan said.

"I should have been given professional training as a teacher and I should have been mentored and guided. I've thought back on it, in the light of the commission's work, and I say, 'Thank God I didn't have a proclivity to misbehave,' " Dr Whelan said.

"The tensions that I was under and the opportunities that I had could have led me to that."

Dr Whelan called the church law of mandatory celibacy "misguided" and questioned its relevance in the organisation.

He claimed a misinterpretation of sexual inclination in the 4th and 5th centuries had lead to the acts being negatively perceived in the "Catholic psyche".

Counsel assisting Ms Gail Furness said many witnesses did not view mandatory celibacy as a factor in itself, but rather the teachings or theology of the Catholic Church in matters of sexuality that were relevant.

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