Issue 35 - 14 Sept

Safeguarding Sunday

Last Sunday was “Safeguarding Sunday” (formerly Child Protection Sunday), the conclusion of National Child Protection Week. This day seeks to acknowledge the immense damage caused by the sexual abuse of children and adults at risk, including by priests, religious and laypeople within Catholic contexts. It makes a commitment to practices and protocols that create and maintain safe environments for all people. It invites people to pray for those harmed by abuse directly and indirectly.

In the last twenty years, I cannot recall a conversation about the validity of religion where this issue has not been raised. This has a personal edge for me. Since being ordained in 1993, I have seriously questioned my vocation on three occasions, and each time the questioning emerged out of revelations about the crimes of clergy against minors and the cover-up of those crimes by church officials.

There is no question that this criminal behaviour has been one of the greatest moments of evil, both in the abuse, itself, and in its cover up. Having established a Papal Commission for Protecting Minors from Clerical Sex Abuse, Pope Francis stated, “We must go ahead with zero tolerance. A priest who has sex with a child betrays God. A priest needs to lead children to sanctity, and children trust him. But instead he abuses them, and this is terrible.”

Then, in his meeting with survivors of clerical abuse on Monday July 7, 2014, he said even more clearly, “There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not. All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable …. I ask (your) support so as to help me ensure that we develop better policies and procedures in the universal Church for the protection of minors and for the training of church personnel in implementing those policies and procedures. We need to do everything in our power to ensure that these sins have no place in the Church… (May God) give us the grace to be ashamed…”

For those of us who have met survivors of clerical sexual abuse of minors, and the secondary victims, their families, we know that no apology can ever repair the damage, no amount of compensation can give someone back their innocence and childhood, and no act of reparation or penance can ever adequately express the shame and sorrow of what all of us feel over what a very few clergy have done.

That said, along with many other Catholics that I know, I hope, firstly, that all church officials, against whom credible allegations of child abuse have been upheld, will be dismissed from the priesthood and the religious life. No matter when it was committed, the sexual abuse of a child nullifies any commitment to the priesthood or belonging to a religious order. It is, for many believers, the line in the sand. Christian forgiveness starts with holding people accountable for what they have done, and it has consequences. No one is beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness, however, some actions by a very few church officials prevent them from continuing to be such leaders.

Secondly, if the survivor wishes to go to the police, the Church should support them in their decision, be transparent in the legal process, and hand over the alleged perpetrator for secular legal investigation.

Thirdly, if the survivor does not wish to pursue a legal remedy, the Church’s process must be an independent conciliation, arbitration, and compensation one.

Fourthly, officials who have covered up these crimes should be subjected to civil and ecclesiastical penalties.

Finally, if the pursuit of justice means that the Church needs to sell property and liquidate assets to settle just claims with survivors, then the Church should recognize that people always matter more than land and buildings. Though no cash can ever repair the damage, it is one indication of the seriousness of action in the face of our new-found rhetoric.

The sexual abuse of children is a crisis for all churches, faith traditions, many families and several other community organisations. In a religious context it’s a make or break moment for many people in regards to belief, unbelief, membership and belonging and even whether the churches can be trusted at all, about anything. The stakes are very high. No one who cares about the Church can minimize the gravity of the crisis anymore.

I hope dedicated days and weeks like Safeguarding ones gives us pause to keep repenting of our past, courage to confront our present and change the structures that covered up these crimes, and do all we can to sincerely offer healing and peace to survivors and their families - if that’s what they want or seek. I think this way is the only way we can embrace our future with faith, hope and love.

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of 12 books. His most recent one is The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom (Paulist).



Issue 34 - 07 Sept

Father’s Day

Last Sunday was Father’s Day in Australia and New Zealand.

Against what is sometimes claimed, Father’s and Mother’s Days were not invented by department stores to increase sales, but to honour parents because we never know when they won’t be here. Grief for lost parents motivated the founders of both days.   

The first Father’s Day took place in 1908 on July 5 in Fairmont, West Virginia. It was organized by Mrs. Grace Golden Clayton. She was inspired to honour the 210 fathers who had died in a mining tragedy at Monongah, West Virginia on December 6, 1907.

Mother’s Day has only been around since Anna Jarvis began to campaign for it after her own mother died in 1905. By 1908 it was a public holiday in her hometown of Grafton, West Virginia. It caught on into other US States, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day an official civic holiday and from there it spread around the world.

Interestingly, Father’s Day, while observed for decades, was not formally declared a nationally gazetted event until President Richard Nixon did so in 1972.

My mother doesn’t like Mother’s Day very much. I grew up with, “A sincere thank you most days is infinitely better than a fuss on one day of the year.”

Father’s Day in my childhood home was complex too because my father died at 36 when I was two. 

The problem with the way secular society wants to observe Father’s Day is that while it provides images of great dads and happy families, it doesn’t make much room for dead, absent, abusive, addicted, violent or physically or mentally ill fathers. These commemorative days would be richer if they encompassed how varied parenting and being parented actually is.   

In the Ten Commandments we are told to “Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may belong in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” which seems to me to be a grand way of saying: Respect Age.

The commandment to respect age is not about the calendar but about valuing wisdom and experience. Older people, including our parents, are not automatically wise, because wisdom comes from reflecting on experience, and learning from it. However, contemporary society so over values the youth culture that older people and their true wisdom are often overlooked.  Respecting age is an interplay between memory and gratitude. Memory is an integral part of being human. I have done several funerals of people who have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. These are rarely very sad occasions because the family invariably says that they “lost” their loved one months or years ago. Why? Because increasingly their loved one couldn’t remember anyone or anything. We hold to caring for the body from the womb to the tomb, because we believe that human dignity must always be respected. I am not arguing that people who have lost their memories are less human because every human being has inalienable rights. Indeed even if on external levels memory seems to have past maybe it is functioning on a deeper, unconscious level. There are now theories about how even the memories of the circumstances of our conception and birth have a bearing on the way we live our lives. It is also apparent that even when people seem to have lost their memory or are unconscious, there is some recognition of some things at a very deep level. Valuing people’s memories is important theologically. When I meet God face to face, I will remember who I am and how I lived, and God will remember me. It’s also a comfort for us to think that we will be reunited with those we have loved who have died before us, because we remember each other.

The second element in respecting age is gratitude. I think please and thank you could be the two fastest disappearing words from the English language. In almost every country in the world the debt we owe to previous generations is vast: hard work, courage and the sacrifices of our older people has paved the way for what we often take for granted. On nearly every world lifestyle indicator, even if we are doing it tough at present, we live in the most privileged of circumstances. As Christians we do not think this is our right, our due or our good fortune. As Christians, we know this is a blessing, won by the hard work of previous generations and we respond to it by just being grateful. I could not imagine showing greater respect for anyone than to value their reflective memory and being grateful.

A final true story a dad, some healing and love.

There was a baby girl who was seriously ill in a Neonatal ICU. The neonatologist said there was very little hope. The baby’s five-year-old brother, Michael, kept begging his parents to let him see his sister. “I want to sing to her”, he kept saying. Children weren’t allowed in the ICU, but Michael’s father eventually insisted that he be able to see his sister.

When he got to the humidicrib he sang: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey.” The nurse reported that as Michael sang, the baby’s pulse rate began to calm down and become steady.

“Keep on singing, Michael”, encouraged his dad with tears in his eyes.

“You never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

The baby recovered and left the hospital five weeks later.

I am not pretending for a moment that Michael’s song healed his sister. The healthcare professionals deserve that credit. But we should never underestimate the power of human support and love. It helps us to be healed.

On the days we stop to formally think about our dads and mums, may we be blest with gifts of a love that also heal if we need it.

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of 12 books. His most recent one is The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom (Paulist).


Issue 33 - 31 Aug

Creation: The Poorest of the Poor

In 2018 Wim Wenders, the famous German film director, made a documentary:  Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. It runs for 96 minutes and is permanently available on Apple TV or can be rented on several other different platforms. No film crew has had this type of unfettered access before to another Pope. What is most arresting about it is the immediacy and warmth of Francis’ personality. We see our universal pastor passionate, in some pain, and yet still full of hope.

"The Vatican made it very clear to me that I'd have carte blanche and very privileged access to the archives, in addition to final cut. They let us shoot without interfering. We had four long interview sessions with Pope Francis, on four afternoons spread over two years. … In these four long talks, Pope Francis was utterly spontaneous, direct and open in all his answers”, Wenders remembers.

In the film Pope Francis says that to be truly moral right now we have to reject wealth and power as absolute goals, and serve others. Faith must be relaxed in its dialogue with science and preserve mental health through rest, recreation and being gentle with one another. He regards the leadership of women as pivotal to the future of our community. He says that the whole Church must have ‘zero tolerance’ of paedophiles and fully cooperate with civil authorities in investigating and prosecuting those charged with these heinous crimes. He goes on. In a world where 20% of the population are consuming 80% of the world’s resources, we have to secure a more just order for all God’s children. The special plight of refugees will increasingly make a claim upon richer countries who cannot turn a deaf ear to their just demands for protection and care. And he wants love to unite believer and unbeliever as one human family through a simple smile, good humour and joy.

For anyone who knows Catholic Social Teaching, none of this is new or novel. Popes have been saying these things for 50 years.

A significant section of the film is dedicated to our care of the earth. Pope Francis states: “If you ask me who is the poorest of the poorest of the poor, I would say Mother Earth. We have plundered her. We have abused her." Francis laments the growing culture of waste and hopes for us to live in harmony with the entire creation.

Bouncing off his encyclical on the environment, Ladato Si, this year the Australian Catholic Bishops entitled their social justice statement: Cry of the Earth. Cry of the Poor. It is a readable and thoughtful document, calling on us to do what the Bible often calls Israel to do – to stop and listen: to our communities, especially those rural areas ravaged by bushfires; our Pacific neighbours, where rising sea levels are here and now; to the Word of God; to the theological tradition and Catholic Social Teaching over centuries; to the world of science; and to our indigenous sisters and brothers who have cared for this part of creation for 50,000 years.     

Like Francis, the Bishops call us to ‘ecological conversion’ and hope that we do not remain indifferent to problems such desertification, the degradation and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase in extreme weather, and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical areas.

Some Catholics, including some Bishops, have claimed that these environmental concerns and calls-to-action are faddish and that the crisis is overstated. Some have warned that they are signs of a ‘new pantheism’ or ‘a neo-pagan cult.’ It’s good to remember that the conservative Pope Benedict XVI in his 2010 World Peace Day Message was as strong as Francis and the Australian Bishops in calling all Catholics to the urgency of the issue, insisting that protecting the environment is “the duty of every person,” one which demands changes in personal, social, national and international habits, activities, attitudes and actions.

Francis says the cry of the earth is THE right to life issue. He has been criticised for saying this by those who think he is prioritising ecology over other womb-to-tomb life issues. He isn’t. He is making the unexceptionable point that if we don’t have a healthy life-sustaining planet then none of us are going to be alive at all.

Wednesday September 1 is the World Day of Prayer for Creation, and the start of the Season of Creation (1 September to 4 October). May our prayers lead to concrete and political demands that we hear the cry “of the poorest of the poorest of the poor,” Mother Earth, stop plundering and abusing her, and be the good stewards of creation God calls us to be. In every sense, our entire future depends on it.

Cry of the Earth. Cry of the Poor:

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of 12 books. His most recent one is The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom (Paulist).



Fr Richard Leonard SJ

Nominated by the Jesuit Provincial, Fr Quyen Vu SJ, Fr Richard Leonard SJ has been appointed by the Archbishop of Sydney as next the parish priest of Our Lady of the Way incorporating the communities of Star of Sea, Kirribilli, St Francis Xavier, Lavender Bay and St Mary's, North Sydney.

Richard is well known to many in the parish, having lived with us for 13 years as Superior of the Jesuit Community, a role he will continue to fulfil in the short term.

Richard has graduate degrees in theology and communications and a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He has been a visiting scholar within the School of Theatre, Film & Television at UCLA and a Visiting Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He directed the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for 22 years.

He is a regular columnist with The Tablet magazine in London and is the author of ten books including the international best sellers: Where the Hell is God?; Why Bother Praying?; and Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments. His most recent book The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom was released in April this year.

A highly acclaimed international speaker, Fr Richard has lectured on faith and culture all over the world.

 “The Jesuits have been devoted servants of the parish community of North Sydney for 143 years and it is my honour to follow in that tradition. I hope we will make our own what Pope Francis has said should characterise contemporary Catholic parish life: a missionary community that ‘reaches out to everyone, without exception, particularly the poor’; that possesses great flexibility in helping people to find God, and celebrate Christ’s presence in their lives; that has good preaching, excellent liturgy and is generous in its mercy, compassion and hospitality,” Fr Leonard said. “The parish of Our Lady of Way has been my base for my other ministries for 13 years so I know what a wonderful community of lay people, religious and brother Jesuits we have, and how together we can inspire each other to be even greater disciples of Christ.”


About the author

Richard Leonard is a Jesuit priest. He has degrees in arts and education, as well as a Master’s degree in theology. Fr Richard did graduate studies at the London Film School and has a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Catholic University; has been a visiting scholar within the School of Theatre, Film & Television at UCLA and a Visiting Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He directed the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for 22 years. He has served on juries at the Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Warsaw, Hong Kong, Montreal, Brisbane and Melbourne International Film Festivals and he has lectured on faith and culture all over the world. He has been published in America MagazineEureka StreetUS Catholic, is regular columnist with The London Tablet and is a regular guest on ABC Radio.

He is the author of ten books, among the titles are:  

Where the Hell is God?

What does it all mean? A guide to being more faithful, hopeful and loving

His most recent book is Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments.

Richard’s next book The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom, will be released in early 2021.