Media and Communications Office
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli made his first major public address since being installed as Archbishop at a lunch hosted by the Melbourne Press Club. His key message was that the Church needs to respond with justice and compassion to the victims of abuse.
With a profile on the front page of The Age in his first days of becoming Archbishop of Melbourne, it’s not Archbishop Peter’s first brush with the media. But on Thursday, the Melbourne Press Club made the meeting official, hosting a press lunch with Melbourne’s new Catholic leader at Mr Hive Kitchen & Bar, Crown Metropol Hotel. The ticketed event was a sell-out, with a strong turnout from non-media related groups and sponsors around the city.
Over lunch, Archbishop Peter delivered a speech much like a homily concerning the role of the Church in Melbourne, explaining the role of a bishop as being like that of a parent. ‘I’m conscious I’ll need to pace myself for the marathon ahead,’ he said. What emerged was the Archbishop’s desire for the Church to return to its gospel roots and to eschew the overly corporate and managerial focus of the past.
Archbishop Peter reiterated his pledge to restore trust in the church and rebuild a culture of safety and care in the wake of the revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
But the highlight of the afternoon was the 45 minutes the new Archbishop devoted to answering questions from the members of the press.
During the Q&A, the press didn’t pull any punches putting questions to the Catholic leader about the seal of confession, clerical celibacy, the Archdiocese's financial reporting and governance, the redress scheme, female leadership, and how he proposed he might rebuild trust in an organisation dealing with its biggest challenge since the Protestant Reformation.
There were moments when Archbishop Peter admitted some revealing gaps in his knowledge owing to limited time in the job. Speaking to a representative from The Age, the Archbishop said, ‘The assets of the Archdiocese I don’t yet know—I still need to get a sense of where we are financially.’ But he reassured the gathering that in future he intended to set up an annual report of the Archdiocese ‘just like any company of government authority. That has been my practice and I can’t see a reason to change that.’
Speaking to a representative from 7 News, the Archbishop said he had an ‘absolute commitment’ to offering forgiveness to perpetrators of abuse. Confirming he’d met and spoken with abuse victims in his first days on the job, he said he was committed to making himself available to victims and survivors of abuse in future. ‘That will be something of a pattern of mine if people want to speak with me.’ His message: ‘I hear you, I believe you, what can I do?’
Towards the end of the session, lawyer and advocate representing victims of institutional abuse, Dr Judy Courtin, stood and recounted the story of Eileen Piper, and her daughter Stephanie who committed suicide following sexual abuse by a member of clergy. She brought in a picture of her daughter lying in her coffin. During the question, the Archbishop broke with protocol by walking over to see the picture and speak quietly with Eileen. Judy Courtin asked that he read through a dossier on her case and meet with her client, to which the Archbishop agreed.
Former ABC journalist Kathy Bowlen pressed the Archbishop to comment on the Archdiocese's governance structures and the role of women and the laity. ‘Most of my key leaders were women, making governance decisions,’ Archbishop Peter said of his former team at the Diocese of Broken Bay.
‘I need to look at governance structures here and I’ve already started doing that, particularly around the safeguarding side of things. I need to do it in other areas as well.’
‘Governance structures in the church need to be led by women and men, both ordained and not ordained.’
Asked how to address the monumental breach of trust by the Church in Melbourne and comment on a strategy, Archbishop Peter responded, ‘By being trustworthy. You don’t tell people to trust you. You do it by your own personal actions.’
Campaigner against child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and Australian of the Year Chrissie Foster was in attendance and asked if Archbishop Peter would read her book Hell on the way to heaven, to which the Archbishop agreed.
The Archbishop spent the closing moments of the gathering speaking with Chrissie Foster and Eileen Piper.