Bishop in waiting is under no illusions

Wednesday 7 August 2019

Charmayne Allison, Riverine Herald

Charmayne Allison sat down with Shane Mackinlay - Bishop-elect for the diocese of Sandhurst - to hear about his role in the greatest scandal in Australia's Catholic church, the minefield he had to navigate and the journey that now lies ahead of him.

Shane Mackinlay's faith has never wavered, not even when he was handed the Catholic Church's poisoned chalice.

His church had been rocked nationally by the sexual abuse scandal that would end in a Royal Commission.

Catholicism was fighting for its life and Father Mackinlay was in the frontline.

Based in Ballarat, he was the spokesperson for the Catholic Church during the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and other Non-Government Organisations from 2012 to 2014.

Now he has been appointed bishop for the Diocese of Sandhurst where he will be the pastoral carer for a large slice of central and northern Victoria, encompassing Echuca, Shepparton, Bendigo, Wangaratta and Wodonga.

A sprawling responsibility with Australia's second worst figures for child sex abuse by priests across a 60-year period.

Almost 15 per cent of priests who ministered in Sandhurst between 1950 and 2010 were accused of child sexual offences - chilling figures revealed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse in 2017.

That's proportionately more than neighbouring Ballarat, the diocese thrust into the spotlight during the Royal Commission for the sheer scale of atrocities suffered there under the Catholic banner.

Recently announced as Bishop-elect for Sandhurst, Fr Mackinlay knows he's stepping into a diocese nursing wounds still very raw from decades of trauma and abuse.

And for many it will take years, lifetimes, even generations, for these wounds to heal.
‘I feel very sad and angry about what has happened in the church and the hurt that's been inflicted on people and continues to be part of their stories today,’ Fr Mackinlay said.

‘Clearly, there are major challenges we have in terms of building trust again with people who are feeling very reasonably angry and disillusioned with the church.

‘Particularly in the way the church has behaved in dealing with abuse and the range of really enormous failures that the Royal Commission has drawn out.

‘I know that's part of the story in Sandhurst - as it is for the rest of us.’

When Fr Mackinlay first stepped into a life in the church in 1991, he had little idea of the turbulent years that lay ahead.

Born in Melbourne in 1965, he attended school in Ballarat before studying for the priesthood at Corpus Christi College, completing theology studies at Catholic Theological College and a degree in physics at Monash University.

He still admits a life in the church was not his initial dream.

‘I thought about all sorts of things I might do and I'd certainly done well at school so there was a range of options open to me,’ he said.

‘I was interested in being involved with people and the community, with God as part of that. It wasn't until halfway through year 12 the opportunity to pursue priesthood popped up.

‘It wasn't something that immediately grabbed me but it niggled away in a way nothing else did.

‘I would say in the end the reason I got ordained is because I came to experience very deeply that God was calling me to be a priest.’

It was a calling that soon blossomed into a real passion and since graduating from the seminary, Fr Mackinlay has thrown heart and soul into serving the church.

He was a deacon in the parish of Warrnambool before being ordained as priest for the Ballarat Diocese in 1991 and serving in the parishes of Hamilton, Colac and Ballarat Cathedral.

He then undertook graduate studies in philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, where he completed a Master's degree and a Doctorate.

He has been parish priest of the Bungaree parish since 2005 and (to fill in any remaining time) has served as Master of Catholic Theological College in Melbourne since 2011.

In 2012 he was handed a new, daunting challenge - appointed as spokesperson for the Catholic Church during Victoria's inquiry into child abuse.

There's still a tinge of sadness in his voice as he reflects on that time.
‘It was hard work, obviously,’ he said.

‘And very confronting in terms of becoming aware of, and having to be very honest about, the awful things that have been done by people in the church and the inexcusable failures in the way people in leadership responded to those.

‘At the same time, we have very good grounds for being confident that in the past 25 years, abuse has become very rare and it's very difficult for it to happen at this point.
‘There obviously continues to be really bad news and real suffering for people - I don't want to downplay that at all. But I believe we're not starting from scratch in responding to that.’

Fr Mackinlay said formal processes for responding to and assisting survivors of abuse had been in place since 1996, with significant response from the Sandhurst Diocese.
Rigorous screening has also been introduced for people preparing for priesthood.

‘That's been a significant aspect in shifting the incidence of abuse,’ Fr Mackinlay said.
‘It ensures before someone is ordained, we are as confident as we can be that they are a person with really well-developed, well-tested psychological and psychosexual maturity.

‘Where 50 years ago that wouldn't have been a question that was even asked.’
Each diocese will also be audited independently on a triannual cycle, with results publicly reported.

‘The Royal Commission has highlighted how important it is for us to be thinking differently about the way we operate in a clear, transparent, accountable way that draws on all the riches and resources people throughout the community have to offer,’ Fr Mackinlay said.

He admitted the unfolding abuse scandal had largely eclipsed other aspects of the Catholic Church.

But he believed the Catholic faith was still as relevant today as ever.
‘(The abuse scandal) is not the whole story,’ he said.

‘And the idea that the things that matter most about us are enhanced and enriched by recognising and living out a relationship with God is still valuable.

‘So many people are missing hope and encouragement and a sense of connection and belonging and purpose in life - so this is a really valuable, life-giving message to offer.’

Fr Mackinlay was overseas in June finishing a four-month sabbatical when he received the shock news he had been selected as Bishop-elect for Sandhurst.
Meaning on October 16, he will officially replace Bishop Leslie Tomlinson, who has served Sandhurst since 2012.

‘It was completely unexpected. I'm in my first year of my third four-year term as head of Catholic Theological College, so I'd just begun that four-year term and had taken this time of study leave to frame some of the goals I'd had for that,’ he said.
‘That's the direction I was going. So I'm starting to reimagine what that time looks like now.’

Top of his evolving to-do list: visit the 40 parishes in the vast Sandhurst Diocese - including Echuca.

‘I look forward to getting to know the places and the people and what the local issues are,’ he said.

‘You never make sense of a place just in seeing how it is now - you need to hear about where it has come from to understand what matters to people.’

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