Dear Archbishop Christopher Prowse,
I am writing to you today regarding the reinstatement of Rod Whelan to his position of Principal at Kildare Catholic College, Wagga Wagga.
I debated as to whether or not I would even write this letter – it’s possibly akin to throwing water in the ocean, and the outcome of this could already be case of fait accompli: So why even bother? (I do not have enough hubris to think that this will in any way influence the outcome of what I presume to be your decision. I can only hope that it is not one that you have undertaken lightly.) By this time, your decision has probably already been made.
Despite this, I still feel compelled to make my voice heard; like I needed to say something, to ‘always pray and not give up’ (Luke 18:1). So consider this letter a kind of open prayer. Perhaps one driven by sheer 11th-hour desperation, but a type of prayer nonetheless; and prayer, as you know as a man of faith, can come in all forms.
Like many I have spoken to in the months since Rod’s dismissal, I have experienced a range of emotions – anger and frustration at this situation being the dominant ones. I feel a sense of powerlessness I have not experienced since I was a child, when like all children, I was completely beholden to the decisions and whims of the adults around me.
But unlike the benign frustrations of childhood, the impact of this decision has far-reaching consequences – and not just for Rod Whelan, a well-respected, passionate principal who has devoted his life’s work to his faith and Catholic education. The outcome of this decision will also undoubtedly impact the students, teachers, staff and parents of the entire school community – past and present – of Kildare Catholic College.
And last – and I do not add this lightly – I think that this decision could potentially create a lasting ripple effect of longer-term consequences for an entire generation of Wagga Catholics. Perhaps this sounds dramatic. But allow me to give this some more context.
I was raised in Dorchester, a strong Irish-Catholic community of Boston, one where you identified yourself not by your neighbourhood, but by your parish: St Ambrose, St Mark’s, St Ann’s. I grew up in St Brendan’s. I attended the Catholic school, sang in the choir, went to mass every week. (It was never ‘Are you going to mass this week?’ but ‘Which mass are you going to?’ something I remind my kids of whenever the conversation arises, as we have become more sporadic in our mass attendance.) As a matter of course, I received all my initiation sacraments without question.
As an adult, my first teaching job was at a Catholic girls’ high school, where I taught English and religious education. During this time, I was awarded a scholarship as an emerging educator to attend a professional development programme at Boston College’s Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (now part of the Jesuit university’s School of Theology and Ministry). I perhaps predictably even married a Catholic. So – needless to say – everything about my upbringing and my early adulthood indicated that I would stay a lifelong Catholic. (But I can no longer say with certainty that I will remain; like with many relationships, it may end due to death by 1,000 cuts.)
Then in early 2002, The Boston Globe broke the story about Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. My home parish had been home to one of the most the notorious paedophiles among them, Fr John Geoghan. He was at my house on the day of my first communion during his time at St Brendan’s as a parish priest. I can say sadly, but with good authority, that he victimised at least one boy from my neighbourhood. Geoghan was later accused of having sexually abused over 130 boys. (In 2004, Geoghan, by then defrocked, was killed in his jail cell by a fellow inmate.)
If you have seen the film Spotlight, it details the unfolding of this story. It shows that the Archdiocese of Boston had been very aware of the ongoing abuse of children by the clergy, moving priests, paying off victims. Over and over. This is a situation that has tragically been mirrored in countless other Catholic parishes throughout the world, including here in Australia. And I can say without a doubt that the revelation of his abhorrent behaviour was one of the first permanent chinks in my Catholic armour. I’m sure many others of my generation would say the same.
After this, I still continued to attend mass, and we chose to raise our three children as Catholics: change must start from within, right? But at times, this it has been a decision I have questioned – recent events have not helped. Especially when my children – now teens – ask questions for which there are no answers, about behaviours for which there is no justification. I have, like countless others, experienced wave after wave of doubt regarding the integrity of the Catholic Church – a compilation of so many factors, I can’t even begin to detail them here. I just have too much to say.
But two most recent examples, much smaller but closer to home: the unexplained dismissal of Rod Whelan, coupled with the shameful behaviour of Fr Kevin O’Reilly, who told parishioners they were ‘trespassing’ at St Michael’s Catherdral when they arrived as a show of solidarity regarding Rod’s sudden and inexplicable ‘resignation’. The peaceful prayer service ended with Fr O’Reilly calling the NSW police to have people ‘removed’. I was among the ‘protestors’.
These more recent events may seem like small things, but they’re not: for me, they may yet turn out to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. How can I, in good faith, support a faith institution which I no longer believe in? How do I support an institution that treats its members – practicing Catholics – this way? How do I explain to my children the intergenerational hypocrisy, the abuse of power by those who were supposed to be the pillars of both faith and the community, often held up as a conduit to God Himself?
The Church is supposed to be its people. Without the people, there is technically no Church. If current mass attendance rates are anything to judge by, we are in big trouble. The demographic of church-attenders, as you would be well aware, is mostly those over aged 60. Vocations in Western countries are at an all-time low. Based on current models, the Church here will just ultimately fizzle out. After over 2,000 years. There will be no one left to replace the current mass attendees.
The Church cannot afford to lose its youth – this very youth, who are currently attending Catholic schools as a captive audience. They are the future of the Church. But the schools can’t do it alone. They need the support of the parents. We are the metaphorical phalanx, part of the last line, and we are so disheartened, we are falling fast. And with us, so is the future of the Church.
The unfolding of this situation over the last nine months has once again magnified the faults: the stalwart approach to secrecy, the lack of transparency, the lack of accountability. For me, this is about the microcosm of the situation representing larger systemic issues that continue to plague the Catholic Church, and may ultimately contribute to its demise at this current rate. That makes me sad. For myself, but also for my children and for everyone who counts on their local faith community for solace and support.
Not to put too fine a point on this, Archbishop, but this situation with Rod Whelan is not just about reinstating one man to a job that is rightfully his – although that of course should be the only outcome. We know Rod did nothing criminal; for whatever the reasons, the situation seems to have, at some stage, become a witch hunt. And I can only imagine what these past months have been like for Red Whelan and his family; his father has gone to his eternal rest without ever knowing the outcome of this situation.
But this is about doing the right thing. It’s about accountability and justice and transparency. It’s also possibly about investing in the future of the Wagga Catholic community. And the future of the Church cannot be like that of the whitewashed tomb: beautiful on the outside but full of all corruption (Matthew 23:27).
As a final note, let me also say that I applaud your decision to have an independent panel, KB West Advisory, look into this. While I don’t know what their report says specifically, nor do I know what recommendations may have been made, I do know that it’s time to move forward. And the best way to do that is allow Rod the right of return to his substantive position. I believe that despite all he has been through, he has so much more to give. He most certainly has been tested by these events. Please let the outcome see him vindicated.
Thank you for taking the time to consider the contents of this letter.
Live the truth.