PETER JOHNSTONE. Bishops in the headlights.

Catholic bishops throughout the world should regard themselves as on notice following the dramatic offer of resignations by all the bishops of Chile. There are already calls (Paul Collins) for Australian bishops to emulate the Chilean bishops in light of the damning report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, not to mention the recent conviction of an Australian archbishop on concealment charges and the imminent trial of another on sex abuse allegations. In many ways, the Catholic hierarchy is becoming increasingly isolated from the faithful.

Six months after the Royal Commission’s final report, we are still waiting for the Australian Catholic Bishops to seek the views of the faithful, let alone to respond to the Commission’s findings particularly their call for a national review of the governance of dioceses and parishes, including transparency, accountability, and participation of lay men and women. And the bishops’ Plenary Council in 2020/21 is looking more and more like a means of avoiding real immediate action on grave failings – see Chris Geraghty’s recent commentary – with a questionable local commitment from most bishops judging from diocesan websites. The bishops seem to be collectively “circling the wagons, locking the doors and huddling together”, the very response condemned by Archbishop Coleridge, the new President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) in his Pentecost message. Regrettably, many bishops appear to have little real regard for the views of the faithful.

The ACBC is perhaps frozen in the headlights of glaring attention, retreating to the unaccountability of ‘business as usual’. How else can they explain their failure to respond with strong leadership to the Royal Commission’s critical findings, let alone release the analysis of their own Truth Justice and Healing Council. At a routine level, they have not even acknowledged a request for a meeting from the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, comprising as many as ten separate groups of Catholics across Australia seeking necessary reform of their Church and restoration of confidence in their bishops. One might conclude that such paralysed behaviour is driven by incompetence or arrogance, at least a lack of humility, the very qualities of the clericalist culture at the core of the Church’s dysfunctional governance – and the antithesis of leadership, let alone Christ-like leadership. 

Francis has accused the Chilean bishops of destroying evidence of sex abuse and ‘grave negligence’ in protecting children from predator priests. These are issues addressed by the Australian Royal Commission and exposed by the media throughout the world. The Chilean bishops have only been held to account because the Pope was implicated by acting on their deceptive advice.

The scandal is of course even more serious than bishops deceiving the world and the Pope and goes far beyond the institutional Church protecting paedophiles and actively exposing more children to devastating harm. The fundamental scandal is that these crimes could not have occurred if bishops had practised the teachings of Jesus which is their prime mission, indeed their only reason for existence. Beyond the apparent sin of hypocrisy, it should be unimaginable that bishops would defy the Church’s very mission, and worse that the Church has not even questioned how this could have happened. Our bishops, and indeed the Holy See, appear to be ignoring the stark fact that, in Shakespeare’s apt wording, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”: the state of the Church is precarious and the need for reform and renewal is immediate.

The Royal Commission, after calling for a national review of the governance of dioceses and parishes, recommended that the ACBC should request the Holy See to address a number of critical matters, including appropriate criteria and processes for the selection of bishops with direct participation of the faithful. The Royal Commission’s recommendations were limited by national borders; hence the Commission’s call for a national review of Church governance, although they recognised governance dysfunctionality as universal, and their call to Australian bishops to involve the Holy See on a range of universal issues. 

An Open Letter to all the Australian bishops, auspiced by Catholics for Renewal in early 2017 and signed by some 4,000 Australian Catholics, had already stressed the universal nature of the Church’s dysfunctional governance. The Open Letter had recommended that Australian bishops should:

“send an urgent delegation, including laity, to Pope Francis:

    • urging him to purge child sexual abuse from the Church: legislating civil reporting of abuse, and ensuring effective discipline, major canon law reform, and review of priestly celibacy; 
    • advising him of the Royal Commission’s exposure of the Church’s global dysfunctional governance; particularly its clericalist culture and lack of accountability, transparency, and inclusiveness, especially the exclusion of women from top decision-making positions; and
    • requesting immediate reform of bishop selection processes, fully including the faithful in identifying the needs of dioceses and local selection criteria.” 

Despite a plea in that letter, “Please Listen and Act Now”, the ACBC decided mid-2017 that the matters raised in the Open Letter “might properly be referred to the Plenary Council” in 2020/21, kicking the difficult issues down the road rather than confronting these evils head-on. A subsequent personal request to the then President of the ACBC seeking a meeting elicited this terse dismissive and autocratic refusal: “The bishops have spoken.” 

In a recent paper, David Timbs referred to Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s identification of ‘a temporary suspense’ of the ecclesia docens (the teaching authority of the bishops) when there was a catastrophic failure of the bishops during 60 years of the Arian crisis in the 4th century: “When the bishops lost credibility, the people continued to evangelize; and when the bishops collectively lost trust, the people remained steadfastly loyal.” Timbs has recognised that the Australian bishops now find themselves in a similar situation, that 

there has been a ‘temporary suspense’ of the ecclesia docens and a veritable role reversal: where those who were formerly the ‘taught Church’ have become the ‘teaching Church’; where those who were ‘the governed’ have become the leaders; and where those who were once the pew sitters have become the evangelizers.

There appears to be no appetite amongst the Australian bishops to accept responsibility for the state of the Church, preferring delay and denial. They seem prepared to allow the institution to decay even further, a situation that can only be reversed by strong action from both Pope Francis and the faithful. After five years as Pope, the Chilean experience might be a sign that Francis has grasped just how ‘rotten’ is the state of the institutional Church, aggravated by the failures of its leadership. Our Australian bishops could assist Pope Francis by emulating the Chilean bishops and offering their resignations to facilitate rapid reform. Let us pray!

Peter Johnstone is a committed Catholic, a member of Catholics for Renewal and Convenor of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform.


Peter Johnstone consults in good governance practices and is committed to renewal of the Catholic Church.

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8 Responses to PETER JOHNSTONE. Bishops in the headlights.

  1. Avatar Mary Tehan says:

    The horse has well and truly bolted I’m afraid … it will be generations before even “catholic laity” (let alone the ordained) will be enabled sufficiently to gather momentum and gain traction in morality, values and/or public life again. I was at a function last week where all the language of religious meaning was utilised by some fantastic and wonderful people (mostly young people) mustering the troops for good locally and globally … the word “evangelising” was included without any negative response. No religious or overtly spiritual overtones at all in the room. The Spirit of LIFE, of justice, compassion, values and ethics, is definitely elsewhere and was on full display! It was wonderful, hopeful and full of ‘jouissance’.

  2. Excellent summation of the sad yet for many, expected outcomes of the Royal Commission when dealing with an institution as someone said deals with life in centuries. The frustration I am hearing here and in so many people’s experiences, my own included, is nothing that would surprise sociologists of elite institutions dealing with elite deviance. What you are experiencing are the effects of the first mode of neutralisation – inertia. It’s the best because it requires few resources. It’s the first tactic most with power turn to when something they don’t want exposed is threatened to be exposed. What you are experiencing should also not be a surprise when one reads the psychological studies of those who once they have found some semblance f (clerical) power, needed to suppress their own psychological shortcomings, they will not let go of it, happily kowtowing to those who gave to them min the first place. The success of inertia depends totally on people tiring of waiting and giving up. If you don’t, then be ready for the next 4 modes of neutralisation.

    • Avatar Trish Martin says:

      Stephen I dont know about your next 4 modes of neutralisation but if models are to be employed then the Ranson model makes sound sense. This Australian contribution says that Catholic clerics have a mistaken notion of a patriarchal God and when coupled with denial of eros and the feminine it adds up to dysfunction within society. The Church’s God imagery ought to be formulated with emphasis on collaboration and empowerment rather than domination and subservience. Clericalism or religious superiority leads to a public perfectionist tendency in which vulnerability is disavowed and systematic failure is hidden. Ranson says such imagery is unable to ‘process’ and tends towards confusion of idea and facts, instead what is maintained is a public persona of ‘perfectibility’ and ‘invulnerability’ (Ranson 1997: 5).

  3. Avatar Joan Seymour says:

    The Pope summoned the entire body of Chilean bishops and gave them the rounds of the kitchen about their behaviour in response to child abuse accusations. Apparently his main accusation was their failure to follow canon law in their treatment of abusive clerics and religious. (Presumably Chile has no compulsory notification laws to compel bishops to inform the secular authorities). My concern – the Pope still isn’t addressing the fact that canon law itself is faulty and, in some parts, grossly unfit for purpose. The Bishops recognize that Francis is right to demand their compliance with canon law; they don’t necessarily see that canon law itself needs to be changed. Same with the Archbishops of Canberra and Sydney – in referring to the Royal Commission they spoke gravely of how the Church has needed the work of the Commission, has been through a gruelling but necessary process, has rightly suffered….etc etc. I’m paraphrasing, but the tense of the verbs is interesting, indicating that it’s all over now, we deserved challenging and now it’s completed. If they can’t see that it’s only just begun, they are incapable of leading the Australian church.

    • Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

      Exactly, Joan Seymour:
      The stubborn self-righteousness of a class which cannot change – even to save themselves.
      Can they be ridiculed, despised even, too much?

  4. Avatar Nick Agocs says:

    First of all I have given up on the members of the ACBC – irrespective who its membership is – a very long time ago. Anyway those who have been critical of their fellow bishops are no longer there.
    To use Canon Law as a excuse not act is a total cope out – there are other action that can be taken which has not been done.Also what is relevant to the laity – Canon Law or the legal structure that effects the everyday activity of the laity?
    It is already obvious that the 2020-2021 Plenary Council is a cope out – watch the four videos being circulated in parishes and online – watch carefully the one relating to the structure and the decision making process. I have some of my fellow lay Catholics insisting that that is the only avenue open to the ACBC because “that is what Canon Law decrees” – a little bit of adventurousness would not go astray at this point.

  5. Avatar Trish Martin says:

    Canon Law gives structure and system to Catholic ideology which is what a bishop is bound to at consecration. Their authority comes directly from Rome rather than from God. This church culture is a separation from the life-giving Spirit, its structure provides the cleric with an illusion of mission and peace, but it is a pernicious peace that has caused insidious harm and ruin to the lives of God’s most treasured citizens. The Australian bishops have an obligation to salvage the Church from its self-destruction, and to follow the Chilean example and go straight to the Pope who alone has the power and authority to restore our faith in this flawed system.

  6. Avatar Bill Burke says:

    If you are to take the Newman citation seriously, then, there would seem to be two areas of activity that become relevant.
    Energetically advocating an agenda for the Australian Bishops to receive and make their own, is one plank: The other, is seeking to take the rest of the laity with you. This latter task, as mentioned in David Timb’s material, involves an engagement with evangelisation.
    In other words your program of reform needs to merge with a recognisable experience and articulation of catholic belief that ordinary Catholics can make their own. The Laity who remain in the pews and those who maintain a modest visiting pattern are your audience. They need to make your agenda theirs – if it is to be carried forward by the Australian Catholic community (bishops included).
    No easy feat, but no less necessary. For without this broader adherence your suggestions are always open to uninformed slings and arrows from arch conservative marks-persons .

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