JOHN WARHURST. Catholic Bishops must embrace transparency and accountability

Senior Catholic bishops must exercise leadership and firmly grasp the fresh opportunities now provided to them for increased transparency and accountability within the church. They must grab the moment.

The Vatican. Credit: Nils – Unsplash

The power dynamics within the church, involving a hierarchy within the hierarchy, means that the senior bishops, including Anthony Fisher, the Archbishop of Sydney, who was recently involved in controversy with former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (Quentin Dempster, “Catholic Church duplicitous and unaccountable in needs-based school funding says Malcolm Turnbull”, Pearls and Irritations), must exercise responsibility. The others include Mark Coleridge, the Archbishop of Brisbane, who is the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), Tim Costelloe, the Archbishop of Perth, who is the Chair of the Plenary Council 2020 (PC2020), and Peter Comensoli, the Archbishop of Melbourne. If Fisher, Coleridge, Costelloe and Comensoli do not exercise such leadership, these precious opportunities for reform may be lost despite whatever efforts the rest of the Catholic community make.

The May ACBC meeting began last Thursday. They had before them several documents making the undeniable case for increased transparency and accountability in church governance.

They considered the report of the Governance Review which was set up by the ACBC and Catholic Religious Australia in the light of the recommendation by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to review the church’s governance and culture.

The bishops were due to consider the reports by the six Writing and Discernment groups chosen to investigate the major themes identified by the 17,500 submissions by Catholics to the PC2020 Listening process. Governance reform, including greater transparency, inclusivity, lay participation in leadership and accountability, was a major focus of these submissions, a summary of which has been published.

They had also received earlier in the week an Open Communique from the 15- member national network of church reform groups, known as the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR). This communique embraced co-responsibility in church governance and condemned autocratic and unaccountable leadership.  Among the specific matters ACCCR stressed as being of fundamental importance were:

Good governance with accountability, inclusion in decision making and appointments, equality and transparency, with synodality and subsidiarity, with the very best models of leadership, and with ongoing and open dialogue with all Christ’s faithful.

This is a great moment of opportunity for the Church in Australia to embark on internal reform and to prove that it is part of an era of change in which business as usual is not good enough. Between them these documents, and the research, conversations and discernment upon which they are based, provide the basis for serious governance reform. They provide the church leadership, not just the bishops but also other religious leaders, with the basis for such action.

Some of the desired action needs to be collective, but much of it can be taken up independently by leaders of dioceses and other constituent units, Now is not the time for timidity. The Australian Catholic community is crying out for action. Reform of institutional practices will be needed as will a change in culture and mindset.

All of this must be driven by co-responsible leadership shared by bishops, clergy, religious and laity. But the realpolitik, in this time of transition, is that some of the existing senior episcopal leadership has to act decisively and progressively for much to happen.

The two PC 2020 meetings, now delayed by COVID-19, will be critical occasions for governance reform to be progressed. But the episcopal leadership should immediately address some reforms, including financial accountability and public communications, as a matter of urgency.

Public communication about internal church affairs should be more transparent. Almost without exception, it is unnecessarily introverted and defensive. There is a lot going on within the higher reaches of the church, including organizational restructuring and the composition of the lay component of the PC2020, which, although of great public interest, is carried on largely behind closed doors.

Wider cultural reform is a necessary ingredient. The official church media, tightly controlled by the senior bishops, is too tame and conservative. It is not committed to transparency and accountability and reluctant to allow room for a diversity of voices within the Catholic community, including those critical of its leaders, to be heard.

Greater transparency and accountability, including on financial matters, do not come easily to the Catholic church. Yet there are some positive signs that the church in Australia is edging forwards. The opportunity is beckoning and many of the ingredients are coming together. What is now needed is a strong dose of forward-thinking leadership from those men currently occupying the most powerful positions in the hierarchy.


John Warhurst AO is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. He is a regular columnist with the Canberra Times and Eureka Street.

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10 Responses to JOHN WARHURST. Catholic Bishops must embrace transparency and accountability

  1. Avatar Kimball Byron Chen says:

    Thanks, John. To my mind, there are two difficulties. First, the bishops you mention would need to acquire sufficient humility to acknowledge their failure in their primary function of preaching the Gospel and that their pride induces them to fail to engage the laity to any great extent in carrying out that task in our country. Second, they would need the courage to accept that they need to take a step back and a step down to allow others to flourish in our Church. There does not seem much evidence or likelihood of them acquiring those virtues. Rather they seem to see themselves in the role of Sancho Panza to their Don Quixote (Pell). While we see jousting with windmills: they see themselves as manning the ramparts. Many of their efforts are laughable.

  2. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    I detect hope in the future work of Archbishop Patrick O’Regan in Adelaide. His Vincentian education at St Stanislaus’ College in Bathurst could help in his conversations with the National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Adelaide. Canon 399 says every 5 years the diocesan Bishop is bound to submit to the Supreme Pontiff a report on the state of the diocese. I hope he invites submissions now from Vinnies and others on the present state of affairs. Then when he is working on his own report asks for updates. He could do an exposure draft of his report for public comment. A team effort !

    • Spot on, Michael, spot on.

      I too share your hope that Archbishop O’Regan will carve out his own territory here in true response to much that he must have seen in the lay submissions to the Plenary Council.

      Many of us in Adelaide will be doing our best so to persuade him.

  3. Avatar Margaret Callinan says:

    On the contrary, Kevin Liston … ” We cannot leave all the work to bishops.” 13 May 2020 at 4:17 PM

    What we need is to stop the bishops blocking all the work being done by lay people and the handful of remaining Vatican II priests.

  4. Avatar Peter Donnan says:

    Episcopal resistance to transparency and accountability agendas:

    *Bishop Umbers writes: “the Plenary Council must not be marked by the effects (or grumblings) of mere sociological change” and
    *Archbishop Porteous, apprehensive about creeping clericalisation, states “This attitude continues to drive current attitudes among some that lay people should assume more roles of ministry and governance within the Church.”

    The Church and Mammon go way back: the golden calf, commerce in the temple, Judas Iscariot, the Medicis and Borgias. After a raid in October, 2019, one of Italy’s top anti-mafia prosecutors, Giuseppe Pignatone, became head of the Vatican’s criminal tribunal.

    Business as usual in the Church is unsustainable.

  5. Avatar Peter Johnstone says:

    Thanks, John, for a valuable summary of the challenges that must be faced by the bishops in preparing the agenda for the Plenary Council. The Open Communiqué (available at provides a summary of what many Catholics are thinking about the need for renewal of their Church Indeed, the matters covered reflect the leading issues raised in the submissions from the faithful to the Plenary Council process: the ‘sensus fidei’ (sense of faith) of the Australian Church,
    seeking renewal and reform of the Church in accordance with its Christ-given mandate.

  6. Avatar Kevin Liston says:

    Is responsibility for change and renewal entirely in the hands of bishops and clergy? Baptism, usually cited as the foundational sacrament, is a shared feature for all Catholics from the most marginal lay person to Archbishops. That in itself surely gives everyone a role, status and, dare I say, authority in the community. It is time we explored the opportunities therein. We cannot leave all the work to bishops.

  7. Avatar Steve Jordan says:

    I remember watching Mark Coleridge and a nun (whose name I do not remember, apologies, Sister) announcing the “official response of the Church to the Royal Commission”. My thought was that these 2 people, at best, represented about 1 per cent of Catholics ie those 2 people stood only for the clergy and for the religious orders.

    The utter sillyness of those 2 people making the official response was that they represented the groups who came in for heavy criticism in the RC report; they represented the (vested) interests that the RC suggested needed to change.

    On two of the major issues, celibacy and the seal of confession, why should the 1 per cent even think that they could pontificate? How could one expect them to know what the 99 percent thought about those matters? Perhaps they should read the small tome by Cardinal (now Saint) J H Newman, “On Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine”. Perhaps they might then actually ask the 99 per cent what they believe. Wouldn’t that be a turn up for the books!

  8. Despite the best efforts of the ACCCR and most (I hope) of the rest of the Catholic community I somehow doubt that Archbishops F and the 3Cs will be likely to budge. Just telling or expecting them to won’t move them. Their positions are two well entrenched.
    We in Adelaide are pinning our hopes on our new man, Archbishop-elect Patrick O’Regan. We are hoping that with some push from us, and a nudge from the Holy Spirit, he may be persuaded to adopt the transparency and accountability measures you so aptly described and that are so urgently needed. A consummation devoutly to be wished.

  9. Avatar J.J. GOOLD says:

    All well and good, but does anyone really believe that the Catholic Church is capable of change before:
    a. discrimination against women is outlawed and a woman can be appointed to any position within the church;
    b. priestly celibacy is abolished and priests are encouraged to marry and have families; and
    c. church senior management ie bishops and cardinals, are appointed for fixed periods by secret ballot of priests and laity in the affected dioceses.
    The whole administration of the church needs review and its relationship with the state.

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