JOHN WARHUST.  Robert Fitzgerald provides a glimmer of hope for Australia’s Catholics.

Apr 26, 2019

 Robert Fitzgerald has brought a ray of hope for those Catholics despondent about this dark time for the church in Australia.  Fitzgerald is ideally-placed to offer advice on the temporal and spiritual future of the church in Australia.  He has served Australia on two national commissions — as a long time member of the Productivity Commission, advising the Federal Government on ways of building a more efficient economy and, more aptly, as a member of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.  

Last week he addressed a forum of the Concerned Catholics of Canberra Goulburn, the laity-led ginger group formed in the wake of the disastrous findings of the Royal Commission.

He has sat through and assessed the grim messages of the thousands of abuse victims who gave evidence to the Commission.  The commission produced a set of recommendations which among other things urged the Catholic church to embark on a path of profound change, to move away from its clerical culture, to adopt contemporary standards of governance, accountability and transparency.

Now, 18 months after the commission report, and with meagre evidence of action by many of Australia’s bishops, Fitzgerald acknowledges the “prudent leadership” of Archbishop Mark Coleridge “in these difficult times”.  He also gave credit to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for the creation of three important bodies amid the general inaction: the Truth Justice and Healing Council, Catholic Professional Standards and the Implementation Advisory Group.

Fitzgerald also offers hope.  He has ideas for reform and says there are grounds for optimism. It is an exciting time to be part of the church, he says.  He urges Catholics to take an active role in shaping a new future for the Church by participating in the Plenary 2020.  “It’s the only game in town,” he told his audience.

In contrast to the message of powerlessness often voiced by Catholics, priests and bishops, he says there exist significant powers already within the laws of the church for Catholics to begin fundamental changes to the authorities and culture of the church in Australia.

The weaknesses identified by the Royal Commission contributed to the inability of Church authorities and personnel to adequately respond to Child Sexual Abuse. Poor governance contributed to dangerous cultures and conflicted leadership that created the perfect storm within which abuse occurred and inappropriate responses were common place.

The paradox has been that there have been significant improvements in governance in many Church institutions such as health, education and community services and other ministries, but these more accountable, transparent and participatory practices had not “crossed the aisle” to dioceses and parishes.

“The Church risks further losing the trust and confidence of the people of God and the broader community, unless governance is improved. More importantly the current governance arrangements are increasingly losing legitimacy with the Church community of faithful.”

He says current Church governance, and some canons, are based (intentionally or unintentionally) on a fear of  the non-ordained , especially women,  a  fear of outside influence ( even where that is good) and an arrogant assertion of the position of the Church in the world and maintaining the power and privilege of an ordained class.

“It too often dismisses open, transparent and accountable approaches in favour of secrecy, complexity and legalistic approaches. It shuns genuine participation.

The Plenary 2020 may bring forth new insights and give renewed momentum for new approaches. “In hope and out of humility improved governance can emerge.”

Currently Church governance fails on several fronts.  It is non participatory, lacks strategic vision, performance is almost impossible to measure due to poor disclosure of data, accountability and transparency is very poor and patchy.

“Finances, complaints and misconduct are routinely not disclosed to the faithful. Priests come and go suddenly from parishes but reasons are rarely given to the parish community- they simply have no right to know. …

Church governance, he says should be based on a stewardship model that recognises that the organisation is governed for the benefit of promoting the word of God, for the benefit of the community of faithful, in the best interests of the people and community its serves and recognises the interests of broader community within which it is located.

Fitzgerald’s own suggestion for reform include:

National Plenary Councils every ten years and Diocesan Plenary Councils every five years.

A National Leadership Centre for Stewardship to promote training and formation of leaders of church authorities in good governance including stewardship and integrity.

National mechanisms established by the Church to investigate and sanction Church personnel in relation to cases of serious misconduct.

All Australian Catholic Bishops Conference commissions have at least sixty percent representation by lay men and women.

At all levels of the Church in Australia there should be the public annual accounting of financial reports, information, data and progress in relation to strategic plans or commitments..

Non identifying information on the handling of abuse complaints, and open access to information on processes available to report misconduct should be made publicly available at a national and diocese level.

At diocesan level, bishops should be required to act in Council, with a small number of ordained, religious and lay (men and women) who meet regularly to ensure sound stewardship of the Diocese and is itself subject to biennial review.

All dioceses should have active pastoral councils constituted to survive the change of Bishop, and whilst initially only advisory must be treated as influential. Bishops should be required to respond to their recommendations.

Appropriate processes, external to the Diocese, should be established for the investigation and sanctioning of church personnel in relation to serious allegations of misconduct.

At parish level, there should be new models of governance and management to allow for team based ministries with parish leadership by lay, religious or ordained based on suitability, skills and experience not status.

Parishes should be required to establish purposeful parish councils. Priests retain overall responsibilities for the spiritual and sacramental direction and wellbeing of the parish but can delegate ministerial responsibilities to appropriately trained persons.

Religious orders and congregations should ensure their leadership teams undergo appropriate stewardship training and review.

All Boards and advisory councils of church entities including school councils should be representative of men and women, have fixed terms for members and all members be required to undertake on going stewardship training and formation.

And the Vatican City and the Holy See could perhaps make a simple step forward and ensure all commissions and congregations  (without exception ) established by His Holiness should comprise not less than 50 per cent lay men and women.

Without greater lay participation in decision-making, the Church and its leadership will lose legitimacy amongst the faithful. The voice of its people, the voice of the poor and oppressed, the voice of the marginalised must be allowed to be heard.

As Fitzgerald says: “Good church governance must be based in hope not fear. It must arise out of humility not arrogance.”

Emeritus Professor John Warhurst is chairman of Concerned Catholics of Canberra Goulburn. For more, see

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