PETER JOHNSTONE. Catholic Reform Groups Want Urgent Action from Bishops.

The Catholic Church in Australia faces continuing decay unless bishops listen to grassroots Catholics. Some 50 representatives, women and men, of nine Catholic groups throughout Australia advocating for systemic reform of the Church, gathered in Canberra a few days ago. The key focus of this Gathering of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform was to assert the importance of all Catholics not only being heard but also accepting their own responsibilities of leadership. Catholics are losing trust in their leaders.

The Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform is an organisation whose very existence reflects Catholics’ frustration with their Church’s failed leadership. Each of the constituent groups has its own focus and history, each established out of concern for the decline of the Church and all united in the call for renewal in the Church.

The ACCCR Gathering will seek a meeting with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference with a view to establishing effective communication with the bishops who have long seemed reluctant to engage with the people of the Church. The Coalition is particularly concerned at the lack of urgent action by their bishops on the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse regarding the Church’s dysfunctional governance.

The Gathering considered the grave dysfunctions in the Church’s governance identified by the Royal Commission.  Incredibly, Church leaders covered up and protected paedophiles with a sole focus on the Church’s reputation, thus causing the further abuse of innocent children. How could that be so? What happened to the standards and values of Christianity?

The catastrophe of the institutional Church actually spreading the horror of child sexual abuse demands effective and urgent reform. Yet the response of the bishops so far in their preparation for the 2020/21 Plenary Council indicates a failure to face a fundamental lesson of that catastrophe:

Changes must happen now; the horror of child sexual abuse, terrible as that is, is but one example of the lack of accountability in the leadership of the church.

The Plenary Council for 2020/21 cannot be successful unless the bishops immediately address the need for decisive reforms to their governance structure and leadership practices, which are unaccountable, secretive and exclusive (particularly of women). To date, there has been little indication that the bishops appreciate the gravity of the Royal Commission’s findings, findings that are no surprise to those who have become disillusioned and alienated from the Church.

The Australian bishops have sought an analysis from the Truth Justice and Healing Council on the Royal Commission findings. It is indicative of the Church’s unaccountability that the bishops seem reluctant to release that report to the faithful. This attitude is in stark contrast to the Australian and State governments’ release of the voluminous Royal Commission report on the day it was submitted, presumably in recognition of the public’s right to know. The Coalition Gathering called on the bishops to release the TJHC analysis immediately.

The Gathering identified the appropriate place of women in the Church as a particularly urgent matter of both justice and good governance, a matter long recognised by modern societies. The full inclusion of women at the highest level of Church decision making in the direction of the Church would bring the Church into line with the best, and the most Christian, practices being followed in other organisations throughout the world. This is a critical issue requiring action in Australia, and universally by the Holy See, not only as a matter of justice but of necessity, so that the wisdom and talents of women can fully contribute to the Church. ACCCR also calls on the bishops to accept the nomination of a woman to co-chair the 2020/21 Plenary Council with Archbishop Costelloe. There are many women in the Australian Church who could thus ensure a gender-balanced approach to the Council’s proceedings.

The Gathering reflected the views of Catholics that were expressed in the recent postal survey on marriage equality, a survey that illustrated a more informed and fairer society that appreciates the hurt and damage done to LGBTQI people by exclusion from so many aspects of Church life. The Gathering was particularly concerned that Catholics of different sexuality are excluded by the Church in so many ways, and are made to experience the very antithesis of Christian love and acceptance. This is a matter of justice which needs careful attention by the Church; the Church’s discriminatory practices will undoubtedly receive critical attention at the Plenary Council if Church leaders fail to learn from the postal survey on marriage equality.

There must be greater and continuing attention to equality in the Church. Discrimination against women must be removed. The Church must attend fully to the survivors of sexual abuse as well as other marginalised people such as Australia’s first nations people, refugees, and LGBTI people.

The 2020/21 Plenary Council is a long-overdue move to listen formally to the people of the Church and is of course very welcome. The Council is potentially the beginning of a more Christ-like Church. Such a positive initiative must not be used as a delaying tactic to avoid facing and resolving the critical immediate issues, issues that continue to deny justice and to threaten the Church’s survival. And the Council will be of little value if individual bishops do not first listen to the people of their dioceses. The Coalition wants every bishop throughout Australia to provide true leadership for his people by listening to them in thorough consultations and involving them fully in preparations for the Plenary Council.

Church leaders have spoken much about the importance of prayer in preparation for the Council; they should be listening to the Spirit and observing the will of God surely indicated in the well-evidenced findings of the Royal Commission.

The ACCCR Gathering has proposed a summit for all Catholics before the Plenary Council to cultivate open discussion and thus ensure a mature and frank engagement with the issues confronting the church today. That summit will provide the bishops with the unfiltered views of the people of God. The program development for the Plenary Council so far indicates that the bishops have not grasped the frustrations of the faithful regarding the clericalist control of the Church with its lack of transparency, inclusiveness and accountability.

There will be no successful governance structure without the grassroots people of the Church, particularly women, in leadership and decision-making roles. Without reformed governance, in addition to the strong influence and input of the people of God, the Plenary Council will be like a departing cruise ship, leaving the rest of the Church behind at the dockside.

The Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform will be seeking an early meeting with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference with a sincere desire to share in the task of Church renewal.

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


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

This entry was posted in Religion and Faith. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to PETER JOHNSTONE. Catholic Reform Groups Want Urgent Action from Bishops.

  1. Patricia Boylan says:

    Concerned Catholics must be encouraged to read Anson Shupe’s book, ‘In The Name Of All That’s Holy: A Theory Of Clergy Malfeasance’ (1995) and ‘Spoils Of The Kingdom: Clergy Misconduct And Religious Community’ (with an introduction by A.W.Richard Sipe). The book is crucial in understanding the dynamics of clergy misconduct and institutional complicity. It discusses unaccountable, secret, exclusive governance, inertia practices, and historical leadership and clergy malpractice. Clergy malpractice is no new in the history of deviance or criminality.
    Shupe boldly faces and questions, ‘Why do men and women of faith and integrity rally being leaders and clergy who prove to be unquestionably guilty of misconduct or even crime?
    Why does the mass of a faith community remain silent even when it has awareness and sometimes incontrovertible evidence of clergy misdeeds?
    Why do some communities ostracize the whistleblower?
    How do faith communities conspire to conceal malfeasance?
    Why do some faith communities fragment and others do not when the misdeeds of the religious leaders come to light?’
    ‘The responsibility for the Catholic Bishop to preserve his flock from violation is clear. He is responsible for the celibacy of his clergy.’
    ‘The Catholic Church’s general knowledge of sexual abuse of minors by clergy is well established and documented. Multiple regulations were written and promulgated by the Vatican in 1662, 1741, 1890, 1922, 1962 and 2002.
    Awareness of the problem of priests’ and bishops’ sexual activity is not a recent phenomenon.
    ‘Sexual abuse of minors has deep systemic roots.’
    ‘Understanding the sociology of clergy malfeasance is of critical importance for dealing with and solving this incessant religious juggernaut.’ (Sipe)

  2. Joan Seymour says:

    We can talk about discrimination against women, and discrimination against LGBTQI people until we’re blue in the face – it will make no difference. The problem is discrimination against lay people. All non clerics. All people who are not ordained. Until we recognize and address this, we’ll just be moving the deckchairs from place to place and the Barque sinks.

  3. Trish Martin says:

    When a bishop is consecrated he is expected to sign a letter that states he will not speak out against the Pope’s teachings. Archbishop Wilson told the Royal Commission that bishops defer all personal responsibility to the Vatican code of secrecy in order to prevent a scandal. The bishops cannot change Canon Law, and they must defer to Canon law by virtue of their status. But Canon law does not reflect the values of Jesus Christ so the integrity of the church is compromised at its very center. The Church was founded by Christ and it should hold the image of Christ as its center. Canon law must be changed immediately.

Comments are closed.