PETER WILKINSON AND GAIL GROSSMAN FREYNE. Historic Church Governance Report locked down by Australian Bishops

On 4 May 2020 the Project Team commissioned by the Australian bishops and religious superiors to review the Catholic Church’s governance and management structures, presented its 200-page final report. Its 86 recommendations include the need for greater transparency and co-responsibility. The decision of the bishops to withhold the report from public view for at least 6 months has shocked many Catholics.

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse spent years trying to understand why Catholic bishops and religious superiors across the nation had covered up the abuse happening under their noses, why they had protected the paedophile priests and religious who had abused innocent boys and girls in their care, and why they had treated the victims with such meanness and disdain.

The Commission finally grasped that ‘clericalism’ – a belief by priests and bishops that they are superior to the lay faithful – and systemic dysfunctional governance on a massive scale were at the root of the problem. It therefore recommended in its 2017 Final Report that “the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women” (Rec. 16.7).

It took 8 months for the ACBC and Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) to accept the recommendation, and another 7 months to get advice from an Implementation Advisory Group (IAG) on how the review should be undertaken. The IAG recommended a Governance Review Project Plan and a 7-member Review Project Team of predominantly lay experts chaired by former WA Supreme Court justice and current member of the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, Neville Owen.

The IAG identified the essential elements of good governance as integrity, transparency, accountability, risk management, culture and ethics, consultation, inclusiveness, and the participation and genuine responsibility of men and women.

In March 2019 the ACBC and CRA approved the Plan and Project Team, as well as terms of reference, review methodology, and a final report deadline of 31 March 2020, in time for consideration at the ACBC’s May plenary meeting.

The 200-page report, titled The Light from the Southern Cross: Promoting Co-responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia, was handed to the ACBC and CRA on 4 May 2020, 3 days before the meeting. With 86 recommendations it is, according to the ACBC , an ‘historic review’, and a ‘substantial and comprehensive contribution with far-reaching implications for the Church’s life and mission‘. It identifies, according to ACBC president, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, “key principles of good ecclesial governance, such as subsidiarity, stewardship, synodality, dialogue, discernment and leadership” and “offers important ideas on how the Church might enhance the leadership role of lay people and ensure appropriate co-responsibility at parish and diocesan levels.”

The report’s recommendations would introduce a fundamental paradigm shift from the normal governance modus operandi of Australia’s bishops: secrecy, obfuscation, delay, non-response, PR spin, cover-up, authoritarian and closed-shop decision making, and referring most important decisions to Vatican authorities for approval. Some would say ‘inertia’.

Full acceptance of the report’s recommendations on transparency, accountability, inclusion, and shared local responsibility in decision-making would have one clear and decisive effect: the elimination of the unilateral power and control that clerics have exercised over Australian Catholics since the hierarchy was established in 1842.

It was a profound shock, therefore, when the ACBC, presumably with CRA (its president is an observer at ACBC meetings) support, decided at its May meeting that it would lock down this historic report and withhold it from public view until some unspecified time after its next meeting in November. To ‘do justice to the report’, said the ACBC, they alone could read and discuss it among themselves in secret and at state level for the next 6 months, prepare for a full discussion at the November meeting, and then respond to it. Only after finalising their response will they make the report public: in short, a response without any consultation with the faithful.

This decision is the antithesis of everything recommended in the report on transparency and co-responsibility. It is a failure to recognize and accept the new paradigm from the word ‘go’, and a reneging on Coleridge’s earlier pledge that ‘business as usual’ cannot continue.

We would hope and expect that the ACBC and CRA – if it was co-author of this decision – will recognize their mistake, reconsider their decision, and release the report into the public domain as soon as possible, and certainly before the end of June 2020.

The ACBC says that ‘the report will undoubtedly contribute to the eventual formation of proposals to be considered during the Plenary Council’. But if the report’s proposals have to wait for the Council, now postponed to 2021 and 2022, those urgently needed reforms will be delayed another 2 years, plus 1-2 years more pending the Holy See’s tick of approval. It could be 2024 before church governance in Australia begins to change – 7 years after the Royal Commission’s recommendation.

It would be far better for the ACBC to share the report with the faithful immediately, consult with them on the implementation of the report’s recommended reforms, and allow the Church in Australia to move forward without waiting for the Council. The Council can then affirm the changes and legislate to ensure that all dioceses fall into line.

Dr Peter Wilkinson is a missiologist and co-author with Professor Des Cahill of the RMIT report on child sexual abuse. Dr Gail Grossman Freyne is a lawyer, mediator and author. Her latest book is The Curious Case of Inequality (ATF Press, 2016).


Dr Peter Wilkinson is a missiologist and co-author with Professor Des Cahill of the RMIT report on child sexual abuse. Dr Gail Grossman Freyne is a lawyer, mediator and author. Her latest book is The Curious Case of Inequality (ATF Press, 2016).

Gail Grossman Freyne is a family therapist, mediator and author. Her most recent book is The Curious Case of Inequality: A Journey for Justice with Dorothy L. Sayers.

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12 Responses to PETER WILKINSON AND GAIL GROSSMAN FREYNE. Historic Church Governance Report locked down by Australian Bishops

  1. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    Is it OK to pray that a copy of this excellent report will be leaked and available online ?

  2. Avatar Leigh Atkinson says:

    Dear Sir
    This appears to be a magnificent document with profound if delayed observations .
    The laity will demand early and active changes or more and more church seats will be empty as we see in Europe
    Congratulations to Archbishop Coleridge .
    The bishops can’t hold back the urgent need for change

  3. The issues of governance etc were raised as early as May 2016 in Issues Paper 11 :
    “1. To what extent have any of the following issues contributed to the occurrence of child sexual
    abuse in Catholic institutions or affected the institutional response to this abuse? The Royal
    Commission has identified these issues through case studies, submissions, private sessions, and
    a review of literature regarding child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions.
    b. the Catholic Church’s structure and governance, including the role of the Vatican ”

    My concern is that the longer this is dragged out, the greater is the risk that the original context of child abuse is lost.

  4. Avatar Ed Cory says:

    Thank you Peter and Gail, for putting a spotlight on this.

    I can only say ‘no surprises here, it’s business as usual’. That is a slap in the face by the bishops to anyone who thought the PC might be something other than a predictable bureaucratic ploy by an organisation under pressure, and a rebuttal of Mark Coleridge’s statement. As a scene setter for the PC, it signals the bishops’ approach to their authority, and to consultation, one that does not bode well for progressive change arising out of the PC.

  5. Avatar Gavin O'Brien says:

    I am not in the least surprised at this latest attempt to stifle the much needed changes. I am sad that once again “Clericalism” is raising its ugly head. I have to agree with Fosco, it will take another Reformation to bring change.However by then those of us who continue to ‘soldier on’ and I am 70, will be with our Creator . My children have jumped ship and my grandchildren will have no reason to return to an alien world, assuming the Institutional Church still exists .

  6. Avatar Trish Talford says:

    After reading this article it is no surprise to me that many good people are now retired Catholics or atheists

  7. Avatar J.Donegan says:

    I thank the authors for their cogent review of these important matters but nonetheless find it surprising that anyone could still be ‘shocked’ by the fact that the Bishops are running true to form. Given that they face “…the elimination of the unilateral power and control that clerics have exercised over Australian Catholics since the hierarchy was established in 1842.” , is it any wonder said Bishops are a bit concerned for their wellbeing.

    Trouble is, they find themselves (if not among the last of their kind), then certainly at the wrong end of a lengthy period of untrammelled power, privilege, influence and unquestioned authority. The fact that they have been allowed to get away with it for so long is bad enough, but to allow them to delay further (as the authors’ note will likely happen) is simply to allow them to escape being answerable and, with a bit of luck, to see out the present Pope. I submit that the ‘ordinary faithful’ deserve better.

  8. Avatar Fosco Ruzzene says:

    Oh Peter,

    Do you really believe they’re going to change?
    Since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Innocence, no power class has ever handed over power. They only do a deal when the Revolutionary Guard is at the palace door ready to blow they brains out. And then only with the next power class who will become equally corrupt.
    If the quarter of million people doing good work in the $40b conglomerate in education, health and welfare want more say they will need to fight for it.
    The Vatican-ites may allow girls be alter-servers: the sacramental church is dead anyhow!

  9. Avatar Stephen Saunders says:

    The Church sacked Machiavelli’s sex abuser. Those were the days.

    But seriously, from the secular outside, all I care about is that Church staff suspected of serious crimes, especially sex crimes, are reported immediately to what we folk quaintly call “the police”. My confidence that this would happen, even now, is low.

  10. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    More paedophilia cover-up in strong evidence in this lock-down till (maybe) after November – or for another year then? My take is that intellectually – the bishops involved here are no match for the laity engaged in this review/move for governance changes. They will be searching for loopholes and arguments for wriggling around recommendations to their own prince-like roles. It’s time for the changes to be discussed now – for the bishops to be outside the process in fact!

  11. Eric Hodgens Eric Hodgens says:

    A year ago, the Australian bishops set up their Implementation Advisory Group. At that time, I published as piece in P & I: “A Possible Australian Church Contribution”. It ended with a slightly ominous observation that we will see what happens. And here – a year later – it has been submitted.
    I am still hopeful that the Group’s report will be a major contribution to Catholic life. But it is not being published. There are many Catholics who are far keener for the Church to succeed than the bishops are. That is the group that should get an immediate look at the document.

  12. Avatar Frank Kelleher says:

    What a bitter disappointment, but not unexpected given their track record.
    Many parishioners contributed to their Parish submissions with the hope that they could make a difference to the deliberations of the Bishops. That now appears to be a forlorn hope. Spare a thought for the priests who have to live with the Conference outcomes when dealing with their congregations post-Conference, and to those charged with recruitment of new clergy.

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