TERRY FEWTRELL. . Catholic bishops need to give up secrecy and learn to trust

Australia’s Catholic bishops seem to have learned little from the sexual abuse scandal and associated cover-ups, writes Terry Fewtrell. Pushed by a Royal Commission (RC) report to implement reforms, they recently reverted to standard operating procedures of delay and secrecy in suppressing a major report on governance reform.

While hoping to delay and control discussion, the bishops were outmanoeuvred by the leaking of the highly significant report. It is now available to and can be discussed by all Catholics – as it should be. Titled “The Light from the Southern Cross: Promoting Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia”, the report deserves serious consideration but by refusing to release the report until at least November, the bishops displayed their usual disposition to not trust their people, to keep them in the dark and assign to themselves the sole right to consider and comment on the contents. The report is the outcome of an RC recommendation that called for a review of the governance, leadership and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women.

The report provides an important analysis of why current arrangements are not fit-for-purpose and outlines how the church can operate in ways that are faithful to its calling, respect the dignity of its members and are consistent with the reasonable expectations of modern society for inclusiveness, transparency and accountability. All Catholics and the wider Australian community have a legitimate interest here so that effective and appropriate mechanisms can be implemented and in which the community can have confidence.

Culturally the focus of the review is closely related to the issue of clericalism, which the RC and Pope Francis have been explicit in stating lies at the root of many of the failures of the church and the perversion of its mission. The review panel took the initiative in having international experts review and offer perspectives on its likely findings and recommendations.

The report was keenly awaited by Catholics in Australia and globally. It breaks new ground in articulating a way forward – an Australian model of church that has universal application. Such issues challenge many in the church, none more so than the current crop of Australian bishops. In many ways the report gets to the nub of the need for real reform and addresses the cultural challenges in implementing a model of church that is open, transparent, accountable, non-clerical and inclusive.

For some time now the bishops have promised it will no longer be ‘business as usual’ in the administration of the church and their role in considering the need for change. Catholics and others might want to believe such commitments but unfortunately, they can’t. This most recent episode simply underscores that sad fact. It is particularly perverse that on the topic of ‘Co-Responsible Governance’, which goes to the heart of transparency and accountability, the bishops chose to send a message that they don’t much value or want the views of Australian Catholics and seek to control completely any discussion. On this occasion their little scheme has been sprung and rightly all Catholics will be able to read and comment on the report.

By defending their outdated instincts for secrecy, the bishops cling to an arrogant operating style. If Catholics or other Australians doubt this they only have to read Malcolm Turnbull’s account in his recent memoir of how Sydney Archbishop, Anthony Fisher, shamelessly and contrary to all public commitments, conceded that the bishops do allocate Commonwealth education funds in ways that suit their own agendas. It is a revelation breathtaking in its duplicity. Little wonder then that Canberra’s Archbishop Christopher Prowse wrote recently that demands for transparency and accountability are part of “society’s aggressive secularism”. It seems openness and accountability are things to be feared and best avoided.

The work and report of the RC have been pivotal in generating internal momentum on church reform. There is little doubt that the review of church governance would not have happened were it not a key recommendation of an inquiry that shone a searching light into the fetid darkness of church hierarchy, culture and the perverted loyalties that dishonoured its mission and people. The legitimate pressure of the Australian community and governments has been critical in this process and properly needs to continue, to ensure all Australians can be confident that necessary reforms are implemented.

The governance review is part of a broader initiative, led by Brisbane’s Archbishop and President of the Australian Bishops Conference, Mark Coleridge, for a Plenary Council to consider the overall position of the church in Australia. To his credit, Coleridge prevailed in promoting this idea against the natural instincts of a sizeable number of his colleagues. A major consultative process, held over the past 18 months involving more than 17,000 submissions from individuals and groups, demonstrated strong buy-in from ordinary Catholics. An official summary of the inputs reached an unavoidable conclusion that most want serious and significant change and have little confidence in their bishops.

It was also clear that Australian Catholics are fed-up with secrecy and a lack of accountability. The governance report is even more powerful because there is fertile ground among ordinary Catholics for such reforms. In the final analysis, ordinary Catholics are the church and they are demanding shared leadership and control. But many clerics, and particularly the bishops, are of a different mind.

Confronted with the overwhelming demand for reform it seems the bishops panicked and reverted to their old habits. This is evident not just in the suppression of the governance report but also the brutal way they stacked the composition of six Discernment groups, whose task was to prepare position papers that will frame the agenda for the formal Plenary sessions. These documents have now been released and there is tentative evidence that, perhaps despite the efforts of some, the reform issues raised by ordinary Catholics are still in the mix. This highlights the fact that the bishops seem to be coming slowly to accepting that major change is irresistible. They need to trust the People of God in Australia and walk with them in this process

Although the message from the People to the bishops in the first stage of the Plenary Council consultations was a very emphatic: ‘We don’t trust our bishops’, that lack of trust can be bridged by the bishops recognising the richness and faith in the input their People have provided. There is ample scope for both People and bishops to walk the PC journey together. It is a case of trust building trust.

In 2018 Pope Francis wrote a Letter to the People of God – ordinary Catholics. In it he called for their help in ridding the church of sexual abuse and clericalism. Francis asked Catholics to be ‘active and assertive’ in helping him to reform the church. The implication and none too subtle conclusion to draw was that Francis doubted that many of his leadership team, local bishops, were up to the task. So, he asked ordinary Catholics to support his push for reform from the grassroots. It is significant that the Australian hierarchy effectively ignored the Pope’s letter – a surprising and damning outcome that only confirmed the Pope’s assessment.

Rather than working openly with their people as Francis encourages, the Australian bishops still resort to secrecy and control, old habits they need to leave behind. The quality of the governance report, the product of a highly qualified but mainly non-clerical panel, should make the bishops start to trust their own people. Otherwise they may find themselves offside with the Pope and abandoned by most Australian Catholics.

Terry Fewtrell is involved with Concerned Catholics of Canberra-Goulburn.

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