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

 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 https://www.concernedcatholicscanberra.org/

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

  1. Patricia Moylan says:

    Head of the Australian Bishops Conference, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge has publically supported laws to protect ‘unborn children’ but has failed to support laws to protect ‘born children’.
    Queensland is the only state in Australia where there is no mandatory law for clergy to report child abuse.
    Under Vatican’s canon law, Bishops are directed to conceal child abuse unless there is a local civil law requiring clergy to report clerical sex abuse.
    Bishops are autocratic managers of Catholic Education in Queensland.
    My question is this: As Archbishop Mark is the representative on the Bishop owned charity, Catholic Professional Standards Limited, is he directed by the Vatican to conceal clerical child abuse under Pontifical secrecy?
    Will Archbishop Mark support the third attempt to introduce mandatory reporting laws for clergy to Queensland Parliament?
    Will all Australian Bishops support uniform national mandatory reporting laws for clergy?
    Will all Australian Bishops call for the Pope Francis to conform with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as the largest provider of education to children in the world?

  2. Patricia Boylan says:

    The head of the Australian Bishops Conference, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge publicly supports laws to protect ‘unborn children’, yet has not provided the same public support for legal protection for ‘born children’.
    Queensland is the only state in Australia where there are no mandatory reporting laws for clergy to report child abuse.
    Under Vatican’s canon law, Bishops are directed to conceal clergy abuse unless there is a local civil law requiring clergy to report child sex abuse.
    The question I ask is this, as Archbishop Coleridge is the representative on the Bishop owned charity, Catholic Professional Standards Limited, in this position does he follow the directive of the ‘Pontifical secrecy’ to conceal clerical child abuse?
    Will Archbishop Mark support fellow Queenslanders Catholic families, survivors and community to call for State Parliament to introduce a second mandatory reporting Bill requiring clergy (who are autocratic managers of education) to report child abuse?
    As the Catholic church is the largest provider of education in the world, will Archbishop Coleridge publicly request the Vatican to direct Bishops worldwide to report clerical child and vulnerable adult abuse?
    Will all Australian Bishops publicly act to endorse the implementation of uniform national mandatory reporting laws?

  3. Patricia Boylan says:

    Head of the Australian Bishops Conference, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge has publicly call for protection for ‘unborn children’ but not publicly supported protection for ‘born children’.
    In Queensland, there are no mandatory child abuse reporting laws for clergy.
    Under canon law, bishops are required to conceal clergy abuse unless there are local laws for reporting child abuse.
    Does this Pontifical secrecy apply to his role as representative on bishop owned charity, Catholic Professional Standards limited?

  4. Patricia Boylan says:

    Many Catholics left the talk by Commissioner, Robert Fitzgerald totally disillusioned with the future prospects of the Catholic Church.
    Totally disillusioned with any future protection of children being in safe hands.
    In 2019, Catholic laity fails to have a voice to make any changes.
    Laity in most dioceses is being ignored.
    Bishops reign supreme.
    Australian Bishops have failed to act and implemented few changes since the Royal Commission into Child Abuse got underway over 7 years ago.
    TJHC CEO Francis Sullivan’s last ten-page media release stated, “After 5 years, 57 case studies, 8,000 privates sessions and 1,300 witnesses, the Royal Commission delivered 189 recommendations relating to the church…1,880 priests and religious were accused of 4,445 individual allege abuses in the Catholic Church from 1950-2010.
    “In short, children were abused because they could be.”
    Clergy doing this were criminals. Yet today many Bishops who watched this happen continue to be the sole manager of education.
    Religious Charities with convicted members continue to operate with no penalties imposed by the ACNC.
    Many of the same Bishops who covered up are now in charge of uncovering.
    Government and taxpayers allow Bishops to continue to be autocratic rulers and this week appointed the Bishop owned religious charity, CPSL, and the Salvation Amy to provide ‘advice on child abuse’ to the Federal Government!
    Sadly, Commissioner Fitzgerald says there’s only one show in town – the plenary council that will change the church. Few share his conviction or trust!
    Parents must ask,’ What Federal or State Government agency funds any sole autocratic manager with no democratically, inclusive, transparent and accountable elected board in Australia?’

    Commissioner Fitzgerald states, ‘At the 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 the 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 ongoing stewardship training and formation.”
    Why has this not happened?

  5. Lynne Newington says:

    I still cringe at the thought of members of the Advisory Group having issues within their own sphere…..in one case a solicitor’s letter a sent out to make sure they had everything under control with no surprises…..

  6. Sr Joan M Winter OP says:

    I believe that this is a wonderful way to revive the Church that you describe so dolefully but accurately. I like especially the sentence where……Robert Fitzgerald is quoted as saying “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.”

    I would like to add two points I think are important………

    I would support and encourage the option for small communities to be recognised within a parish for those whose experience of Church make the parish too difficult….they could join in parish activities as they wished at their own pace.

    I believe that the laity will only gain or regain their rightful place if the lay people in groups whose composition he describes with lay majority membership MUST give every lay member a deliberative vote. These meetings must be chaired by lay members of the Church. The ordained members are the Servants of the Servants of God and this is where they receive (and participate in) decisions about how the Church will function. Other wise we will deteriorate again.

  7. Joan Seymour says:

    What practical suggestions Robert Fitzgerald made. All of them can be done without risking schism or scandal. All of them will contribute to the upbuilding of a Church currently lying in ruins (although our leaders don’t seem to realize this). If each of us lay persons can’t take a step to making at least one of them a reality, they’ll be completely useless. I hate the idea – I’d rather complain and wait for change to come from above, ha ha – but in my parish I will float the idea of a parish council that actually has some authority. Maybe I’m not alone…

  8. Graham English says:

    “Good church governance must be based in hope not fear. It must arise out of humility not arrogance.” And a siege mentality will just make things far worse than they are. We’ve had a hundred and fifty years of that and look where it got us.
    PS If we ever get a cardinal again surely under present circumstances the red hat should go to Brisbane.

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