Fr Kevin Hegarty
In the last two decades the skeletons in the cupboard of the Irish Catholic Church tumbled out to reveal the Magdalene Laundries, the mother and baby homes and abuse of children. It was followed by cover-ups that have left the credibility of the institution in tatters.
The Catholic Church in Australia has had a similar traumatic experience. The Australian Government’s ‘Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Abuse’, which ran from 2013 to 2017, highlighted the significant failure of the Church to protect children from abuse. It recommended that the Catholic hierarchy should thoroughly review its governance structures.
The Church assembled a distinguished team of 14 lay people and four clerics for the task. It included Massimo Faggioli, a theologian at Villanova University; Neville Owen, a retired Australian judge; Pauline Connelly, Chancellor of Adelaide Archdiocese; and Richard Lennan, a theologian at Boston College.
In May, the group issued its report, entitled ‘The Light from The Southern Cross: Promoting Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia’. It was originally delivered to the Australian bishops and kept confidential to allow the prelates time to digest its contents. La Croix International published the full text on June 2.
The report acknowledged ‘the widespread failure of the Church authorities to respond with justice and compassion’ to past traumas.
It made 86 recommendations to improve Church governance in Australia. It suggests the following major changes: Reshaping the process for appointment of new bishops ‘to embrace genuine discernment that includes clergy and a large number of lay people’; Accelerating the inclusion of women in ‘senior decision-making bodies’; Mandating that all reports of alleged abuse or cover-up by bishops be evaluated by independent experts; Creating a national centre for training in Catholic leadership to provide better formation for future bishops, priests and lay leaders; Mandating that every Australian diocese have a pastoral council of lay people that is consulted on major decisions being considered by the bishop; Recommending that each diocese hold a local synod at least every ten years.
The report states: “many Catholic women and men experience pain at the failure of the Church to enable the fuller participation of women. The most visible indicator of the barriers to full participation is that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Australia, as in the Church across the world, is exclusively male. This robs the Church of the full benefits of the feminine in dialogue, in celebration and in decision making. The marginalisation of women in the Church discourages the participation of younger women and is an urgent issue that needs to be heard, understood and redressed.”
The report strongly advocates that a bishop in a diocese should share governance with lay people, as allowed by Canon Law:
“If best practice in governance, which includes transparency, accountability and the critical notion of stewardship is to be utilised, there is room for the ultimate canonical responsibilities of a bishop to co-exist in harmony with the collaborative participation of the laity in a sense of partnership aimed at fulfilling the prophetic mission of the Church.”
There is trenchant criticism of the way the Vatican appoints bishops. While the process specifies that there should be local consultation before the appointment of a new bishop, ‘it is not readily apparent how it occurs in practice’. The report goes on to state that ‘the absence of public consultation, together with the opaqueness of the selection process leaves all, but the few consulted, in the dark and calls into question its efficacy’. It recommends that the Papal Nuncio should ‘transparently consult’ with the president of the local bishop’s conference, the clergy and lay people before an appointment is made to a diocese.
The Australian bishops have promised to discuss the report at a meeting in November. Hopefully discussion will lead to action.
We need something similar in the Irish Catholic Church.