The Inside Story Of How Rome Ousted A Bold Bush Bishop
By Stephen CrittendenFebruary 14, 2012
When the Vatican effectively sacked an admired bishop in the bush, it raised questions about justice, and about how Roman discipline will shape the future of the Catholic Church in Australia.
“Benedict says to me, ‘You are very gifted, you are very practical, you've got a role to play in the life of the Church, and it's God's will that you should resign.’”
Bishop Bill Morris is telling me about the face-to-face meeting he had with Pope Benedict XVI prior to being sacked as Bishop of Toowoomba in May 2011 on the grounds of "defective pastoral leadership." The popular Queensland bishop had refused repeated demands for his resignation by three senior cardinals in the Vatican curia. His removal has caused widespread outrage throughout the Catholic Church in Australia, dismay that shows little sign of abating any time soon.
An outback bishop who gets around in an ordinary suit and tie rather than a clerical collar and episcopal purple, Bill Morris, 68, comes across as modest, thoughtful, decent and practical. At one time he was secretary to former Archbishop of Brisbane, Frank Rush, and later parish priest of the Gold Coast, before being appointed Bishop of Toowoomba in 1993. His dismissal for "defective pastoral leadership" is an irony given his reputation as one of the most pastoral-minded of all the Australian bishops. To offer a single example, in 2009 he sacked the principal of a Toowoomba Catholic primary school and two Catholic Education officials for failing to report to the police an early complaint from one of 13 schoolgirls aged 9 and 10 who were sexually abused by a teacher. The teacher was later sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Bishop Morris then set a precedent for the Catholic Church in Australia by making a sweeping admission of the Church's liability for the abuse, opening the way for large financial settlements for victims, that he promised to resolve "as considerately and expeditiously as possible."
For the laity of Toowoomba it must have been very disorientating to hear that Bishop Morris had been dismissed as a poor pastoral leader when the Archbishop of Brisbane, John Bathersby, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the National Council of Priests, and the heads of religious orders had all praised Bishop Morris's pastoral leadership.
Now, two separate reports commissioned by Bishop Morris's supporters among the leadership of the Toowoomba diocese - one by retired Queensland Supreme Court judge Bill Carter QC, the other by one of Australia's most eminent canon lawyers, Father Ian Waters - have found Bishop Morris was denied natural justice and procedural fairness, in breach of the standards of both civil and canon law.
These are damaging findings as far as the personal reputation of Pope Benedict is concerned, because he was so directly involved. And they make embarrassing reading for Australia's Catholic bishops, because of their public endorsement of Rome's position on the matter.
WHEN POPE JOHN PAUL II died in April 2005, historian William M. Johnston used the term "Kafkaesque" to describe the flavour of the pontificate that had just ended. He argued that the late pope had governed the Catholic Church using Soviet-style techniques. Just as the comparatively small group of Communist Party loyalists had supervised, controlled and intimidated the wider Soviet bureaucracy, so too the Vatican curia in Rome had supervised, controlled and intimidated theologians and bishops in their dioceses around the world. And, said Johnston, this enforced conformity to the party line got tighter as you moved further up in the hierarchy, though it gradually loosened lower down. The result was a system in which priests and nuns were often very outspoken, but bishops were forced to remain silent.
Not long before Pope John Paul's death, there was a widely reported incident that illustrated Professor Johnston's point. In September 2003, soon after it was announced that he was to be made a cardinal, the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Keith O'Brien, gave a series of media interviews in which he expressed open-minded views about celibacy in the priesthood, contraception and homosexuality. "What I would ask for in the Church at every level, including the cardinals and the pope," he said, "is to be able to have full and open discussion about these issues and where we stand." The response was swift. Within days, O'Brien was forced to make a humiliating public profession of obedience before the congregation in his own cathedral. He denied reports that he had been told by Rome if he did not do so he would not be made a cardinal.
But of all the Soviet-style techniques adopted by the leadership of the Catholic Church in recent decades, by far the most scandalous is the encouragement of what some describe as a culture of informants and secret denunciations to Rome by small networks of ultra-conservative Catholics, keen to report what they see as doctrinal and liturgical abuses.
This has been a demoralising problem for the Australian bishops and particularly in the diocese of Toowoomba, where a group known as the "Temple Police" has been a constant thorn in Bishop Morris's side. He says the group numbers only a couple of hundred people in a diocese of more than 60,000, "so it's a tiny minority, but unfortunately in the present climate their voices are heard."
The long saga of what happened to Bishop Morris hangs on three successive ad limina visits that the Australian bishops made to Rome in 1998, 2004 and 2011. Ad limina is Latin for "to the threshold" and refers to the fact that the bishops are returning to the place where the apostles Peter and Paul are buried. The Australian bishops make these ad limina visits roughly every five years to report on the state of the Australian Church.
It was at the conclusion of their 1998 ad limina visit that, without warning or consultation, the Australian bishops were suddenly presented with a"Statement of Conclusions" which they were made to sign. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, a myth had taken hold in Rome that the Catholic Church in Australia was suffering from a "crisis of fidelity." This myth had been carefully constructed by a small network, in magazines such as B. A. Santamaria's AD2000, and by George Pell, who was at the time Archbishop of Melbourne.
The theory was that relaxed Australian attitudes had led to toleration of the evils of secularism, empty seminaries, free-wheeling nuns and liturgical abuses, and it was strongly implied that this had been allowed to happen because the Australian bishops had been falling down on the job.
At the time, Archbishop Pell described the overwhelmingly negative view of the Australian Church contained in the 1998 "Statement of Conclusions" as "a fair and accurate description of what's going on in Australia - but a bit understated."
Jump forward to 2012, and the Vatican's negative view of the Australian Church continues to be formed by this document, and Australian Catholics are still paying the price for the Australian bishops' failure in 1998 to stand their ground and defend Australia. Indeed, for some the sacking of Bishop Bill Morris is part of that price, because, with help, the Roman authorities came to see Bishop Morris as personifying every negative presupposition upon which the 1998 "Statement of Conclusions" had been constructed.
IT WAS DURING the Australian bishops' 2004 ad limina to Rome that Bishop Morris says he came to the attention of the Vatican authorities. Of all the Australian bishops, he had been the strongest advocate of the Communal Rite of Reconciliation with General Absolution.
The Communal Rite, or Third Rite as it is also known, is an alternative to individual confession to a priest, intended for use in exceptional circumstances. However, in the past 45 years the practice of going to confession has almost totally collapsed in Australia and many other countries, and a number of Australian bishops had been resorting to the Third Rite as a means of encouraging Catholics to continue availing themselves of the sacrament. The Third Rite had been very strongly supported by the laity. Bill Morris claims it had the support of 97 per cent of the people of the Toowoomba diocese.
Rome wanted to eliminate what it saw as Australia's illicit over-use of the Third Rite. Individual confession to a priest, of course, gives the priest a measure of control over people's lives. Its collapse signals a diminution of that power at a time when the Vatican has been intent on restoring it. Bishop Morris had prepared a report outlining particular reasons why the Third Rite made sense in his diocese, including the long distances priests had to drive to get to remote communities and the reluctance of many people to be alone with a priest as a result of the sexual abuse crisis.
Invited to meet with the Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Liturgy and the Sacraments, the now-retired Cardinal Francis Arinze, to discuss the issue, Morris says he arrived to find that he had been "ambushed." The cardinal was flanked by an archbishop and two monsignors. The conversation didn't go well.
"Cardinal Arinze wasn't interested in the pastoral aspect of what I was trying to say, or in hearing the arguments. And it came to a point where Arinze, who is Nigerian, started to be very critical of Australian culture. And I eventually told him he was being rude and out of place talking critically about a culture he knew nothing about, any more than I knew about Nigerian culture," Bishop Morris says.
Bishop Morris asserts that as their 2004 meeting broke up, the cardinal told him: "If you don't do exactly what I've told you to do, I'll hand you over to the CDF." The CDF is the powerful Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which in earlier times was known as the Holy Office or Inquisition. Feeling intimidated by the meeting, Morris later wrote to Arinze telling him he intended never to place himself in such a position again, and that in future meetings he would be accompanied by a fellow bishop and a canon lawyer.
Bishop Morris says Cardinal Arinze never spoke to him again after their 2004 meeting. "From that point on he began chasing me down, and every five or six months I would get another letter, hounding me and hounding me." Each time Arinze wrote to him, Morris would reply saying that he was complying with everything the cardinal had demanded of him. This included an agreement to phase out use of the Third Rite in the Toowoomba diocese over two years. Bishop Morris says he only authorised its use on two further occasions, once when a priest was dying, and once when a priest recovering from major surgery was too ill to hear confessions.
So he was surprised when, two years later, he received another letter from Arinze, ordering him to come to Rome in February 2007 for yet another meeting about the use of the Third Rite in the Toowoomba diocese. This time the meeting was to be with three cardinals - Arinze, and the prefects of the powerful Congregation for Bishops and the Doctrine of the Faith.
Morris replied that he couldn't come to Rome in February because of his commitments in Australia, offering instead to present himself in May.
Now, says Morris, the three cardinals really had their noses out of joint. An "Apostolic Visitor" was appointed to inspect the Toowoomba diocese. "My first mistake was that I treated them as equals," he says. "Under the present discipline, bishops are regarded as nothing more than branch managers."
The Apostolic Visitor that Rome appointed was the very conservative Archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput. In April 2007, Archbishop Chaput spent four and a half days in the Toowoomba diocese, an expanse of land bigger than the size of Germany. Mystified about what precisely he was doing in outback Australia, he is said to have signalled that he did not intend recommending Bishop Morris's removal.
By this time, a new matter of concern had come to Rome's attention. In November 2006, Bishop Morris had released an Advent pastoral letter addressed to his own priests and pastoral leaders, predicting that by 2014 his diocese would have only 19 active priests left, including the bishop. Most would be elderly and they would need to drive long distances, an occupational health and safety issue the Australian Church has yet to address. Bishop Morris went on to raise several possible future options, including ordaining married, single or widowed men; welcoming former priests, married or single, back to active ministry; ordaining women; and recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting church orders. Bishop Morris says mentioning these last two would seal his fate. "They had nothing else on me, because I had done everything they had asked me to do."
Though he admits his remarks were clumsily expressed, Bishop Morris in his Advent pastoral letter did not state, and nor did he teach that he was in favour of the ordination of women. In fact his letter clearly affirmed his continuing commitment to the current celibate, male priesthood. Prominent Australian Jesuit priest Professor Frank Brennan of the Australian Catholic University has described Bishop Morris's letter as "courageous and very pastoral." And Bishop Morris says he told Rome that when he became aware the letter was being misconstrued he immediately took steps in the media to correct any misunderstandings.
It seems likely that his thoughts on recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting church orders were informed by existing arrangements in his diocese. In the tiny township of Injune (population 400) in outback Queensland, they have closed the local Catholic and Uniting churches and the worshippers all crowd into the local Anglican church to reduce the cost to the community of maintaining three separate church buildings. Each month there is a sort of ecumenical round robin, beginning with an ecumenical service on the first Sunday, a Catholic Mass the following week, an Anglican service the week after that, with a Uniting Church service on the fourth Sunday. Across the remote western part of the Toowoomba diocese a Vatican-approved formal arrangement between the Catholic and Anglican churches to minister to each other's flocks has been in place for more than a decade. Plans to expand this arrangement to include the Lutheran and Uniting churches were still to be finalised at the time of Bishop Morris's removal.
None of these arrangements involved formal Catholic recognition of Anglican, Lutheran or Uniting church orders. But they do signal that on the ground in the local Church, denominational distinctions no longer matter to people in the way they once did. "The people in these isolated outback towns do everything together," says Morris. "They socialise together, they fight bushfires, droughts and floods together, they grieve together, and increasingly they also pray together."
Not long after Archbishop Chaput's whistlestop tour of the Toowoomba diocese, the papal nuncio in Canberra handed Bishop Morris an unsigned document from the Vatican Congregation for Bishops containing what were, in effect, 13 separate charges, including that under Bishop Morris's leadership the diocese of Toowoomba was moving "in a different direction than that of the Catholic Church," that the bishop had failed "to guide the faithful in fidelity to the doctrine and discipline of the Church," and that he lacked adequate theological preparation to deal with the crisis confronting the local Church. In short, it said he needed to be replaced.
Speaking to The Global Mail, Bishop Morris says this unsigned document was "full of factual errors and errors of conclusion," including allegations that there had been no priestly ordinations in the diocese in the previous eight years when in fact there had been four; that priests had been marginalised by the use of deacons when no deacons had ever been engaged by the diocese; and that the bishop was continuing to condone use of the General Rite of Reconciliation.
"My immediate reaction was 'Where did they get this from? They've got it wrong. It certainly doesn't represent the reality of the diocese I live in.' The papal nuncio said I could respond to the allegations but that it wouldn't make any difference because in Rome they had already made up their minds," Bishop Morris says.
As Bill Carter QC notes in his report, there is no evidence to suggest that this unsigned document represents a summary of the findings of the Apostolic Visitor, Archbishop Chaput. Bishop Morris believes the style of the allegations suggest they originated with the group he calls "the Temple Police."
What followed was a protracted impasse during which the Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, repeatedly asked Bishop Morris to resign. He repeatedly refused to comply, until the pope intervened and forced him to take early retirement. Bishop Morris says resignation would have been tantamount to an admission of guilt: "I never resigned and I never wrote a letter of resignation. To have done so would have been to affirm their position that I had broken communion, and I had not done so."
IN HIS SAVAGE report on the Morris affair, retired Queensland Supreme Court judge Bill Carter QC says the decision by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re to require Bishop Morris's resignation was "made without evidence or on the basis of evidence which was factually untrue." He says Bishop Morris "has been denied the right to be heard; he has been treated unfairly. He had not been provided with any evidence to support the case against him nor was he given any opportunity to respond to or correct known errors of fact and generalised assertions… One could not imagine a more striking case of a denial of natural justice."
Carter is particularly scathing about the second-hand information relied upon in the unsigned document produced by the Congregation for Bishops: "Not only does it display an appalling lack of evidence and particularity, it certainly contains demonstrable errors of fact… These simple factual errors are typical of a substandard fact-finding process, if one was ever undertaken. Rather they reflect a process of decision-making by high ranking church officials, more likely based on gossip and hearsay."
The separate report by canon lawyer Father Ian Waters is, if anything, even more damning because he is the expert in canon law retained by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart.
Describing the Vatican's action as "a secret administrative inquiry with no right of defence of the accused,"
Waters says under canon law a bishop can't be removed from office except for "grave reasons" and that some very serious offences, such as apostasy, heresy, schism, abuse of ecclesiastical power or failure to reside in the diocese, would require a formal penal process. But he says the allegations against Bishop Morris fall short of this threshold of seriousness. Other than this, canon law does not specify any other process for removing a bishop, though Waters says Rome "could have designed a process similar to that used for the removal of a parish priest, thereby according with procedural fairness and natural justice consistent with the Code of Canon Law. This was not done."
The findings contained in the Carter and Waters reports are especially damaging for Pope Benedict XVI. A conspicuous failure as a pastoral bishop in the few years when he was Archbishop of Munich in the late 1970s, Benedict has reawakened memories of his own reputation as a theological warrior. In 2011, there were international headlines when Bishop Morris revealed in an interview on ABC Radio that in his letter demanding Morris's resignation, Benedict had incorrectly asserted that the Church's position against ordaining women had been decided "infallibly and irrevocably" by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Canon law says Church teachings are only infallible when they are explicitly declared to be so, and John Paul made no such ex cathedra pronouncement.
In his report, Bill Carter QC says the pope brushed aside Bishop Morris's written complaints that he had been denied natural justice and that the allegations against him were based on factually incorrect information.
In his letter of December 22, 2009, demanding Bishop Morris's resignation, Pope Benedict states, in effect, that bishops serve at his pleasure: "Canon law does not make provision for a process regarding bishops whom the Successor of Peter nominates and may remove from office."
In his report, Bill Carter QC describes this statement as "perhaps the most compelling confirmation that Bishop Morris was denied procedural fairness and natural justice." He says the proposition that "because I appointed you to a particular office, so I can remove you by an unfair process and in breach of the principles of natural justice," is "offensive not only to the requirements of the Civil Law but also to those of the Canon Law."
Ian Waters agrees. He says Code 19 of the Code of Canon Law stipulates that even though there is no specific procedure set down for removing a bishop, it should have been done according to the general principles of natural justice and procedural fairness that underpin the natural law.
THIS NEW FOCUS on the behaviour of Pope Benedict is causing cracks to appear in the church here in Australia. Father Ian Waters is canonist to the Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart.
There has been an exchange of letters in the newspapers between Archbishop Hart and the ostracised Bishop Morris. The Archbishop asserts that the Holy See conducted "a pastoral process of dialogue with Bishop Morris over 11 years," and repudiates suggestions that the pope breached Canon Law or exceeded his authority in sacking Morris: "In the Catholic Church, because the Pope is the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the Universal Church, he has final power throughout the Church and can freely exercise it. This includes the appointment, transfer and removal of bishops."
Though it may be true to say the pope had the legal power to act in the way he did, there remains the question of whether Pope Benedict abused his authority in the way he exercised it.
Archbishop Hart asserts that the Apostolic Visitor who inspected the Toowoomba diocese, Archbishop Charles Chaput, "has stated that he did discuss the contents of his report with Bishop Morris while he was in Toowoomba."
In his newspaper exchange with Archbishop Hart, Bishop Morris categorically denies this.
Bishop Morris says Archbishop Hart is "correct in stating that the pope did not act against canon law because he is the legislator and therefore decides what is canonical." But he says Archbishop Hart has "failed to acknowledge that while the Pope is the Vicar of Christ for the universal church, Vatican II taught that each diocesan bishop is the Vicar of Christ in and for his diocese."
So, is there any real possibility of justice in the Church if in fact no separation of powers exists?
WHEN BISHOP Morris was forced out of office in May 2011, the senior Catholic bishop in Queensland, Archbishop John Bathersby of Brisbane, since retired, made an embarrassing admission. He had not been consulted about the Vatican's decision and did not know the details of why it had been made.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference gave an undertaking to seek some answers when the bishops went to Rome for their next ad limina visit in October 2011. A series of meetings was held with senior Vatican officials, butthe Australian bishops emerged to say that "What the Holy See did was fraternal and pastoral rather than juridical in character. Although efforts continued over many years, a critical point came when Bishop Morris failed to clarify his position to the satisfaction of the Holy See."
Bishop Morris describes the statement from the Australian bishops as "very much a compromise statement. A number of the Australian bishops would have supported me very strongly. Others would have been very supportive of Rome."
THE MORRIS CASE HIGHLIGHTS what is the most serious fault line dividing the worldwide Catholic Church today: the tension between Rome's insistence on doctrine and discipline, and the pastoral concerns at the periphery.
The Vatican has signalled it unwillingness to address the problems he was raising in his 2006 Advent pastoral letter. However, the Australian bishops know these are not just problems in Toowoomba, but Australia-wide. And they are not going to diminish. The last generation of Australian-born working priests is rapidly approaching retirement, which is why, in lieu of any better solution, many of the bishops have been busy searching Vietnam, India, the Philippines and Nigeria for overseas-born priests and seminarians to recruit to Australia.
Given the manner in which Bishop Morris was treated, it is hardly surprising that there is widespread demoralisation in the Australian Church, and particularly among the priesthood. With up to 11 Australian bishops due to be replaced this year, and about half over the next five years, the clergy is abuzz with talk that attempts to fill the many vacant dioceses in Australia at present are meeting with a significant number of knock-backs from eligible priests who have been sounded out about their interest in becoming bishops.
This is difficult to prove because the system of choosing bishops is secretive and labyrinthine. Many priests I have spoken to describe this system as corrupt. The papal nuncio in Canberra, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, refused to comment, telling The Global Mail the issue "comes under the strictest secrecy."
But Bishop Bill Morris says a high number of knockbacks are being received. He says this would partly be because "many priests can see that the ministry of bishop has been so curtailed they are not going to respond to it." He says many priests have told him they are not interested in being forced to take a loyalty oath that would limit their ability to speak freely about issues such as the ordination of women.
A high rate of knock-backs does not mean episcopal vacancies won't be filled; increasingly they will be filled by much younger and more conservative men. But it does make the leadership of the Australian Church extremely fluid at present. Who knows what the leadership of the Australian Church will look like in five years' time?
Recently, the auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, Les Tomlinson, a popular bishop with moderate views, was appointed bishop of the Victorian diocese of Sandhurst. But it is well known that he was not the Vatican's first choice. Another prominent Australian auxiliary bishop had knocked back the position.
The outgoing chairman of Australia's National Council of Priests, Father Ian McGinnity, says he has "no evidentiary proof" of a high rate of knock-backs, but that many senior priests would find it difficult to take up a position as bishop when it involves "seemingly being a branch manager for Rome with little input into decisions being made centrally, as well as dealing with the remnant of abuse cases still affecting Church morale."
Ian McGinnity says the National Council of Priests concurs with the opinions of Bill Carter QC and Father Ian Waters that Bishop Morris was denied natural justice and due process:
"One would think ordinary Christian values would allow for a fairer process. We hope that this experience will precipitate Roman authorities to consider better processes, which are demanded by at least our Western society in this 21st century world."