MAITLAND-Newcastle Catholic Bishop Bill Wright has stunned parishioners by urging a community to forgive a ‘‘repentant’’ priest because ‘‘there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than 99 just people’’.
Bishop Wright, named as a possible replacement for Cardinal George Pell in the Sydney archdiocese, reinstated Father Des Harrigan to Taree in September last year despite noting the likelihood of ‘‘concern and distress’’ among some parishioners about the priest’s conduct.
In a letter of ‘‘reinstatement and support for Father Des Harrigan’’ read out at all Taree church services in September, the bishop asked parishioners to ‘‘look at these matters not with the mind of those who demand nothing less than perfection from anyone professing to be Christian, but according to the mind of Christ who teaches us there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than 99 just people’’.
‘‘Where people fail to live up to the expectations of their position but are forthright in acknowledging their responsibilities and truly repentant, our faith tells us there is forgiveness and we are given second chances,’’ Bishop Wright wrote.
In a statement last week, the diocese noted Father Harrigan ‘‘chose to refrain from entering schools and giving homilies’’ after his evidence to the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry in July about owning adult male pornography.
The diocese confirmed he had also been the subject of complaints about his ‘‘temperament and style’’. Father Harrigan has not been the subject of any child sexual abuse allegations.
The September letter was not circulated. A copy was provided to the Newcastle Herald last week after an article in which parishioners expressed dismay about the priest returning to full duties in early March.
The parishioners said they were too stunned when the letter was read to take in the detail, including the ‘‘joy in heaven over one repentant sinner’’ reference.
‘‘What messages are we to take from that?’’ said one parishioner whose children attend a Taree Catholic school.
‘‘The first message is that I should go out and sin to my heart’s content and repent at the last minute to make heaven happy.
‘‘The second is that the bishop is telling me a single ‘repentant’ priest is worth 99 of us sitting in church. I don’t accept either of those messages, and I am angry that a bishop expects me to.’’
In one complaint last year, a woman wrote: ‘‘I have witnessed Father Harrigan breaking down and crying after Mass, saying he can’t keep going, that it is all too much. I have experienced his mood swings.
‘‘At times I have walked away from church with a genuine concern for Father Harrigan’s health.’’
The woman said it was unfair of the bishop to ‘‘send a vulnerable man back into a community that is itself struggling to deal with the whole situation’’.
Adults Surviving Child Abuse president Dr Cathy Kezelman said it was outrageous of a bishop to note that people might be distressed by the priest’s behaviour, but reinstate him despite that.
A diocese spokeswoman said there would be no comment.