Catholics for Renewal president Peter Johnstone says the church needs women at the very top

Change: The Catholic Church needs a "circuit breaker" to adequately respond to the child sexual abuse crisis, and women need to take very senior roles, the royal commission has been told.
Change: The Catholic Church needs a "circuit breaker" to adequately respond to the child sexual abuse crisis, and women need to take very senior roles, the royal commission has been told.

ONE of the Australian Catholic Church’s strongest internal critics has told the child abuse royal commission that Pope Francis should replace half the church’s most senior clerics with “progressive women theologians”.

Catholics for Renewal president Peter Johnstone said women in the church was “an obvious lack”, a point accepted by Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge during a hearing on Wednesday about church governance and its role in the child sexual abuse crisis.

“The first thing anyone who understands the challenge of leadership does, is understand the need for gender balance. Women are half the population and should be involved in good governance,” Mr Johnstone said.

“I think there needs to be a circuit breaker in the church. The Pope could appoint 50 per cent of positions within the curia as progressive women theologians. That would change the dynamic tomorrow.”

Mr Johnstone strongly criticised the church for failing to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, a factor that he said contributed to the global crisis.

“The church in so many ways is failing not only the secular standards of governance, but it’s failing its own teachings in the way it governs,” he said.

Mr Johnstone said governments needed to recognise churches were in a privileged position in Australia, and they needed to respond if churches did not live up to those privileged positions.

Mr Johnstone said Catholics were “pretty desperate” at the failure of the church to adequately respond.

“We are Catholics. This is our faith. We are committed Catholics. We think the church should be embracing what we say. As Catholics, we’re pretty desperate. The church that expresses our faith fails to live that faith.”

Archbishop Coleridge told the royal commission’s final hearing on the Catholic Church that he had “no idea” if a figure of 50 per cent of priests breaking their celibacy vow was true. He was challenged by commission chair Justice Peter McClellan, who asked why a bishop wouldn’t know how many of his priests were following celibacy, or struggling with celibacy.

Coleridge answered that he had “no right to go to a priest who is not an employee of mine and ask, ‘Excuse me, are you in a sexual relationship?’ The priest would have the right to say ‘It’s no business of yours’.”

Justice McClellan responded: “Some would say that answer is a significant part of the problem.”

Irish theologian Dr Gerry O’Hanlon said a shift in the church towards a top down governance model, particularly under Pope John Paul II, contributed to the child sexual abuse crisis.