Australian Catholic bishops must lead 'urgent delegation' to see Pope Francis, say church reformers

AUSTRALIA’S bishops must lead an “urgent delegation” to Pope Francis seeking changes to some of the church’s most fundamental views on women, celibacy, governance and the handling of child sex cases, according to Australia’s peak Catholic reform group in a call to arms to Catholics across the country.

In an open letter sent to all parishes, Catholics for Renewal has urged bishops and archbishops not to “defer to the Holy See”, or wait for Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommendations, before acting on serious issues that contributed to the child sexual abuse crisis.

Catholics for Renewal president and former senior Australian Government bureaucrat, Peter Johnstone OAM, said bishops needed to urge Pope Francis to require mandatory reporting of all child sexual allegations to police and immediately appoint women to the church’s highest ranks.

“The appointment of women would be revolutionary, but I would argue the Pope could do that tomorrow and that would be a catalyst for forcing ultra-conservative bishops to realise they’ve got no choice but to get on board,” Mr Johnstone said.

The push for an Australian delegation to the Vatican comes only days after the church’s most prominent spokesman throughout the royal commission hearings, Francis Sullivan, returned from Rome to say he was “astounded by the resistance in some quarters of the church” to address the child sexual abuse crisis. 

Catholic parishioners were asked to support renewal within the church by signing the open letter to Australia’s most senior clergy, in a campaign that will run until May. It was released on Friday as the royal commission ended its 57th and final public hearing.

Mr Johnstone said revelations from the royal commission had demonstrated the clear need for change within many institutions, but “the big question is: are Catholics ready and determined enough to reclaim their church?”

The appointment of women would be revolutionary, but I would argue the Pope could do that tomorrow and that would be a catalyst for forcing ultra-conservative bishops to realise they’ve got no choice but to get on board. - Catholics for Renewal president Peter Johnstone.

All Australian parish priests and pastoral councils were asked to make a copy of the letter to bishops available in churches from Sunday.

Mr Johnstone said the call for Australian bishops and archbishops to directly challenge Pope Francis on fundamental church teachings might be perceived as a “revolutionary step”, but was "simply in accordance with Christ’s teachings”.

“I don’t think the act itself would be revolutionary because it is very much within the provisions of canon law for bishops to have that close relationship with the Pope and to give honest advice to him. The church needs to start practising the teachings of Jesus,” Mr Johnstone said.

It had been a “great failure” that bishops in the past had been unwilling to give “honest advice” to Popes on the subject of child sexual abuse, he said.

“We believe what we’ve suggested in the open letter are reasonable but necessary steps for responsible bishops to take immediately, and it can be done, and to apply the sort of pressure that might in fact help the Pope. Bishops need to support doing what is essentially necessary for the church.”

Mr Johnstone’s group told Catholic parishioners it believed an Australian delegation would be welcomed by Pope Francis as he seeks renewal in the church.

“All the actions proposed are within the authority of the Australian bishops who are able to give some hope to the church by acting now. The Open Letter asks our bishops to lead the reform of our Church now, acting promptly and decisively,” the letter said.

Catholics for Renewal asked Australia’s bishops and archbishops to end “the corrosive culture of clericalism”, where priests are seen as above parishioners, and initiate “full involvement of the faithful” in diocesan assemblies or synods and annual diocesan reports.

Bishops and archbishops were asked to appoint women to senior diocesan positions such as chancellor and delegate of bishops, after figures revealed by the royal commission showed dioceses with women in influential positions with authority over priests had the lowest child sexual abuse rates.

Catholics for Renewal called on bishops to hold diocesan synods in 2018 to develop an agenda for a national council in 2020, with a much greater involvement by lay church people.

Mr Johnstone said his group was calling for significant change because the global child sexual abuse scandal had changed the fundamental relationship between the Catholic Church and the community.

“Churches are regarded, should be regarded, as institutions that add to the value of society, and that’s the big question that occurs with the scandal of child sexual abuse. Churches have been exposed as doing the opposite, and of detracting from the safety of children in society,” he said.

Mr Johnstone said Australian politicians had to be prepared to make serious demands of the Catholic Church, and other churches, because of the child sexual abuse crisis and appalling failures demonstrated by institutions. But he was not sure politicians realised how significantly the royal commission was likely to challenge them when it hands its final report to government in December.

“I suspect that although the royal commission has been making extraordinarily important statements, those statements and their implications have not yet been fully absorbed by the politicians of this country, indeed by many people,” Mr Johnstone said.

While there was a danger that Australian governments would fail to respond to the royal commission’s more difficult recommendations, Mr Johnstone said he was confident the report would be “so strong that governments will have no choice but to respond”.

He expected the report would be challenging for governments and some politicians who would “have to work out what their relationships are with churches, generally”.

In a statement on Monday Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president, Archbishop Denis Hart, said: “Many important issues for the life and renewal of the Church are currently being addressed in a systematic way by bishops in their dioceses, and by the national Bishops’ Conference. Some have been mentioned by Catholics for Renewal.”

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