Outraged Catholics say Australian church leaders are 'locked in a misogynistic and unaccountable culture'

Test: Former Catholic priest and academic Dr Peter Wilkinson said the Australian church is facing 'make or break time' after the child sexual abuse royal commission.

Test: Former Catholic priest and academic Dr Peter Wilkinson said the Australian church is facing 'make or break time' after the child sexual abuse royal commission.

AUSTRALIAN Catholic church leaders are “locked in a misogynistic and unaccountable culture” that has failed to adequately respond to the child sexual abuse scandal and is denying the need for urgent reform, say Catholic groups meeting in Canberra on Friday to demand change.

More than 50 leading Catholic reformists are expected to seek an urgent meeting with Australia’s bishops after a request to release the first formal church assessment of child abuse royal commission recommendations was declined last week by Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart.

The lack of a decisive response on systemic reform after the “catastrophe of sex abuse by clergy” was “the last straw for many committed Catholics who see their church leadership locked in a misogynistic and unaccountable culture”, said Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform in a statement on Thursday.

Coalition convenor Peter Johnstone said the Canberra meeting is a direct response to the bishops’ refusal to release a Truth Justice and Healing Council analysis of the royal commission’s findings and recommendations before a bishops’ conference in May. It was given to a senior church leaders group several weeks ago.

The failure so far of any decisive response in the way of systemic reform after the catastrophe of sex abuse by clergy has been the last straw for many committed Catholics who see their church leadership locked in a misogynistic and unaccountable culture.

Australian Coalition for Catholic Church Reform

The coalition called on bishops to release the TJHC analysis, by the respected group which represented Catholic leadership through the royal commission process, as a kind of “white paper” for reform that would involve all Catholics and the public. It was a test of whether bishops were prepared to include lay Catholics in decision-making, the reform groups said. 

“We believe that report should be released immediately. We’re very concerned they’re regarding it as confidential,” Mr Johnstone said.

Declined: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president and Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart ruled out releasing the first formal church response to the child abuse royal commission.

Declined: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president and Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart ruled out releasing the first formal church response to the child abuse royal commission.

“Given they’ve said very little on the very serious findings and recommendations of the royal commission, it’s almost as if they’re wishing it to go away.”

The Canberra gathering occurs only weeks after a new report by former Catholic priest and leading reformer Paul Collins using 2016 figures found less than 10 per cent of Catholics attend regular Mass, with “overseas-born Catholics saving Mass attendance figures from collapse”.

One third of regular attendees were over 70, only 9 per cent of 15-29 year olds were regular attendees, and the church would experience an acute shortage of priests after 2022 because of the retirement or death of a large group of priests, Mr Collins said.

“The gathering in Canberra comes at a time of falling Mass attendances, the steady decline in the number of priests and the eroding stature of the church and its teachings,” the reform groups said on Thursday.

“These are all symptoms of a church whose leaders are unaccountable, secretive and non-inclusive in their decision-making, particularly in the incredibly discriminatory treatment of women.”

The coalition described the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse findings as devastating, but an “astute diagnosis of the church’s dysfunctions”.

Respected: Truth Justice and Healing Council chief executive Francis Sullivan's name has been put forward by reformers to head a national governance review of the church.

Respected: Truth Justice and Healing Council chief executive Francis Sullivan's name has been put forward by reformers to head a national governance review of the church.

In his report Mr Collins said Australian bishops were failing to respond to clear signs by Pope Francis who was “trying to shift Catholicism in a more pastorally-responsive direction”.

The Pope this week approved an Australian church plenary council in 2020 and early 2021, but reform groups expressed concern it could become “a vehicle for kicking the real issues down the road”.

In a statement last week Archbishop Hart declined to respond to questions after Mr Johnstone, Mr Collins and former priest and academic Dr Peter Wilkinson said another test for bishops is how they respond to a key royal commission recommendation for a national review of the Australian church. A review on governance and management would focus on transparency, accountability, consultation and the involvement of lay men and women at all levels of the church including dioceses and parishes.

“The review is huge. This is where it’s make or break time,” Dr Wilkinson said.

“Whoever does the review, it cannot be a bishop because there is no trust and no confidence there after the royal commission. It has to be a lay-led review.”

The coalition said Truth Justice and Healing Council chief executive Francis Sullivan would be a suitable and respected leader of such a review.

In response to questions last week about the governance review and reformers’ views that it cannot be headed by a bishop, Archbishop Hart said he did not intend to pre-empt the bishops conference in May “or comment on other ideas until the bishops have had the opportunity to meet and discuss the matter”.

Mr Johnstone said Friday’s gathering was an attempt by lay Catholics to shift bishops from “reacting negatively to ideas of reform, just as they reacted negatively to the recommendation that priests should break the seal of the confessional when it comes to child sexual abuse”.

“Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform can offer an informed briefing to the bishops on the gathering’s considered views and of their willingness to work together to pursue urgent change,” Mr Johnstone said.