Diocesan and parish governance: the next hot topic

John Scanlon explores some possible remedies of the poor governance in the church and parishes in the light of the evidence at the Royal Commission. He critiques the current approach of creating bigger parishes with priests limited in energy, competence and/or capacity.

Church Governance in Relation to the State

During February 2017 the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (“the Royal Commission”) held its final hearing into Catholic Church authorities in Australia. In its preparation for this hearing, the Truth, Justice and Healing Council prepared a lengthy submission to the Royal Commission which in part attempted to provide an understanding of institutional structures and governance arrangements within the Catholic Church. A strong theme of this submission was that attempting to understand the structure of the Church by analogy to the more familiar structures of complex organisations in modern society would be unhelpful and potentially misleading. The Church must be accepted as sui generis; it cannot be equated to multinational corporations. In the area of diocesan and parish governance, the TJHC submission says; ” bishops take an oath of allegiance to the Pope and clerics are obliged to obey the dictates of their bishops. At the local level, parish priests have authority within their parish and canon law then prescribes the processes and procedures to follow in administration at both diocesan and parish levels.”

However Catholics, whether clerical or lay, do not live only in this church world of oaths of allegiance to the Pope and relationships between bishops, parish priests and lay people determined by canon law. They also live as citizens of nation states, in which their conduct is regulated by the body of laws which that state has adopted. In countries like Australia where there is no established church, any possible conflict between the law of the state and canon law will be resolved in favour of the law of the state. To the extent that a person’s religious life involves public activities or leads to the disadvantage of other people, those external activities or effects can be an infraction of the law of the state and can leave the person open to penalty under civil or criminal law.

In a number of the Royal Commission hearings that involved Catholic Church institutions, Commission members questioned Church witnesses about their understanding of their legal obligations under the law of the state. Justice Peter McClellan has been particularly challenging on this topic, and I expect his final report to describe current arrangements for diocesan and parish governance as not fit for purpose in respect to the avoidance of abuse committed by priests in parishes. That would be mild language compared to that already used by Archbishop Anthony Fisher when evaluating the performance of Church authorities in their handling of clerical sexual abuse. In evidence given to a hearing of the Royal Commission, Archbishop Fisher (who qualified and practised as a solicitor before entering religious life) described that performance as ‘criminally negligent.’ It would be interesting to know which particular persons he had in mind when he made that statement.

The Future Outlook for Parish Clergy

Even if the current model of parish governance were to be considered satisfactory up to now, it is likely to fail in the future if the parish clergy declines in quantity or quality. Evidence given by seminary rectors and staff members at hearings of the Royal Commission does not inspire confidence among lay people in the training of their future clergy. The environment in which seminary students live during their training is highly clericalised and remote from the experience of lay people, and is inherently hostile to normal social and psychosexual development. The only real change in psychosexual selection criteria for intending seminarians has been an attempt to weed out candidates with overtly homosexual tendencies; all that one can conclude from this change is that Church authorities are hopelessly confused about the relation – or lack of relation – between paedophilia and homosexuality.

However the main problem with the current generation of seminarians in Australia is that there are far too few of them to replace the priests (largely seculars) who staff the current network of parishes. Importing priests from India, Africa or Asia who think they can speak English but are unintelligible to parishioners is not a satisfactory solution to the shortage of home grown candidates. Neither is the handing over of parishes to orders and foreign priests with a highly clericalist view of the relationship between parish clergy and laity. Even less satisfactory is the approach of merging parishes to increase the geographical area and population to be served by a single priest, while trying to maintain the current model of parish governance. All this would achieve is an increase in the number of priests who are burned out before normal retirement age.

Possible Remedies: Incorporation

The concept of incorporation as a means of improving governance came in for some discussion at Commission hearings. Dr Maureen Cleary pointed out that many agencies and operations associated with the Church but serving general public needs, such as hospitals, schools and charity operations, had moved in recent decades to being corporations with largely lay boards. These operations were generally run in the past by religious orders, that had realised their numbers were declining and had looked for alternative means for their good works to be carried on. For these entities, incorporation assisted good governance because it meant that directors had legal, fiduciary duties, and so people serving on boards had their legal obligations at the front of their mind.

While incorporation seems to have worked well for bodies such as schools and hospitals, which exist primarily to deliver professional services, it is not immediately obvious how it would improve the ability of a diocese to prevent the depredations of paedophile priests in parishes. True, it would move some important areas of decision making from a possibly idiosyncratic bishop to the collective judgment of a body with inherently wider experience. However if nothing changes except for the creation of a supervisory board for the diocese, all that may be achieved is a more efficient slamming of the stable door after the horse has already bolted.

The real need is for priests in parishes who have personal problems to be detected and helped in good time, and prevented as far as possible from doing damage. Incorporation of parishes and installation of lay boards at this level is not practicable, even though it brings the level of personal supervision down to parish level. The reason why parish incorporation will not work is that in many cases the parish unit has too small a population to generate a sufficient number of willing and competent board members. The first and by far the most important requirement for a lay board member is that he or she must be free of the taint of clericalism; that is, the exaggerated and obsequious respect for the clergy that destroys the ability to exercise independent judgment of a cleric’s actions or statements. Many centuries of church history and culture have gone into clericalising and infantilising the great mass of Catholic laity. The result is the damage that has been done over the years by the ‘Father’s right hand men’ who have winked at, ignored or denied the weaknesses of the clerics they serve.

Possible Remedies: Pastoral Supervision

The only way I can see to be aware of priests with serious problems is through a universal exercise of the kind of pastoral supervision that Peter Maher discussed in his editorial in the Autumn issue of The Swag. As I understand it, the relationship of a pastoral supervisor to a priest is at least as much mentor as monitor, and can be best seen as a mutual relationship directed at the personal growth and development of the priest, particularly in his pastoral role. While I do not expect that a pastoral supervisor is going to be a policeman or detective if the priest he supervises has pathological psychosexual problems, the closeness of this working relationship is the best protection I can see against the condition of such a priest escaping notice and being made worse by isolation. Over and above that, everyone in the Church, cleric or lay, should always keep in mind that what has happened before can happen again. The price of freedom from sexual abuse, in churches, families and all other unequal relationships, is eternal vigilance.

The Ultimate Remedy: Expanded Parish Ministry

Finally, we must recognise that the problems of insufficient parish clergy numbers, and of deficiencies in character, culture and training of some current seminarians and younger priests, are the result of confining the selection pool to males who can live with compulsory celibacy. The Church has wasted the productive years of thousands of now married priests who had much to contribute, and has continued to ignore its greatest resource, its women. But that particular sin of the Church against the Holy Spirit really needs a whole issue of The Swag to itself.


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