Toowoomba bishop William Morris under scrutiny from Catholic Church
Alison Sandy and Margaret Wenham
The Courier-Mail (Australia)
February 12, 2009 11:00pm
A Catholic bishop in southern Queensland may get the sack for insubordination after being reported by the church's "temple police".
In the wake of rebel South Brisbane priest Father Peter Kennedy's dismissal, Toowoomba Bishop William Morris has admitted he's also under investigation after discussing the prospect of women or married priests in a pastoral letter.
He said the diocese was challenged by the ageing of its priests, most of whom would be eligible for retirement by 2014, leaving only six priests out of the full complement of 40.
The 65-year-old said the investigation had been going for two years, but a decision had not yet been made.
"The ultimate outcome is I'd be sacked and have to stand down," he said.
"Or they would ask me to resign or operate in another diocese ... at this stage, I don't know."
Bishop Morris, who has held the Toowoomba post for 16 years, said the church couldn't stifle debate and that's what the letter was promoting. "I will continue to fight for what I believe is the truth," he said.
"And I will continue to fight to be able to ask questions."
Bishop Morris said there was a group of very conservative Catholics dubbed the "temple police" who travelled around parishes dobbing in priests who didn't toe the line.
"There are plenty of temple police around at the moment," he said.
"They're not a large majority - they believe in their conservative views and if they don't agree with something, they'll write to Rome."
Bishop Morris said he hoped the investigation would be concluded this year, but even if he was sacked, he would still retain his title.
He said the same applied to Fr Kennedy even if he was excommunicated.
Brisbane Catholic Archbishop John Bathersby would not comment on the investigation of Bishop Morris except to say that Rome was constantly looking at such situations.
"There are rules and regulations in everything," he said.
However, Archbishop Bathersby said he would welcome change in the church.
"It's a church that's constantly reforming itself," he said.
"There's a lot of people agitating for a third Vatican Council and that could happen too - I'd love to see that happen."
Police yesterday paid a visit to Father Kennedy ahead of his impending eviction from St Mary's South Brisbane.
The visit, by two officers from the West End police station, came after police read in The Courier-Mail that Archbishop Bathersby intended enlisting their aid to forcibly eject Father Kennedy from his spiritual home of 28 years if he refused to give up his post.
"They said they wouldn't be taking sides. So long as we don't break any civil laws, they won't be taking any action," Father Kennedy said.
"I have assured them that I won't be doing anything to break the law."Fr Kennedy said the officers were well known to many in the St Mary's community who worked with disadvantaged people in the area and had conveyed to him their concern about being "the meat in the sandwich".
"Basically they said their role in the community is to keep the peace," he said.
"They said they wouldn't be taking sides. It's a policing matter for them and so long as we don't break any civil laws, they won't be taking any action.
"I have assured them that I won't be doing anything to break the law."
Father Kennedy's administration of St Mary's was terminated, effective February 21, by Archbishop Bathersby last Friday, following a series of exchanges between the two men.
In his February 6 letter, Archbishop Bathersby said he had requested changes if St Mary's was to be "in communion with the Archdiocese of Brisbane and the Roman Catholic Church" but the parish had "time and time again chosen to go its own way".
Fr Kennedy reiterated his intent to continue to attend services at St Mary's after his termination date, but said he did not intend to lead the masses.
He said Dean Ken Howell - appointed interim administrator by Archbishop Bathersby - was "welcome" to lead the mass.
"I don't intend to lead the Eucharist, I would simply be there," Fr Kennedy said.
The 71-year-old said he was shocked to read of the Archbishop's threat of forcible expulsion.
His eyes filled with tears as he considered the events of the past week.
"I feel no hostility to the Archbishop," he said.
"I've thanked him often for letting us be.
"To me its the betrayal thing. You give your life to this church and you've been a part of it. I've enjoyed being a priest all my life.
"You create a new way of being church - a Vatican II type of church - and you're told by John Bathersby that it's 'Filthy pride'."
St Mary's he said was being penalised for being alive, vital and filled with love.
NOTE: The controversial 2006 Advent Pastoral Letter has been removed from the diocesan Web site and replaced by the following terse statement from Bishop Morris:
"In my Advent Pastoral Letter of 2006 I outlined some of the challenges facing the diocese into the future. In that letter I made reference to various options about ordination that were and are being talked about in various places, as part of an exercise in the further investigation of truth in these matters. Unfortunately some people seem to have interpreted that reference as suggesting that I was personally initiating options that are contrary to the doctrine and discipline of the Church. As a bishop I cannot and would not do that and I indicated this in the local media at the time. I and all the bishops of the Catholic Church form a college with the Holy Father and cannot act contrary to the teaching and practice of the Universal Church. Encouraging vocations to the priesthood must remain a priority for our local Church and we pray this Christmas and as we begin the New Year that more young men will consider deeply their response to God’s call."
NOTE: From AD 2000 a summary of the contents of Bishop Morris' 2006 pastoral letter:
Priest shortage in Toowoomba Diocese
In an Advent Pastoral Letter for 2006, Bishop William Morris set out for the Toowoomba Diocese the severe shortage of priests to be expected over the years leading up to 2014.
"We do face an uncertain future with regard to the number of active priests in our diocese", said Bishop Morris. The estimated numbers of priests in "parish-based ministry in 2014" would be six aged 65 and younger (three in the 61-65 year group) and eight aged 66-70, with a further five in "diocesan ministry" including the Bishop himself.
This numbers crisis is due to the almost total lack of vocations for the diocese.
Bishop Morris offered some possible solutions in his Letter.
"Given our deeply held belief in the primacy of the Eucharist for the identity, continuity and life of each parish community, we may well need to be much more open towards other options for ensuring that Eucharist may be celebrated. Several responses have been discussed internationally, nationally and locally:
* ordaining married, single or widowed men who are chosen and endorsed by their local parish community;
* welcoming former priests, married or single, back to active ministry;
* ordaining women, married or single;
* recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church Orders.
"While we continue to reflect carefully on these options, we remain committed to actively promoting vocations to the current celibate male priesthood and open to inviting priests from overseas ...
"As a pilgrim people who journey in hope we need to remain open to the Spirit so that we can be agents of change and respond wisely to the needs of all members of the local Church of Toowoomba".
NOTE: There is also substantial discussion of this matter in Paul Collins' online book Believers: Does Australian Catholicism Have a Future?