Ballarat's Catholic Bishop Open to Stripping Parish Priests of Power over Schools
By Charlotte King
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
December 15, 2017
|PHOTO: The Ballarat Catholic Diocese has cautiously welcomed the royal commission's recommendations. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)|
The Ballarat Catholic Diocese says it is open to a recommendation from the child sexual abuse royal commission that parish priests be stripped of their power over schools.
The diocese has been referred to as the epicentre of child sexual abuse, with hundreds of victims.
Earlier this month, the royal commission released its damning report into the Ballarat Catholic Diocese, describing its handling of clergy child sex abuse as a "catastrophic failure of leadership".
The commissioners found a culture of secrecy and failures in the church's structure led to children being abused across the diocese over a number of decades.
"That failure led to the suffering and often irreparable harm to children, their families and the wider community," the report stated.
Catholic schools have featured more than any other institution in the number of child sexual abuse complaints.
When one of the nation's most prolific paedophiles, Gerald Ridsdale was made parish priest of Mortlake in western Victoria, he had been sexually assaulting children for almost a decade.
The 1981 appointment put him at the helm of the local parish primary school, St Colman's.
|PHOTO: The Catholic Church shuffled paedophile priest Father Gerald Ridsdale from parish to parish for three decades. (AAP: Ballarat Courier)|
Ballarat Diocese's Bishop Paul Bird said he was open to the recommendation that bishops ensure parish priests are not the employers of principals and teachers in schools.
"Being a part of what the commissioner called a national tragedy, unfortunately people in our diocese made a contribution to that national tragedy, and I'm hoping we can be part of the better response," Bishop Bird said.
The diocese now covers almost half the state, including 64 schools and almost 20,000 children.
Each Victorian diocese, apart from Sale, has a governance structure whereby the parish priest is the direct employer of parish school staff, including the principal.
It is a legacy of canon law, which dictates that a Catholic school must be under the authority of Catholic clergy.
Bishop Bird said the commissioners' first recommendation had been for bishops, not only in Victoria but across the country, to remove that power.
"It would be a way of ensuring that there is a shared responsibility, and shared amongst those who have particular expertise," he said.
"Even with the very best will in the world a parish priest may not have the expertise for education."
Eileen Rice is the principal of the St Alipius parish school.
The school shared a parish with the notorious former St Alipius Boys School, which was run by the Christian Brothers religious order and some of the state's worst convicted paedophiles.
Hundreds of confidential settlements have been reached with students from the former school.
"I think there's an opportunity here for a lot of changes," Ms Rice said.
"And a lot of relooking at the way our church operates across the board, so there's opportunities here for us to examine what clericalism really means; what power of priests mean in our church.
"It's really important to get back to the basics of what Catholic communities are, what Christian communities are."
The Director of the Catholic Education Office in Ballarat, Audrey Brown, is part of a working party addressing governance issues in schools across the diocese.
"We're quite well placed to be able to move into a new place of structuring up the governance of our schools", she said.
She said the recommendation was timely.
"There are some areas where parish priests are so stretched in their ministry, that they are saying they no longer have time for that close scrutiny of their schools," she said.
|PHOTO: The Ballarat Diocese now covers almost half of Victoria and almost 20,000 school children. (ABC Local Radio: Margaret Burin)|