Morris Affair Contains Lessons for Church Hierarchy

By Frank Brennan
Eureka Street
January 24, 2012

The Toowoomba Diocese has been without a resident bishop now for nine months since Pope Benedict removed Bishop Bill Morris, who refused to submit his resignation when requested by three curial cardinals who formed an adverse view of him.

Morris had offered to retire by August last year provided only that the sexual abuse cases in the diocese had been resolved. This timetable was judged inappropriate by the Vatican cardinals who conducted an ongoing inquiry into Morris' fitness for office. They wanted him out, now. Nine months later, no one is able credibly to defend their methods.

Morris was denied natural justice. No one, including the Australian bishops, quite knows why he was sacked or at least they cannot tell us; the charges and the evidence remain a moving target, a mystery. Clearly Morris has not been judged a heretic or schismatic. He has maintained his standing as a bishop, being asked to assist with Episcopal tasks in his home diocese of Brisbane.

There have been some suggestions of defective pastoral leadership by Morris an assessment not shared by most of his fellow Australian bishops, who expressed their appreciation 'that Bishop Morris' human qualities were never in question; nor is there any doubt about the contribution he has made to the life of the Church in Toowoomba and beyond. The Pope's decision was not a denial of the personal and pastoral gifts that Bishop Morris has brought to the episcopal ministry.'

The key resident church leaders of Toowoomba commissioned retired Supreme Court judge and esteemed Catholic layman, Bill Carter QC to review the Vatican's curial process demanding resignation and culminating in papal dismissal.

They also sought a canonical reflection on Carter's report from the respected canon lawyer Fr Ian Waters who stated, 'I presume I have been invited because I am not a Queenslander. I have never met Mr Carter, although I know he is an eminent and highly respected jurist.' Waters concluded:

    In accordance with Canon 19, the Holy See, departing from the earlier precedents for the removal of Australian bishops, could have designed a process similar to the process for removal of a parish priest, thereby according procedural fairness and natural justice consistent with the Code of Canon Law. This was not done. I respectfully concur with Mr Carter's conclusion that 'Bishop Morris was denied procedural fairness and natural justice.'
After Morris' dismissal by Pope Benedict, the Australian bishops, preparing for their five-yearly ad limina visit to Rome, announced that they would 'have the opportunity to share with the Holy Father and members of the Roman Curia the fruits of our discussion and to share our questions and concerns with an eye to the future'. On arrival in Rome, they were made aware that there would be no opportunity for such dialogue with the Pope.

Not even our bishops sufficiently understood the Roman ways! One of Morris' fellow Queensland bishops Michael Putney lamented that 'as Bishops we need to have immediate steps in place. When we see a Bishop acting in such a way that could lead to censure, we should have a process of mediation in place to intervene in a spirit of affective collegiality.' But he gave no details of Morris' actions which would warrant censure.

Morris' fellow Queensland bishop Brian Heenan preached at the farewell mass in Toowoomba in August last year suggesting that the Lord would say: 'I cannot be held responsible for all the things that happen in my Church, but I want you to know that I have been delighted with your years as a priest in Brisbane and now these productive years as a pastor in this great Diocese of Toowoomba'.

After the mass, his fellow Queensland bishop James Foley wrote to the Toowoomba church leaders lamenting this 'tragedy in which there are no winners'. He said:

    The reasons, the causes and the motivations for what has occurred may be known only unto God, who alone may judge. Consistently and officially it has been stated that neither Bill's own integrity nor his pastoral effectiveness are questioned. The fruits the proof of this were palpably evident in Sunday's celebration.
Foley praised 'the solid no-nonsense Catholic faith of the people of the Toowoomba Diocese (which) was un-self-consciously and un-pretentiously on display'.

When natural justice is denied, everyone in the institution suffers. Anyone questioning the present process or decision is placed in the invidious position of being seen as insufficiently trustful of the papacy. One can be a great defender and advocate for the papacy and still be a strong advocate for due process, especially when administrative or judicial type functions by curial officials may result in a pastor being relieved his office without satisfactory explanation to his flock.

Vatican II's dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, describes the Church as the people of God. Many of the people of God anxious to respect human dignity and ensure that the Church be as perfect a human institution as possible think natural justice and due process should be followed within the Church, while maintaining the hierarchical nature of the Church and the papal primacy.

Of course, there are some who question the papal primacy or the need for an ordained hierarchy, but they have little to contribute to this very Catholic debate.

The question for the contemporary Catholic is: can I assent to the teaching of Lumen Gentium without having a commitment to due process, natural justice and transparency in Church processes and structures, thereby maximising the prospect that the exercise of hierarchical power and papal primacy will be for the good of the people of God, rather than a corrosive influence on the faith and trust of the people of God?

Carter was right to state that 'it is idle to suggest that the issue (of Morris' removal) now has any justiciable potential or that specific relief might be sought by means of any canonical or civil process'.

But there are many lessons for the Church (including senior hierarchy) to learn from this affair. It is to the credit of the Toowoomba church leaders that they have decided to forward the Carter and Waters opinions to the curial Cardinals undertaking to publish any corrections or clarifications. Sadly none of their communications to date have been favoured with even an acknowledgment.

Just because there is no legal remedy, that is no reason for the people of God not to reflect acutely on their treatment of each other in God's name. Respectful dialogue with Toowoomba's church leaders would be a good start.


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