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Catholic Bishops: A Protected Species

1 December 2015
Frank Purcell

This is the story of a failure of professional standards within the Australian Catholic Church that has been mishandled from beginning to end. The story goes like this.
A Catholic parishioner in Sandhurst (i.e. Bendigo, Vic) Diocese lodged an appeal in 2013 with the Diocesan Committee for Professional Standards. It alleged the misappropriation of $3000 of Caritas (the Catholic overseas aid fund) monies by a parish priest. It also challenged the diocese’s exoneration of the priest. The appellant was challenging the excuse given by the diocese that the priest was entitled to do what he liked with the Caritas money.  The appeal also included allegations of bullying and harassment of the money counters who discovered the shortfall in the funding sent to Caritas. 

The appellant never received an explanation as to why the appeal has not been heard. 

Appeal processes to enable people to lodge complaints against church employees – bishops, priests or laity – were established in 1996 in the documents Towards Healing and Integrity in Ministry. Unfortunately, a review in 2005 discovered that the procedures are not always followed. The handling of the Ellis case in Cardinal Pell’s time in Sydney by the National Committee for Professional Standards was severely criticized in a review carried out by three QCs. The Sandhurst experience shows the same pattern of failure ten years later.

First, the Sandhurst appeal sent to the Diocesan Committee for Professional Standards was aborted by the action of the diocesan official who was the subject of the allegation. He was the same ‘investigator’ who asserted that the priest was entitled to do what he liked with the Caritas money. Appeals to Sandhurst Bishop Les Tomlinson, a member of the National Committee for Professional Standards, against this conflict of interest and due process were not answered.   

A further appeal was then sent to Bishop William Wright, Chair of the Catholic Church’s National Committee for Professional Standards. A further charge of misconduct against Bishop Tomlinson was added to the original appeal. The new charge alleged that Bishop Tomlinson failed to properly address a request for mediation from a victim of a physical assault at a Parish Financial Committee meeting.

Bishop Wright interviewed Bishop Tomlinson who vigorously denied both charges. Bishop Wright accepted that denial without any further investigation – a violation of the procedures required by Towards Healing. If the allegations are contested, the matter must be investigated.Instead, Bishop Wright rejected the appeal on the grounds that there had been no serious violation of the principles or standards required by the Church.

A third appeal was then sent to John Dunford QC, Chair of the Towards Healing National Review Panel. Dunford found that Bishop Wright had failed to observe due process in two matters.  He also found that, the advice given by the Director of the State Office for Professional Standards appeared to be wrong.  But in spite of our specific challenge to that advice from the State Office, Dunford refused to order an investigation into the matter.  He judged that there was no serious violation of the principles and standards required by the Church.

Yet, prior to starting the appeal process, we received legal advice:

  1.  that the alleged theft and the alleged physical assault were both criminal matters; 
  2. that bullying and harassment are legislated offences in Victorian law;
  3. that the four money counters involved in the Caritas appeal should sign statutory declarations on the matter,
  4. that the intervention of the Bishop’s Office in aborting the first appeal to the Victorian Professional Standards Office involved a gross violation of Catholic Canon Law’s Conflict of Interest rules and of the rules of Towards Healing

Clearly bishops and priests are members of a protected species.

Jesus (Matt: 18:15-17) spoke about problems like this: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”  We did that. He ignored our letters. “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you that your words may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Our requests were refused. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”  So we are telling you as members of the church.

Join us then in telling your Catholic fellow parishioners, the great priests you know and your friends, about this matter. 

sk them to sign our petition.

If you don’t have email, please write a letter to the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference at GPO Box 368, Canberra, ACT, 2601.  Encourage your parish or Parish Council to send a letter to your local bishop urging him (1) to support an independent investigation into these allegations according to the proper procedures set out in Towards Healing and (2) to appoint an interim Chair of the National Review Panel acceptable to both parties to oversee the investigation.

Frank Purcell (0428 952 797) is writing on behalf of a Group of Sandhurst Diocese parishioners.

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