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Australia. Instructions for Church governance review in a 32-page report

Australian bishops reviewed and approved a 32-page Report titled The Light from the Southern Cross: Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia during their latest plenary assembly at the end of November. It’s a first step – and not the final word - in an ongoing and developing process to take stock of and address the "systemic failures" that have sadly made crimes and abuses happen in the past. “It’s something that’s never been done before”, Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge said during the presentation of the document. "It will provide an invaluable point of reference as we look to the future"

foto SIR/Marco Calvarese

The Australian bishops released today a 32-page Report that sets in motion a comprehensive review of governance of the Catholic Church in Australia. The Report is the first concrete step towards addressing the “systemic failures” that allowed for crimes and abuse in the past. The governance review Report was discussed and approved by the Australian bishops during their plenary meeting at the end of November. The lengthy text is the outcome – and not the final word – of a review of governance in the Catholic Church in Australia commissioned in 2019  following the five-year inquiry of the Royal  Commission into the scourge of child sexual abuse in the country. Notably, in its Final Report the Commissioners called on the Catholic Church in Australia to explore  and develop ways in which its structure  and practices of governance may be made  more accountable, more transparent,  more meaningfully consultative and more  participatory, including at the diocesan and  parish level.” “This report – reads the document – is not the final word about Church governance but a  significant contribution at this time.” The Report, titled The Light from the Southern Cross: Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia”, acknowledges and builds upon improvements already made  across the Church in Australia. It proposes some  additional reforms. And it highlights areas  where further investigation and change may be  warranted as part of the “continuing process of  renewal in the Church, which is always a work in  progress.” “It’s something that’s never been done before”, Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge said during the presentation of the document. “It will provide an invaluable point of reference as we look to the future.”

Before delving into the details of the Recommendations of the Royal Commission, the bishops once again repeated their many previous acknowledgements “of the terrible crimes against  children perpetrated by some clergy, religious  and lay Church personnel” along with “the failures in Church  governance that allowed many of these crimes to be repeated.”

“We renew  our commitment to ensuring this does not recur  and to making the Church a child-safe environment.”

The Australian Church has therefore seriously embraced the Royal Commission’s proposal that child abuse is always a crime perpetrated by an individual person or persons upon an individual victim or victims, and combating it requires addressing “systemic failures of governance.” In this respect the Report explicitly mentions “the culture within institutions”, “the failures  adequately to choose, form and supervise Church  personnel”, “the failures to respond appropriately to  complaints received.” “The Bishops acknowledge that there have  sometimes been serious failures of leadership in the  Church in Australia outside the child protection area  also,” the document states.” This does not diminish the fact that there are “signs of hope.” The Report reads: “Despite shame  at the past behaviour of some fellow clergy and  religious, the vast majority of priests, nuns and  brothers have been faithful to their vocations.” “Despite disillusionment over  historic child abuse cases and the failure of some  Church leaders to respond adequately”, many lay  faithful believe we can be a better Church  in the future. This is a great sign of hope for the  Church today.”

The Report features numerous responses to the Royal Commission Recommendations. The final goal is to make the Church “the safest of places for children and adults at risk”, with a broad sphere of action that explores various ambits, starting with “the  increasing role of lay people, particularly women,  in leadership in chanceries, parishes, schools and  Church agencies.” A key principle is embraced and enhanced:

“A right understanding  of “co-responsibility” in leadership will unlock gifts  and experience of lay people, relieve bishops and  clergy of unnecessarily carrying all the burden  of governance, and through their collaboration  hopefully improve the way in which our dioceses,  parishes, schools and agencies operate.”

In addition to the question of co-responsibility, the Report addresses the request for greater “transparency” in the appointment of bishops, pointing out that the aspects of the processes and procedures that can be made public will be decided on a case by case basis and in consultation with the Apostolic Nuncio and the Congregation for Bishops. Women may assume “a key role with respect to the formation and admission of a candidates to a seminary”, and “be included in the evaluation panel tasked with evaluating a candidate for ordination”, the document states. With respect to Ad Limina visits of bishops and the recommendation as to whether its content may be released to the public, the Report notes that “the primary purpose of the visit Ad Limina  Apostolorum is, as indicated by the title, for the  Bishops to make a pilgrimage to the tombs of the  Apostles and to meet with the Pope.” Such meetings “rarely generate immediate  outcomes.” However, the Australian Bishops’ Conference “might issue a report on each Ad Limina visit, much  as already occurs after the plenary meetings of the  bishops. The Report reviews questions pertaining to the protection of minors and vulnerable adults, the formation of clergy and bishops, collegiality systems in church governance, including diocesan governance, transparency and information. With a reminder:

“Good governance in Church or society is  never merely a matter of structures, policies and  training”. It also implies “an attentive listening to the Holy  Spirit, an ongoing commitment to conversion and  renewal, and a cultivation of virtue and generosity  in service of the common good.”

As “Pope Francis  has reminded us on numerous occasions”, reads the Report, “a highly  bureaucratised Church might be a well-respected  NGO but could lose its “soul” – its core identity and  sense of mission.”

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