Thursday, 12 January 2012

Wilcannia-Forbes: the case for transparency and accountability!

In this series on the state of the Church in Australia, I want to turn today to the longest running episcopal vacancy in the country, viz Wilcannia-Forbes.

And a sorry saga it is too, illustrating, I think, quite a number of the governance problems in the Church today.

The case for greater transparency

I'm certainly not advocating democracy within the Church.  We have a hierarchical structure for good reasons. 

But I do think the laity are entitled to know what is going on, to be given the necessary information on which to come to an informed view, and to have those views listened to attentively (even if they are rejected) when consideration is being given to major changes that affect them. 

That doesn't seem to happen with any degree of consistency, and Wilcannia-Forbes nicely illustrates the problem.

First there is there strange story of the resignation of its last very liberal eco-nut-astronomer bishop, Bishop Christopher Toohey, who initially resigned in 2009 for "health reasons".  It was only two years later, in 2011, that he admitted that he had actually resigned because he had 'hurt some young adults'.

The second is the question of how such bishops get appointed in the first place.  As evidenced also by a much more recent appointment of a Sydney parish priest to the episcopacy, the mate's network approach to seeking input on possible episcopal appointments badly needs an overhaul!

Then there is the ongoing stoush over the future of the diocese itself, where the laity seem only fairly belatedly to have been actually engaged in the issue of what should happen to it.

The Catholic Weekly reported that in his consecration speech back in 2001, 'Bishop Chris – as he will no doubt be known, given his cheerful, down-to-earth nature – said, commenting on his new ministry: “Everything will be all right. Trust me.”'

It hasn't been, and any trust he was given has proven to have been misplaced.  And like it or not, that has consequences for attitudes to the Australian hierarchy more generally.

The ins and outs of this story are still less than clear - occasional potshots get fired in the media which are no doubt meaningful to the players, but rather less so to those outside the tent.  Still, let me attempt to reconstruct it as best I can...

Wilcannia-Forbes: an ongoing battleground

Source: ACBC website
Wilcannia-Forbes has been vacant since the (at the time) mysterious resignation of its "eco-bishop" Christopher Toohey in 2009.  In 2011 he released a statement regretting hurting "young adults" and stated that he would not be returning to ministry in any form.  He nonetheless remains a member of that increasingly elite club of bishops emeritus (yes, that is sarcasm!).

Wilcannia-Forbes has, for many years now, been a battleground between liberals and conservatives in the Australian Church. 

In part that has been because of the predictable clash between the liberal views of Bishop Toohey and the conservative views (particularly when it comes to enviromentalism!) of the Metropolitan, Cardinal Pell.  And of course, the diocese has a number of fairly conservative dioceses as neighbours, particularly in Wagga Wagga and Armidale. 

Like many dioceses there seems to be the usual mix of orthodox and liberal clergy within the diocese.

Geography and demographics

 Wilcannia-Forbes is the largest, geographically, of the NSW dioceses, taking up half the state, making it bigger than the entire country of France.  Even so, it is only seventh largest overall in Australia at 414, 378 sq kms.

Its cathedral is in Broken Hill, which is closer (literally and metaphorically) to Adelaide (at 500kms) with which it shares its time zone, than to Sydney (at 1100kms).  Parkes (the next largest town), on the other hand, is 360kms from Sydney.

It is the fourth smallest diocese in terms of population, with 34,000 catholics in 2010.

The difference between it and the similarly sparsely populated dioceses of the booming West, for example, is that like much of regional NSW, the diocese is severely depressed economically and as a result, people are moving out, not in. 

The diocese was created at a time when mining made Broken Hill (where it's cathedral is located) a boom town, but those boom times are long gone! Broken Hill, with a population of 18, 854, has itself has shrunk by more than a third since the last mining boom in the 1970s.

The other major town in the diocese is Parkes (made famous by the film The Dish), with a population of 9,826 in 2006.

Many may be more familiar with those pit-stop towns on the route from Sydney to Adelaide, such as Hay and Balranald.

The rural areas of the diocese have been in decline for a long time, but Wilcannia-Forbes suffered badly under the recent drought: the diocese has one primary school (St Joseph's Peak Hill) participating in a low socio-economic status program, and another one (St Theresa's, Wilcannia) that is 98% Indigenous.

The decline is perhaps best illustrated in the town names the diocese draws from: the once thriving inland port of Wilcannia (yes, the Darling River once had actual water!) now has a total population of 596 people (54% of them Aboriginal), while Forbes, which grew to 30,000 at the height of the goldrush, now has around 7,000 people in total.

The problem: poor finances and a lack of priests?

The problem for the diocese, it seems, is a combination of a poor financial situation and a severe lack of priests.

The financial issues it has to be said, are entirely speculation on the part of commentators: none of the pastoral letters or other material made public on the assorted proposals for the future of the diocese actually allude to this issue, let alone provided actual specifics.

Nonetheless, it seems a reasonable conclusion to draw given the general economic state of the region, and the fact that the diocese has some 45 churches to maintain, but only twenty parishes and twenty one priests (2010). 

The other issue though is the lack of priests - though the official stats say 21, in reality many of these seem to be retired or elderly (I've seen a wide variety of estimates - from 6 to 15 to 18 - as to how many active priests there are in the diocese).  Like many dioceses (though unlike many of its neighbours such as Wagga Wagga), it has had no vocations to speak of and has managed to keep going only by recruiting overseas priests.  The diocese had 46 priests in 1970, 32 by 1990, and of the current notional 21, 16 are diocesan.

Proposals for reshaping the diocese

Rumours on the likely future of the diocese have been rife for a long time (going back three decades according to some reports!).

One rumour was that it would be amalgamated with Bathurst.  But then that diocese was given a new bishop without any other changes being made.

Another proposal was apparently that the diocese be suppressed and the territory be redistributed amongst the surrounding dioceses.  That proposal was voted down by its priests (were the laity even consulted?!) in 2010.

Another suggestion was that the territory be redistributed to some of the Victorian dioceses.  That too seems to have gone nowhere.

At last report, at least according to the ABC, a consultation process was underway looking not just at the suppression of the diocese/redistribution of parts of the diocese, but also at how to keep it going, including the closure of some parishes.

Time for a resolution?

The last few years have not been happy ones for the diocese.  It has had two Apostolic Administrators, in the form of Bishop Brady of Sydney, and subsequently retired Bishop Manning, whose mandate urgently needs to be terminated before he does any more damage there.

Time for a decision.

And for a little more transparency and accountability to the laity (not just of the diocese, but of others potentially affected) who will end up footing the bill for whatever ends up happening.


Auck said...

I'm sure you would have not a few Kiwi readers. Any chance you might cast a glance at the shaky isles?

Anonymous said...

Hi Kate,
We were asked to comment to a Bishops investigative committee, the questions were the usual bureaucratic jargon which turned alot of people off so they did not bother. In defense of Bishop Manning he did send some good pastoral letters out. As for Bishop Toohey, he was a disaster, the Catholic education office became out of control and unnacountable. I believe there has been a thorough shakeout there and at some schools. I cannot believe we were asked to pray for Toohey and did for his "illness".
MJS central west.