Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Liberal clericalism: the case of overseas priests in Maitland-Newcastle diocese!

Cath News today features a Tablet story claiming that a scheme to bring overseas priests into help out in the troubled Maitland-Newcastle diocese was a failure.

Well, not if you ask the laity what they thought, because according to the report done by the diocese, 90% of the laity supported the scheme and wanted it to continue.  Its alleged 'failure' is actually just about antagonism from local priests, much of which can be attributed to leadership failure on the part of the previous bishop of the diocese, Bishop Michael Malone...

What the real story is...

The story actually relates back to a report submitted to Bishop Wright in March, and published in summary form in the diocesan Magazine earlier in the year.  And it's a doozy.

It chronicles, in extremely frank terms, the high-handed (mis)management style of Bishop Malone, and attests to the broader morale problems amongst the priests of the diocese.

The disaster that was (and is?) Maitland-Newcastle

Maitland-Newcastle diocese is of course infamous as one of the worst dioceses for the cover up of abuse cases (one Vicar General convicted; one escaped prosecution because of age; and another case apparently about to be launched...).  It is also one of Australia's most liberal dioceses: Bishop Malone's past commitment to false ecumenism matched by the current bishop's antagonism to the Extraordinary Form.

Unsurprisingly then, it is also one where priestly morale has been rock-bottom, as the report to Bishop Wright attests:

"Both the Diocesan Priests and the Overseas Priests reported that the Overseas Priests had come into a Diocese where clergy morale was low and the local presbyterate was not functioning as a united body. The Diocesan clergy were struggling with a reduction in their numbers as some Priests left the ministry, no vocations were forthcoming, and the local Church was experiencing the on-going effects of the abuse scandals. All of this resulted in fragmentation of the clergy who felt unsupported and ignored."

How not to manage a diocese...

Bishop Malone apparently compounded these problems by dumping in overseas clergy without advance warning to the priests in parishes they were to be based in:

"Some Diocesan Priests were not aware that they would be receiving an Overseas Priest until the Bishop rang them, explained that a Priest had arrived in the Diocese and asked if they would be willing to accept him in the Parish. The lack of communication was highlighted also by the situation with the contracts which were formed between Maitland-Newcastle Diocese and the Overseas Dioceses on behalf of the men coming to minister about which the Diocesan Priest knew little."

Neither the incoming priests, nor the receiving priests, received any cultural competency training:

"There was no pre-acculturation given to the Overseas Priests before they arrived in the Diocese... The Acculturation Team was inadequately resourced and had insufficient time to put any pre-arrival acculturation into place before the Overseas Priests arrived in the Diocese. At every level of the Program there was a lack of sufficient planning, personnel, resources, and time which impacted adversely on all aspects of the Program and caused stress to everyone involved with it."

 A clash of ideology: Gaudium et Spes vs orthodoxy!
The report then goes on to describe the clash of cultures that resulted from overseas priests used to a more 'hierarchical' and traditional ecclesial culture and the local priests. 
The net result of all of this was that priests of the diocese overwhelmingly thought that the scheme should either be wound up or at least radically overhauled.
But what about the laity!
What the Tablet (and Cath News) fails to report, however, is that the laity of the diocese had a quite different perspective on the whole experience:
"The parishioners who responded in the Questionnaire were overwhelmingly in favour of the Overseas Priests Program and believed it should continue. The results show that parishioners believe the presence of the Overseas Priests has had a positive impact on the faith and spirituality of the Parish."

While the priests of the diocese didn't think their workloads had been lightened by the use of overseas priests, the people saw strong benefits in terms of the the provision of mass, the dedication of the overseas priests, their prayerfulness and more.

They rejected claims such as that use of overseas priests reduced lay involvement in the Church.

And 90% of survey respondents (and response rates were apparently very good) wanted the scheme to continue.

Other dioceses: the learning curve

One of the interesting features of the report is the little summary of the experience of other dioceses at its end.  It basically suggests that across Australia the experience of using overseas priests is actually a positive one, but it does require proper management.  The Report notes that:

"Most Australian diocesan personnel who responded to enquiries reported positive experiences with the introduction of the ministry of Overseas Priests, some only after initial difficulties due to inexperience. Some Dioceses have clearly benefited from their years of experience in acculturating Overseas Priests..."

Sounds pretty successful to me...

So a scheme overwhelmingly supported by the majority of Catholics in the diocese, which experience in other dioceses can be shown to gain support from priests and diocesan officials if only it is managed properly.

How then can this be being portrayed internationally as an example of a 'failure'?

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