This bishop supported the church’s victims, but he was sacked

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Broken Rites Australia helps victims of church-related

By a Broken Rites researcher

An Australian Catholic bishop (Bishop William Morris), who supported some of the church's sex-abuse victims in his region, has been sacked by the Vatican. But this, according to church sources, is not the reason for the sacking.

Bishop Morris was sacked for mentioning that there have been frequent Australian public discussions about introducing WOMEN priests. Traditionally the Catholic Church has covered up (and perpetuated) its own sexual abuse of children but Bishop Morris's mention of WOMEN priests (shock, horror) was unacceptable to the Vatican. Evidently the mentioning of WOMEN priests is a worse offence than sexually abusing children.

The sacking of Bishop William Martin Morris was revealed through the media in the week beginning 1 May 2011. For 18 years he had been in charge of the vast Toowoomba diocese in southern Queensland (to the west of Brisbane).

Child sex-abuse scandal

In late 2008, Bishop Morris's Toowoomba diocese was embarrassed when some cases of the church's child sex-abuse became public there. Queensland police charged Catholic school teacher Gerard Vincent Byrnes, 61, with 44 incidents of sexual crimes against young girls, including 10 counts of raping a child under 12. The girls were aged just nine and 10 when they were assaulted in 2007 and 2008 at a Catholic primary school. Byrnes was the school child protection officer at the time of the offences, between January 1997 and September 2008, and all of the victims were students in his classes. Byrnes pleaded guilty and eventually was jailed.

The Byrnes case was particularly significant because the Toowoomba Catholic school system had originally covered up Byrnes's crimes, thereby inflicting him on additional victims. At least three of the victims said they were abused after the school principal and the Catholic Education Office failed to act on another student's complaint that she had been sexually abused by Byrnes. The principal merely notified the Catholic education authorities, who then negligently made it possible for Byrnes to target more girls. Police later charged the school principal for failing to report the earlier crime to the police. The school principal survived prosecution on a technicality.

Faced with this scandal (at a time when the Catholic Church is losing many of its flock because of seemingly endless sex-abuse scandals), Bishop Bill Morris took a positive stand. In contrast to many other Australian bishops, Bishop Morris took the side of the victims in this case.

As well as apologising to the victims and their families, Bishop Morris made a stunning admission over the church's liability for compensating the girls. He offered an "expeditious" resolution to compensation claims. He proposed a mediated settlement, to be overseen by retired judge.

It is one of only a few cases across Australia where the church has admitted liability early on.

Why the bishop was sacked

In early May 2011, after Bishop Morris's sacking, church officials stated that the sacking was not because of his siding with sex-abuse victims. Instead, they said, it was because he had publicly written about the solutions for the church's shortage of priests, and in those writings he had mentioned the common suggestions about accepting women priests, married priests, former priests and ministers from other denominations (such as the Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting churches).

The officials said that, in fact, Bishop Morris had been under pressure to resign his position for the past three or four years, long before the sexual allegations of the paedophile teacher arose.

Temple police

A report in the Brisbane Courier Mail pointed to another possible factor in the downfall of "progressive" clergy such as Bishop Morris. The newspaper alleged that some ultra-conservative Catholics, described as "Temple police", travel around parishes, spying on progressive clergy. If they find a clergyman who does not toe the Vatican line, these activists allegedly write a letter of complaint to the Australian hierarchy and/or the Vatican.

Towards Healing

Until his sacking, Bishop William Morris was one of the two co-chairmen for the church's National Committee on Professional Standards, the body which oversees the in-house "Towards Healing" procedures, by which the church's sex-abuse victims can report the incidents to a church office in each of the six Australian states. (This is instead of the victim reporting the matter directly to the police). One unfortunate result of this (well, unfortunate for the victims, that is) is that the superiors (or colleagues) of the alleged offender can "tip off" the alleged offender about potential upcoming police charges, enabling the alleged offender to prepare his defence.

The church will appoint a new co-chairman, who will, of course, be male.

  • The above Broken Rites article was posted 4 May 2011. For the jailing of the teacher Gerard Vincent Byrnes, see an earlier Broken Rites article here.