After negotiations, a bishop admits hurting 'young adults' in his past

From the public record, Broken Rites has compiled this summary about Bishop Christopher Toohey (of New South Wales), who admitted publicly in 2011 that he hurt "some young adults" in his early years as a priest.

Bishop Toohey, who was in charge of the Wilcannia-Forbes rural diocese in western New South Wales, is the most senior Australian Catholic clergyman who has made such a public admission.

Here is a summary of the case, compiled from information that is available on the public record:

  • On 28 April 2011, a statement signed by Bishop Toohey (then aged 59) appeared on the church's official Australian website, saying: "My behaviour within the context of my relationships with some young adults in my pastoral care during the early years of my ministry was not consistent with that required of a good person." He said that, "in the light of these reflections I will not be returning to any active ministry in the church."
  • A church spokesman (Father Brian Lucas, secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference) indicated that, although Bishop Toohey referred to "some young adults" (plural), the public statement resulted from negotiations with one person — a woman.
  • Another church official (Mr Michael Salmon, director of the church's Professional Standards Office in Sydney) indicated that these negotiations concerned a complaint which this woman had lodged (in 2008/2009) through the church's "Towards Healing" process. (In 2009, following this complaint, Bishop Toohey resigned from his diocese.)
  • This female complainant remains anonymous. It is not known exactly what conditions or benefits were sought, or granted, or imposed, during the mediation process.

The woman's complaint

After his website statement on 28 April 2011, Bishop Toohey was not available to speak to the media, but journalist Bronwyn Herbert from the Australian Broadcasting Commission contacted the above-mentioned Mr Michael Salmon, of the Towards Healing office. Following is an extract from this interview as broadcast on ABC Radio's "PM" program on 30 April 2011.

  • BRONWYN HERBERT (reporter): Michael Salmon, who leads the Catholic Church's Professional Standards Office for New South Wales, was prepared to speak. He says the Church's "Towards Healing" program, which deals with complaints of abuse, is working well.

    MICHAEL SALMON: I don't intend to comment in any detail about the Bishop Toohey incident. The complaint was made through Towards Healing; it was dealt with through Towards Healing.

    BRONWYN HERBERT: When was the complaint made to Towards Healing?

    MICHAEL SALMON: It preceded Bishop Toohey's resignation; I believe that would have been in 2008/09 that the complaint was made.

    BRONWYN HERBERT: Is it appropriate for the Church to wait two years after his retirement to reveal this?

    MICHAEL SALMON: That was a decision for Bishop Toohey and it was a personal decision that he made that what he felt was the appropriate time in terms of his own personal journey and with respect to the circumstances of the particular complainant.

    BRONWYN HERBERT: So how are the public or Catholics supposed to understand what this is about?

    MICHAEL SALMON: I think that they would understand that clearly any issue that comes, that underlines a complaint to the Professional Standards Office and where the bishop feels that it is appropriate for him to resign and then to ultimately make a statement like he did. I think the people would understand that that's obviously a matter that is of some significance and serious in its own right but would also understand that it has been dealt with.

    BRONWYN HERBERT: There's no clear remark as to what has happened.

    MICHAEL SALMON: As I said I don't intend to talk about that and in the interests of the understanding of the people involved and their wishes, and I think there's enough on the public record for people to have an understanding of what this is about.

    BRONWYN HERBERT: Has this been referred to the police?

    MICHAEL SALMON: No it hasn't. The incident is not of a criminal nature.

The church's statement

On 28 April 2011, the following item appeared on the church's official Australian website:


    Retired bishop of Wilcannia Forbes

    Since resigning as Bishop of Wilcannia/Forbes in 2009 and living in retirement now, I have had time to reflect back on my life. My behaviour within the context of my relationships with some young adults in my pastoral care during the early years of my ministry was not consistent with that required of a good person. I sincerely regret the hurt I have caused to these people and their families. In the light of these reflections I will not be returning to any active ministry in the church.

    Bishop Toohey will not be making any further statement out of respect for the privacy of all concerned.

    Fr Brian Lucas
    General Secretary
    28 April 2011

Later that day, ABC News reported the church statement and added one further detail from a church source: "A spokesman for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Father Brian Lucas, says he understands it [the statement] was the result of negotiations with an unnamed woman."

Next day, the Sydney Morning Herald, also, reported this remark from Fr Brian Lucas about "negotiations with an unnamed woman".

The media quoted Fr Brian Lucas as saying ''There's absolutely no suggestion of anything criminal.''

Some observations

The church statement produces more questions than answers.

The statement does not spell out what Bishop Toohey's alleged "hurtful" behaviour was.

The statement is carefully worded. For example, "behaviour ... not consistent with that of a good person."

Nor does it explain what the church authorities mean by "young adults". At what age, according to the Catholic Church, does someone become a "young adult?

Why did it take two years from the lodging of the "Towards Healing" complaint until the publication of the church's website statement?

Do bishops come under the jurisdiction of the church's Professional Standards procedures? If a complaint about a bishop is made in (say) New South Wales, is the complaint then dealt with at a national level — by the National Committee for Professional Standards? In another case in 2002 (when a former altar boy contacted the National Committee for Professional Standards, alleging that he was sexually abused 40 years earlier by a trainee priest who later became a bishop), the church authorities told the former altar boy that bishops are exempt from the Professional Standards procedures.


According to research by Broken Rites Australia, Christopher Henry Toohey was born in Balmain, Sydney, on 19 April 1952. He was educated at Christian Brothers Lewisham in Sydney but left to join the workforce, finishing his secondary schooling later by private study.

He later entered St Patrick's Seminary in Manly, Sydney, to train as a priest for the Sydney diocese. In the final stage of his training, he served as a deacon to St Patrick's Seminary and in the Merrylands parish (in Sydney's west) before his ordination in 1982.

Father Toohey served in several parishes across Sydney, including Cabramatta, Revesby, Lane Cove and Penshurst and Peakhurst.

While still working as an assistant priest in the 1990s, he was appointed to run Catholic Adult Education for the Archdiocese of Sydney.

He was given responsibility for the church's celebration of the Great Jubilee, which occurred in 2000. A church website said then:

  • "Preparation for the Great Jubilee in the Year 2000 began in 1997. This was a three-year process. Fr Chris Toohey was the Coordinator of the Great Jubilee 2000 for the Archdiocese of Sydney. This saw him travel to many parish and school communities talking about Jubilee, what it is and how to prepare for it. Presentations and resources were developed to assist in this process."

On 30 August 2001, aged 49, Reverend Christopher H. Toohey, DD, STL was consecrated as Bishop of Wilcannia-Forbes, a diocese which covers the western half of New South Wales. The towns include Forbes, Wilcannia, Broken Hill, Bourke, Wentworth and Moama, as well as sparsely-settled "outback" areas.

Resignation, 2009

On 23 April 2009, Bishop Toohey sent a fax to priests in his Wilcannia-Forbes diocese, stating that he had "accepted strong advice and have decided to take extended leave". The fax said: "I am really sorry for the bad timing [but] it is something I must do."

No explanation was given for the leave.

In June 2009, it was announced that, as well as going on leave, Bishop Toohey was resigning from the Wilcannia-Forbes diocese, but (the church said) he would still be a priest. Pope Benedict accepted the resignation under Canon 401-2, which concerns a bishop who has "become less able to fulfil his office because of ill health or some other grave cause."

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 10 June 2009 that, according to a spokeswoman for the Sydney archdiocese, Bishop Toohey had resigned from Wilcannia-Forbes "for health and personal reasons and is currently on leave".

The Australian newspaper, same date, reported that Australian Catholic Bishops Conference secretary Brian Lucas would not give any reason for Bishop Toohey's departure, but (Fr Lucas said) "it should be made clear he will continue to be a priest".

Meanwhile, even before these comments from Cardinal Pell and Fr Brian Lucas in June 2009, Broken Rites noticed that the annual edition of the Australian Catholic Directory (compiled early in 2009 and on sale by June 2009) placed Bishop Toohey in its list of retired clergy. The directory referred to him as "Most Reverend Christopher H. Toohey", retired.

Bishop Toohey was also listed as "retired" in the directory's 2010 edition.

The outcome, 2011

After June 2009 there was silence until the "negotiations with the un-named woman" resulted in Bishop Chris Toohey's statement appearing on the church's official Australian website on 28 April 2011.

According to the church, Chris Toohey will continue to be "Most Reverend Bishop Christopher Toohey, retired"

In compiling the above summary, Broken Rites has been careful to use information from the public record, without recourse to hear-say.

  • Article posted 1 May 2011.