Vatican City, May 1, 2011 / 23:55 pm
A controversial Australian bishop said he is retiring early in a deal he negotiated with the Vatican.
In a letter read at all parishes on May 1, Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba said he was being forced out following a Vatican investigation.
The investigation was triggered by complaints about a 2006 pastoral letter that the bishop said was “deliberately misinterpreted.”
In his pastoral letter, Bishop Morris said he might ordain women and permit Protestant clergy to celebrate the Eucharist because the diocese didn’t have enough priests.
Pope Benedict XVI has now decided Toowoomba “would be better served by the leadership of a new bishop,” the bishop said.
Bishop Morris, 67, has been the head of the diocese in southeastern Australia near Brisbane, since 1993. The normal retirement age for bishops is 75.
He said the Pope told him personally that Church law made clear that “the successor of Peter nominates and may remove from office” any bishop he finds unfit for the job.
“This makes my position as Bishop of Toowoomba untenable,” he added.
There was no immediate confirmation from the Vatican.
But the bishop’s spokesman said he expected a formal Vatican announcement could come as early as May 2.
“In effect, it is a removal from office,” Father Peter Dorfield, the diocese’s vicar general, told Australia’s ABC News.
The Vatican is expected to appoint an administrator until a new bishop can be named.
Critics say the problems in Toowoomba go beyond the bishop’s public disagreement with Church doctrine on the priesthood.
They say Bishop Morris — who prefers a shirt and tie to a priestly collar and bishops’ attire — has done much to undermine Catholic identity and teaching in his 18 years here.
Critics cite a host of abuses — including “communion services” being co-celebrated by lay people and priests and widespread use of “general absolution” rites as an alternative to personal confession.
In his letter, Bishop Morris declined to address criticism. “The substance of these complaints is of no real import,” he said.
He blamed “a small group [that] have found my leadership and the direction of the diocese not to their liking.”
He expressed confidence that he still has “the support of the vast majority of the people and priests of the diocese.”
Bishop Morris did acknowledge that the investigation, known as an “apostolic visitation,” involved three major Vatican congregations — the offices that oversee bishops, doctrine, and worship and the sacraments.
He said he had “never seen” the final report filed by the lead investigator, who he identified as American Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap. of Denver.
He complained that he had been denied “due process” and “any possibility of appropriate defense and advocacy on my behalf.”
Contacted by CNA, Archbishop Chaput declined to comment on the matter.
He noted that parties involved in any Vatican visitation routinely agree to keep their deliberations private, and all details remain confidential.
Bishop Morris had already leaked word of the Vatican investigation to the media in Feb. 2009. At that time he blamed it on Catholics with “conservative views.” He called them “the temple police.”
In his letter this weekend, Bishop Morris said he told the Vatican he was “prepared to negotiate early retirement.”
He said he refused to resign his post, as “a matter of conscience” and “out of my love for the Church.”
Resigning, he said, would involve admitting that he had done something wrong. And that, he said, “I absolutely refute and reject.”
The Diocese of Toowoomba spans more than 188,000 square miles and has a Catholic population of roughly 66,000 served by 35 parishes.