As controversy continues, 'grave reasons' seen in deposing Australian bishop

Bishop William Morris Pope Benedict XVI  CNA World Catholic News 5 2 11 Bishop William M. Morris / Pope Benedict XVI

Australian Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba, removed from his post earlier this week by Pope Benedict XVI, is not going quietly into early retirement as agreed.

And he does not appear to be respecting the usual protocols of confidentiality and discretion that Church leaders normally adhere to in cases of Church discipline.

Instead, in a series of interviews this week, the ousted bishop has leaked what he claims is private correspondence from Pope Benedict XVI and compared the Vatican’s investigation of him to the 16th-century Spanish Inquisition.

He and his supporters charge that the Vatican’s inquiry, technically known as an “apostolic visitation,” was carried out unfairly and denied him his rights to “natural justice.”

However, Church lawyers this week said that Bishop Morris either misunderstands how the apostolic visitation process works or is deliberately spreading misinformation. They also suggested that the Pope’s unusual removal of the bishop suggests “grave” troubles in Toowoomba.

In addition, new controversy has arisen over the 2006 pastoral letter that may have triggered the Vatican investigation.

Bishop Morris, 67, has been the head of the diocese in southeastern Australia near Brisbane, since 1993. He was removed from office on May 2.

The investigation that led to his ouster began in 2007, just months after Bishop Morris published a pastoral letter in which he said he was considering ordaining women and permitting Protestant clergy to celebrate the Eucharist as a way to address a priest shortage in the diocese.

There is no longer any reference to the Advent 2006 pastoral on Toowoomba’s official diocesan website.

But a copy of the letter, dated Nov. 17, 2006, was published this week on the website of Australia’s ABC News, which has also published a series of favorable interviews with Bishop Morris.

In his letter, Bishop Morris says that the Church “may well need to be much more open towards other options” for celebrating the Eucharist — including “recognizing Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church orders” and ordaining women and married men “chosen and endorsed by their local parish community.”

There is some question however, whether this newly published copy of Bishop Morris’s letter is complete.

The website AD2000 had previously carried excerpts from Bishop Morris’s Advent 2006 letter. In addition, the letter is quoted favorably in a 2008 book by Paul Collins, “Believers: Does Australian Catholicism Have a Future” (University of New South Wales Press).

But a key section quoted in these earlier excerpts does not appear in the version of the pastoral letter published this week by ABC News.

In these earlier excerpts, Bishop Morris pledges to “continue to reflect carefully” on the options he has proposed. In the version published this week by ABC News, this passage appears to have been excised.

In his original letter as quoted by AD2000, he wrote:

“While we continue to reflect carefully on these options, we remain committed to actively promoting vocations to the current celibate male priesthood and open to inviting priests from overseas.”

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In the newly published version, this passage reads:

“We remain committed to actively promoting vocations to the current celibate male priesthood and open to inviting priests from overseas.”

In a letter announcing his departure that was read in all parishes May 1, Bishop Morris complained that his pastoral letter had been “deliberately misinterpreted.”

Bishop Morris this week also leaked to ABC News what he said was a private letter sent to him by Pope Benedict XVI. In it, Pope Benedict reminded Bishop Morris "that Pope John Paul II had said irrevocably and infallibly that women cannot be ordained."

The accuracy of this quote or the existence of the letter could not be verified independently by CNA.

For most of the week, Bishop Morris and his supporters continued to wage a public campaign against the Vatican investigation.

In accounts published in the Australian press, they say the apostolic visitor was American Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., of Denver, who they say was appointed by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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They say Archbishop Chaput came to Toowoomba in April 2007 and interviewed Bishop Morris along with a sampling of both his both supporters and critics. They say he delivered his report to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops on May 3, 2007.

Archbishop Chaput has declined to comment on what, if any role, he played in the investigation.

Nor has the Vatican released any details about the investigation beyond an unusually terse announcement issued May 2 through the Vatican Information Service: “The Holy Father removed Bishop William M. Morris from the pastoral care of the diocese of Toowoomba, Australia.”

Bishop Morris continues to complain that he was never given a copy of the apostolic visitator’s report.

But Father Jesus Miñanbres Fernandez, who serves on the canon law faculty at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross said this is not unusual in apostolic visitations.

In cases involving the conduct of bishops, Fr. Fernandez told CNA, the visitator would make a report to the Vatican. That report would be “secret,” to be read only by the Pope and the Vatican congregation that ordered the investigation.

Fr. Fernandez stressed that he is not familiar with all the details in the case of Bishop Morris. But he indicated that Church law provides that the information in the report be kept confidential.

“It could be harmful to release all the information,” he said. “The investigation probably includes names of other bishops in Australia.”

“Its probably not convenient that he knows all of the details. There have been different conversations with people that are protected.”

Fr. Fernandez said that it is “not very common that the Pope dismisses a bishop.”

He said that ordinarily the Pope would try first to ask the bishop to resign, “to realize that there is a lack of mutual confidence with the Pope or the college of bishops.”

Bishop Morris, he said, would have been given “a decree, an administrative act, in which the causes would have been expressed — even if they didn't make him happy,” he said.

“The causes would have been present in the causes of dismissal,” Fr. Fernandez added.

“He is a bishop and will remain so. I don't know what the procedure might be in his case. These things are often negotiated with the person. I don't know what will have been asked of him. If this act is signed by the Pope, it cannot be overturned. If it’s just from a Congregation, it can be. If it’s that grave that it was signed by the Pope, no. The actions of the Pope are definitive.”

Fr. Fernandez said that the case for dismissing Bishop Morris must have been “serious” to warrant such a high profile removal from office.

“There are bishops that say things that are contrary to the Church, and the Vatican tries to help them through the process to realize the error; they try to correct the action, correct the teaching. To have reached dismissal, there must be a grave reason,” he said.

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