New document reveals years of Vatican efforts before ousting Toowoomba bishop

Pope Benedict XVI Bishop William Morris CNA World Catholic News 5 10 11 Pope Benedict XVI / Bishop William Morris

A newly disclosed internal report indicates that the Vatican had been trying since late 2006 to get Australian Bishop William Morris to correct his abuses of Church doctrine and liturgy before finally removing him as head of the Toowoomba diocese earlier this month.

The document was prepared by two priests loyal to Bishop Morris, Father Peter Schultz, the diocese’s judicial vicar, and Fr. Peter Dorfield, former vicar general of the diocese. The two are part of an eight-member body of priests who make up the bishop’s “college of consultors.”
The Vatican announced Bishop Morris’ removal on May 2.

The new document confirms that the Vatican removed the bishop for flagrant abuses in the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance and for advocating women’s ordination to the priesthood.

Leaked to the Australian press, the confidential document offers a unique glimpse into the workings of the Vatican’s disciplinary process.

It also reveals that the bishop’s sacking was the conclusion of a long and sometimes tense back-and-forth with the Vatican — and not the consequence of a sudden decision, as the Australian bishop suggested in a letter last week.

The document, entitled “Summary History of Bishop Morris' dispute with the Roman Dicasteries” is an addendum to a seven-page defense of Bishop Morris that was sent April 29 to priests, leaders and the head of Christian denominations in the Toowoomba region.

The two documents are part of a deliberate campaign described in the summary to discredit the Vatican’s investigation and present Bishop Morris as a victim of injustice in the affair.

In their seven-page letter, they urge pastoral leaders to use these documents to provide “appropriate and accurate explanations” to parishioners. They express “considerable sadness” and say they have been “profoundly affected” by Bishop Morris’ ouster.

They also promise “professional care” will be available to all those who find themselves “deeply grieving Bishop Morris’ removal.”  

The summary document sets out a detailed timetable. It indicates that, contrary to Bishop Morris’ allegations, he was fully informed of the charges against him and was given more than four years to correct the abuses cited.

Indeed, the timetable provides considerable evidence that high-ranking Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict XVI, devoted a great deal of time and energy in trying to convince Bishop Morris of his errors and to keep him in office.

Both the summary history and the letter prepared in support of Bishop Morris reveal the following timeline that led from his installation to his discharge as bishop of Toowoomba:

Feb. 1993: On Feb. 10, Bishop Morris is installed at Toowoomba’s St. Patrick's Cathedral. He immediately introduced dramatic changes in the liturgy and government of the Church. According to the consultors’ document, he also “broke with tradition and wore a tie, embroidered with his coat of arms, rather than the Roman Collar.”  The consultors added: “The Bishop offered each priest a black tie with the Diocesan Arms and indicated that the wearing of the tie was to be considered clerical dress, along with the collar and the white shirt with crosses, the choice being left to the individual cleric.”

1993-2005: A group of concerned Catholics, described in the report as “a small but vocal minority,” launched “a growing campaign of letters of complaint” to Vatican offices in Rome. The complaints centered on Bishop Morris’ promotion of “general absolution” as an alternative to personal confession of sins. His promotion of this practice continued, despite several calls from the Vatican to stop it. According to the consultors: “The issue of the use of general absolution led to a dispute between the bishop and Cardinal (Francis) Arinze, prefect of the (Vatican’s) Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship. Some of this dispute took on a personal aspect.”

Nov. 2006: Bishop Morris releases his now infamous Advent pastoral letter. In it, he proposes the need to explore the ordination of married men, women and the recognition of the ordained ministries of other Christian churches. His letter was widely perceived in Church circles as a flagrant rejection of Pope John Paul II’s 1994 official declaration (“Ordinatio Sacerdotalis”) that the Church cannot ordain women and his 1998 decree (“Ad Tuendam Fidem”) that discussion of ordaining women can be punished under canon law.

Dec. 2006: Bishop Morris receives a fax requesting that he come to Rome by Feb. 2007 for meetings with Cardinals Giovanni Battista Re, then head of the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops, William Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Arinze. Bishop Morris rejected the meeting, citing “pastoral reasons” that he declined to specify. He said he had plans to come to Rome in May 2007 and expressed his willingness to meet with the cardinals at that time.

Jan. 2007: Cardinal Arinze sends a letter insisting that the matter is urgent and that Bishop Morris should present himself in Rome in February. Bishop Morris again dismissed the request, insisting he would be available in May but not before.

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March 2007: Bishop Morris receives notification that the Congregation of Bishops had begun an investigation, known as an “apostolic visitation.” The apostolic visitator is said to be American Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap, of Denver.

April 2007: Archbishop Chaput arrives in Toowoomba for the apostolic visitation on April 23. The consultors’ report states: “The Visitor arrived in Toowoomba, met informally with Bishop Morris, then met with the Council of Priests. He then began a series of meetings with various diocesan bodies, officials, priests, directors of agencies and people of the diocese. ... There was a cross-section of people and clergy of the diocese representing all levels of support and opposition to the Bishop. On Wed. and Thurs. (April 25-26) he traveled around the diocese and conducted interviews. The interviews resumed in Toowoomba on Fri. and Sat. morning (April 27-28). After a final interview with the Bishop on Saturday midday, the Visitor departed and prepared his report.”

May 2007: Diocesan leaders meet to discuss the Visitation and how they should respond. According to the report, “the clergy and pastoral leaders of the diocese” decided to send a letter to the Vatican in support of Bishop Morris. Three priests refused to sign the letter. Meanwhile Bishop Morris in Rome as he had previously announced. The report states: “No meeting with the cardinals took place.”

Sept. 2007: The Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops sends Bishop Morris a memo dated June 28 requesting him to resign. The bishop responds by indicating he will reply after his October holiday.

Oct. 2007: The bishops’ congregation sends another letter, this time informing Bishop Morris that the request for his resignation is being made in the name of Pope Benedict XVI.

Nov. 2007: Bishop Morris sends a letter to Cardinal Re, head of the bishops’ congregation, offering “collaboration and dialogue.” He requested a meeting in Rome in Jan. 2008. Cardinal Re responds by setting Jan. 19, 2008 as the date for the meeting.

Dec. 2007: Bishop Morris convenes an advisory group to collect suggestions on how to deal with the Vatican. According to the consultors’ report: “The advisory group consulted international canonists.”

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Jan. 2008: On Jan. 19, as scheduled Bishop Morris meets in Rome with the three cardinals, representing the Vatican’s offices for bishops, doctrine, and worship. They stress that the Pope himself has requested that Bishop Morris resign. On Jan. 24, Bishop Morris writes to the cardinals, telling them that he feels he is unable to resign.

Feb. 2008: Cardinal Re replies to Bishop Morris’ Jan. 24 letter. He again calls on Bishop Morris to resign. Bishop Morris responds by convening his advisory group. They help the bishop to prepare a "Statement of Position" to respond to the Vatican’s criticisms and request for his resignation.

March 2008: Bishop Morris forwards his "Statement of Position" to the Cardinals Re, Arinze and Levada. He sends a letter to the Vatican’s Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest judicial authority apart from the Pope. Bishop Morris requests that the Apostolic Signature give him the right to defend himself on the charges against him. He writes a further letter to the Pontifical Council of Legislative Texts asking for a definition of what constitutes "grave cause" for removing a bishop under Church law (Canon 401, sec. 2).

April 2008: The Apostolic Signatura replies, informing Bishop Morris that his case is not of its competence because no Church legal proceedings had taken place.

Sept. 2008: The Pontifical Council of Legislative Texts replies saying that the interpretation of "grave cause" is left to the determination of the Congregation of Bishops.

Oct. 2008: Cardinal Re sends a letter demanding that Bishop Morris resign by Nov. 2008 or face being removed.

Dec. 2008-March 2009: On Dec. 19, Bishop Morris writes to Cardinal Re stating he will not resign. On Dec. 24, he writes separately to Pope Benedict XVI requesting an audience. The bishop later receives confirmation that he will be received by the Pope on June 4, 2009.

June 2009: On June 4, Bishop Morris meets the Pope. He is accompanied by Archbishop Phillip Wilson, head of the Australian bishops’ conference. The Pope reiterates his demand that the Bishop resign. The Bishop does not respond. According to the consultors’ report: “The bishop left the meeting saying to Archbishop Wilson that he had no intention of resigning as Bishop of Toowoomba.”

July 2009: Cardinal Re sends another letter requesting that the Bishop submit his resignation.

Nov. 2009: Bishop Morris writes to the Pope saying that, as a matter of conscience, he will not resign.

Dec. 2009: In a letter dated Dec. 22, Pope Benedict replies to Bishop Morris. He reminds the bishop that there is no appealing of papal decisions. The consultors’ report: “The Pope repeated the serious concerns he had with Bishop Morris’ position on the ordination of women and recognition of the orders (clergy) of Anglicans and other churches.”

Jan. 2010: Archbishop Wilson brings to Rome a proposal from Morris to retire when he turns 70, in October 2013.

Feb. 2010: Cardinal Re writes Bishop Morris saying the Pope has accepted to wait until May 2011 for his resignation.

Dec. 2010: Bishop Morris writes to the Pope. He requests to remain in office beyond the agreed upon May 2011 date in order to deal with a case of alleged sexual abuse by a former teacher at a Catholic school in Toowoomba.

Feb. 2011: Archbishop Guiseppe Lazzarotto, the Apostolic Nuncio or papal representative to Australia, writes Bishop Morris requesting his immediate resignation. The nuncio informs Bishop Morris that the Vatican will announce his resignation May 2.

March 2011: Bishop Morris writes to the Apostolic Nuncio. He insists that he will not resign, but that he will accept the Vatican announcing on May 2 his "early retirement."

April 2011: Bishop Morris convenes his college of consultors. The group unanimously supports his decision to issue a pastoral letter so that “the diocese would first hear the news from the bishop and not from the media,” according to the report. Claiming his innocence and decrying the Vatican for denying him "natural justice." On April 27 Bishop Morris sends his announcement to the priests of the diocese. He includes a pastoral letter to be read at all Masses on the weekend of April 30-May 1.

May 2011: The Vatican announces the removal of Bishop Morris from his office. According to a statement 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.”

On May 5, priests and pastoral leaders are summoned to an invitation-only meeting at St. Patrick's Cathedral to decide how to express further support to Bishop Morris. It is decided that parishes will count attendees at all Masses to register any possible decline. Also, books will be placed for people to write messages of  support to Bishop Morris.

In addition, "professional care and support" is offered "for priests and people who may be deeply troubled by these developments and may be deeply grieving Bishop Morris' removal."

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