In Toowoomba, legacy of 'Bishop Bill' is confusion and one new priest in 18 years

Bishop William Morris  CNA World Catholic News 5 11 11 Bishop William Morris / Photo | Diocese of Toowoomba

Norm and Mavis Power moved to Toowoomba back in 1959, not long after getting married. The attractions of the Queensland city were obvious for a young couple hoping for a family – good schools, a pleasant climate and so many green spaces and parks it’s known across Australia as “the Garden City.” But that wasn’t all.

“Most importantly, we wanted our children to be brought up in the Catholic faith,” explains Mavis.

“At that time there was a monastery right in the middle of the town run by the Blessed Sacrament Fathers. It was a real center of prayer and activity. In fact, all the city’s Catholic churches were full. The life of the Church was so vibrant. Now, though, the monastery is closed and those same churches are empty. It’s so, so sad.”  
Catholic life in Toowoomba changed – and changed radically – back in 1993. That was the year the city got a new bishop. Father William Martin Morris was a 49-year-old parish priest from the nearby Diocese of Brisbane. Styling himself as “Bishop Bill,” his innovations were very radical, very visible and instantly applied.

Out went clerical dress. Instead the bishop wore a shirt and tie emblazoned with the diocesan crest. Each priest was issued one as well.

Out went individual confessions. In came collective penance services in which participants are granted “general absolution.” Under Church law, general absolution is to be used in extreme circumstances. Under “Bishop Bill” the rare exception became the ordinary rule.

Out went the traditional model of governance by a Catholic bishop. In came a form of administration by committee — including committees appointing priests. In fact, Bishop Morris’ tenure began with a service held in a local retreat center. There he asked the priests of the diocese to sign his letter of appointment from Rome “to indicate their acceptance” of him as their bishop.

Out went the traditional understanding of the priesthood. Many parishes started to be run by nuns and lay people, with priests only administering some sacraments some of the time.

And out went a traditional understanding of the authority of the Church.

So when the Vatican asked Bishop Morris to end the practice of general absolution, he responded by carrying out a survey of parishioners on the issue before responding to Rome. 

For many ordinary Catholics like the Norm and Mavis Power, life became pretty tough and very upsetting.

“The bishop would tell people what they wanted to hear, not what the Catholic Church teaches,” says Mavis, a mother of five who went on to work with disabled people later in life. Norm, a retired telecom engineer, agrees.

“Instead of individual confession people would be told to come up in a line, write their sins on a piece of paper and put it in a jar. Plus, an inappropriate form of lay participation was promoted everywhere. So on a Sunday if a priest was away for the weekend they would no longer get a neighboring priest but would, instead, ask lay people to lead the service and give out Communion on the grounds that they’d ‘want to keep the community together.’”

For the likes of the Power family this isn’t just a matter of arcane rules or abstract dogma. For them, the teachings and practice of the Catholic Church provide the wellspring for a good and happy life and – for that matter – a better world too. So to withhold or subvert those teachings is viewed as both cruel and abusive.

“It’s been pretty difficult. Really upsetting actually,” says Mavis, “and whenever we wrote to the bishop about any of these things we were always told it was us who were in the wrong.”

In November 2006, though, everything changed. Suddenly unhappiness with Bishop Morris went global. No longer did he just have to placate the Power family of Toowoomba. He now had to explain himself to the powers-that-be in Rome. The reason? A pastoral letter written to his entire diocese.

In it Bishop Morris promoted the idea of ordaining women and married men as well as allowing Anglicans, Lutherans and other religions to preside at Mass.

Again, all this flew in the face of Catholic teaching and tradition. This marked the beginning of the end for Bishop Morris.

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In December 2006 the Vatican asked him to visit Rome as soon as possible in order to discuss his views. Bishop Morris told them he couldn’t possibly make the journey for, at least, five months. Clearly surprised by this answer, the Vatican wrote again, only a month later, with a similar request.

Again, Bishop Morris said “no.”

“The whole thing was incredible. The flight from Brisbane to Rome takes about 12 hours and there's at least one flight a day,” a senior Australian cleric told CNA. “Yet here’s this bishop telling the Vatican that he can’t make that trip at all for nearly half a year! That reaction was little short of scandalous. Any bishop worth his salt would hasten to Rome as quickly as possible. To be honest, I think Bishop Morris was hoping that if he strung things out for long enough Rome would just forget all about it. That was never going to happen.”

Rather than wait, the Vatican sent in the well-respected American Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap., of Denver to review the happenings in Toowoomba. He visited the diocese in April 2007, speaking to all sides involved. In September Bishop Morris was asked to resign.

According to the senior Australian cleric, who asked that his name be withheld, the process again moved very slowly.

“It took Bishop Morris, wait for it, four months to say ‘no.’ He was then, again, asked to resign in February 2008. This time he took a grand total of 10 months to, again, finally, reply ‘no.’”

Bishop Morris even managed to secure a meeting with the Pope. This took place in June 2009. The message from the pontiff to him was the same – resign. The reply from the bishop, this time five months later, was also the same – no.

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The endgame, however, came earlier this year. In a compromise move, Rome told Bishop Morris that he could retire rather than resign. Bishop Morris agreed. Both sides then set a date of May 2 for the announcement. Bishop Morris then made it public on April 27, five days early. The news quickly divided Australia.

“The temple police get their man,” opined journalist Michael McKenna in The Australian newspaper. “The Catholic Church’s worst enemy resides in the Vatican,” claimed columnist Barney Zwartz in The Age newspaper. 

Meanwhile, Bishop Morris has repeatedly taken to the television and radio airwaves claiming he was “denied natural justice due to a lack of process” by the Vatican. He also claims that his meeting with the Pope was, “like the Inquisition. He was immovable. There was no dialogue.”

Others, however, see things differently.

“The reality is that if Bishop Morris of Toowoomba had been working for a commercial organization covered by the Trades Practices Act,” wrote columnist Kate Edwards on the ABC News website, “he would surely have been liable for prosecution on the grounds of false and misleading advertising. He represented himself as teaching the Catholic faith – but was not in fact doing so!”

“Morris’s removal sends a clear message to bishops, in Australia and around the world. The Holy See’s patience is not, as it long seemed, limitless,” wrote journalist Christopher Pearson, again in The Australian. “The more realistic, liberal bishops are going to have to kiss goodbye to any lingering fantasies they clung to in the 90s of ordaining nuns, or at least keep it to themselves.”

The row in the secular press reflects a similar division within the Catholic community. In fact, Vatican officials have been so worried by the dominance of unorthodox belief and practice in large parts of Catholic Australia that in 1998 they summoned the country’s bishops to a meeting.

The result was a “Statement of Conclusions” which offered a blunt critique of where the church in Australia was falling short in terms of Catholic orthodoxy.  The stakes are high.

“The next few years will be crucial for the future of Catholicism in Australia with many big, important dioceses falling vacant – Brisbane, Hobart, Perth. The whole hue of the episcopal conference could be made over in the next two years. That gives added significance to the fall-out from events in Toowoomba,” says another senior Australian priest who spoke to CNA.

Meanwhile back in Toowoomba, the job of rebuilding begins.

The Diocese of Toowoomba spans more than 188,000 square miles and has a Catholic population of roughly 66,000 served by 35 parishes.

Bishop Brian Finnegan of Brisbane has now been appointed as administrator of the diocese until a new bishop can be found. Whoever gets the job will have their work cut out for them, sources tell CNA.

“I don’t think there’s been one priestly vocation in all the years Bishop Morris was in charge. Perhaps one – and he was a late vocation. And there are no young people. Take a look at their website – their ‘Ministry for Young People’ has no staff because they have no young people. It’s all old folk in dwindling number. Most of their priests are over 65 and their youngest priest is in his late 40s!”

That situation compares miserably to other Australian dioceses where a revival in Catholic orthodoxy had led, in recent years, to a revival in vocations and parish life.

As for the Powers, they’ve now got 13 grandchildren to help bring-up in the Catholic faith. They say they’ll keep praying for a good new bishop – and for their previous bishop too. 

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