Archbishop says he never vetoed Sr. Joan Chittister's invite to Australian conference

Bishop Peter Andrew Comensoli of the Diocese of Broken Bay Australia Credit Australian Catholic Bishops Conference CNA 12 1 14 Archbishop Peter Comensoli. CNA file photo

On June 24, Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B., told the NY Times that she had been disinvited to speak at a 2020 conference of Australian educators, because Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne had not endorsed her as a speaker.

"It is pathetic," Chittister told the NY Times.

"These teachers for the next generation of thinkers are being denied the right to pursue ideas," she added.

Chittister's remarks led to allegations that Comensoli was unjustly censoring free speech, or prohibiting Chittister because he disagreed with her ideas.

One Melbourne Catholic told the Sydney Morning Herald that Comensoli's decision was "foolish arrogance" and another said that Comensoli "has betrayed his own rhetoric and has gone against the spirit of what Pope Francis wants - for us to be open and accountable."

But the Archdiocese of Melbourne says there is only one problem with that account: Comensoli never vetoed Chittister's appearance.

On July 26, after more than a month of controversy over the matter, the Archdiocese of Melbourne issued a statement saying that during the month of May, Comensoli was "advised (as part of early Conference planning discussions), of a proposal for Sister Joan Chittister to speak at the National Catholic Education Commission Conference to be held in Melbourne in September 2020."

According to the archdiocese, "Comensoli requested that more names aligned to the themes of a national Catholic education conference be considered."

Comensoli was apparently unaware that Chittister had, in fact, already been invited.

But according to communications acquired by the Australian newspaper The Sunday Age, Chittister had agreed to speak at the conference before the idea was even proposed to Comensoli.

Emails show that John Meneely, the deputy director of the Ballarat Catholic Education Office, had extended a speaking invitation to Chittiser on April 29, and that Meneely and Chittister's office had agreed on an honorarium and topic for her presentation.

According to the messages, Chittister was to be paid $11,700 AUD for a 60-minute speech on the subject of "Listen to what the spirit is saying," and she would also be provided with business-class airfare and hotels for the conference.

In a June 1 email, Meneely wrote: "I am very saddened to say that while our organising committee strongly supported the inclusion of Sr Joan as a speaker at the conference, the Archbishop of Melbourne has failed to endorse her inclusion. I am presently seeking explanation for his reasoning."

But from the perspective of the archdiocese, Comensoli had "neither invited Sister Joan or revoked any invitation that may have been issued to her."

The National Catholic Education Commission Conference is scheduled for September 6-9, 2020, in Melbourne. The website for the conference does not list any confirmed or invited speakers.

Chittister is a regular columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, and has authored more than 50 books. On her website, she is described as an advocate "on behalf of peace, human rights, women's issues, and church renewal," including prison ministries. She is a former president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious and has been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. She was a teacher in the early days of her religious life with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie (PA). 

In 2001, she spoke on the topic of discipleship at a conference in Ireland about the ordination of women, although the Vatican had forbidden her to attend the event. Chittister has repeatedly said that women's ordination is "not her focus."

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Chittister did not respond to CNA's request for comment in time for publication.

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