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Church governance needs to walk the walk

  • 25 February 2020


Catholic church governance suffers considerable dilemmas. The clue to its problems comes from the challenging recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to review ‘the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women’. In doing so the RC noted with some approval the approaches to governance of largely lay-led Catholic health, community services and education agencies.

Approaches to governance are in flux within church agencies, sectors, dioceses and at the national level, either driven by the demands of state regulations or in response to the challenging new situation the church finds itself in. There is so much change going on that it is difficult to follow.

Some big national agencies, like Caritas Australia and Catholic Social Services Australia, are rethinking their governance structures. Incorporation is now common. The governance of diocesan Catholic education across Australia is being reshaped significantly. Some dioceses have embarked upon new approaches to consultative governance, like synods and assemblies, leading into the Plenary Council 2020.

The Association of Ministerial Public Juridic Persons, with eleven members, has emerged as a potentially strong third peak body in the church alongside the bishops and Catholic Religious Australia.

Catholic Professional Standards Ltd, set up in 2017, has taken responsibility for oversight of new child safety systems. Simultaneously the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has undertaken an enormous restructure of its staffing, funding and governance.

Most recently a new body, Catholic Emergency Relief Agency, has emerged to play a potential ‘whole of church’ agency coordinating role in response to the bushfire emergency.


'The church must not just talk 'good governance' talk but walk the walk. That is the responsibility of individuals with leadership roles across the church. In dioceses and parishes those individuals exercising formal authority are bishops and priests.'  

The acceptance in 2018 by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia leadership of the RC recommendation was significant in the setting up of the Implementation Advisory Group and its subsidiary, the Governance Review Project Team (GRPT). The test will come when the GRPT report is considered by those holding church authority and later discussed by the Plenary Council 2020. Action rather than just words is required.

The lessons of secular good governance are clear and long-standing. They include the introduction and monitoring of mechanisms for accountability, transparency and inclusiveness. The GRPT report