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Magnanimous memoir of a 'dead canary' bishop


'Benedict, Me and the Cardinals Three' by Bill MorrisMany of Pope Francis' metaphors have to do with smell. He has urged priests and bishops to go out of the churchy world, saying that it is better to be accident prone than to grow sick through living in fetid air. He has said the clergy must smell like the sheep. And he has remarked on the stuffy air of the Vatican administration.

In mines, where bad air could be lethal, miners used to bring canaries with them. If they fell ill and died, the miners had warning to get out. The recent book by Bishop Bill Morris, replete with documentary evidence, tells the story of a canary caught in the shafts of Vatican culture. His early expiry date pointed to something amiss in the governance of the church, heralding the larger disclosures in the Royal Commission on sexual abuse.

Morris' story needs no retelling. He was Bishop of Toowoomba, sought to empower the laity and local communities, engaged in serious pastoral planning, was informal in his manner and, earlier than most, understood sexual abuse from the perspective of the victim rather than of the institution.

A small minority of Catholics hostile to him complained regularly to Roman officials and were given credence. Pope Benedict decided on the evidence of his officials that Morris' grasp of theology was inadequate and that he had to go, and after the many representations and meetings described in this book, he eventually retired.

To the outside reader the operative values of Roman governance will seem to contrast those advocated by Francis. They seem to have been to judge, not to listen; to heed malicious gossip, not to sift it; to stand on dignity and not to respect it; to seek evidence to justify a case and not to establish the truth; to demand loyalty and not faithfulness; to prize silence over plain speaking.

A small incident embodies the values of the Bishop and of his masters. When he eventually decided he must retire, he asked to delay the date so that he could offer support to the families of children who had been abused in a Catholic school, and to be with the victims of the Queensland floods that in recent days had devastated the communities in his diocese. His request was denied. He had to go immediately.

In his account Morris does not describe the Vatican representatives or his local critics as bad people. He emphasises the moments where their humanity appeared, their recognition of his pastoral gifts and their personal courtesy in prosecuting decisions whose reasons were not open to question.

The saddest feature of this story is that good people did not understand the implications what they were doing. They could not reflect on the values embedded in their way of proceeding.

In hindsight it is always easy to see why canaries in mines snuff it. It is also easy to see that Morris' representations would never receive a hearing and why those who should have spoken publicly in his defense were silent. It is also easy to understand why Francis was seen as so revolutionary when he exemplified and called for less self-preoccupation, more courage and more discernment in the Catholic Church.

In a haunting line in the Gospel Jesus asks, 'if this is done in the green wood, what will be done in the dry?' The answer is now being clinically set out in the Royal Commission into sexual abuse.

There the blaze in the dry wood is reflected in the eyes of the victims of abuse too many of whom found a Church whose representatives tried to prevent their voices from being heard and their faces from being seen. They were often punished or ostracised if they told their story, and blamed as troublemakers if they persisted. The Church leaders to whom they spoke too often treated them as people to be managed.

Church leaders also moved the perpetrators to places where they offended again, kept their abuse secret, and did not pass on their files. These things may not have directly caused sexual abuse but they magnified the sufferings of the victims and enabled it to continue.

When set against the sufferings of those who were sexually abused Morris' dismissal seems like the death of a canary. But the disregard for truth and for people that were disclosed in his treatment are similar to those shown in the way in which many church authorities dealt with sexual abuse.

Like the canary in the mine, Morris' dismissal warned of the toxic culture. His book is magnanimous. He would surely be happy to have been the price that needed to be paid for the success of Francis' attempts to build a culture of governance properly respectful of the people it serves.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Bill Morris, Benedict, Me and the Cardinals Three, clergy sex abuse



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Existing comments

Where can we buy the book?

Pat | 24 July 2014  

Thank you Andrew.

Jane | 24 July 2014  

I've read only a little of Bishop Morris' trials with Vatican authority. It seems a devout individual grappled with a large, powerful, centralised organisation and the latter was the predictable 'winner'. Any believer who is part of a church is bombarded with the message 'you are part of a body' and this is true but those who don't fit the norm, those of an individual bent, can struggle. And give up or are pushed to give up. Pope Francis is opening a few windows, letting the air through and many are praying for a continuation of this.

Pam | 24 July 2014  

I hope in hindsight, the requirement to have Bishop Morris - the former Bishop of Toowoomba, - tender his resignation, should be borne in upon the generality of Catholics in Austrlia as a shabby treatment which calls for his re-instatement, if it was possible, without prejudice to the Vatican administration in receipt of the Bishop's resignation.

Francis Ughanze | 24 July 2014  

This is a terrific review but publication details would be a big help for those of us who'd like to read the book.

Michael McGirr | 24 July 2014  

"He (Bishop Morris) would surely be happy to have been the price that needed to be paid for the success of Francis' attempts to build a culture of governance properly respectful of the people it serves." It is hard to see why that price needed to be paid, when all that was required was for the Vatican to be more concerned with the beam in its own eye than the mote it perceived in the eye of Bishop Morris, who may have been more resigned to accept his 'punishment' if .Francis' attempts had met with greater success than they have had at this point.

Robert Liddy | 24 July 2014  

Andrew, what is the likelihood that Francis knows enough about Bill Morris's case and about the abuses of intelligence and of justice that it involved? I would love to see full and proper reparation made to him for treatment of him that was so manifestly wrong. Given the institutional inertia involved, what hope is there? It's a scandal. in the theological sense, of the first order.

Joe Castley | 24 July 2014  

'Benedict, Me and the Cardinals Three' is published by ATF Press. Full details can be found on: http://atfpress.com/benedict-me-and-the-cardinals-three.html

Andy Hamilton | 24 July 2014  

What would it mean for a church maturing in humility and wisdom if Bill Morris were to be appointed Archbishop of Sydney?

Caroline Ryan RSM | 24 July 2014  

Your comment that "They could not reflect on the values embedded in their way of proceeding" strikes at the heart of what is wrong both in government, church and individual behaviour. Actions seem to reflect concerns with power or wealth rather than the concern for the community and the person that ought to be the basis of our actions.

Marianne McLean | 24 July 2014  

A very insightful analysis Andy but your optimism I feel exceeds the current evidence. You acknowledge that "Church leaders also moved the perpetrators to places where they offended again, kept their abuse secret, and did not pass on their files", and you then comment that "These things may not have directly caused sexual abuse but they magnified the sufferings of the victims and enabled it to continue." It’s a nice moral point as to whether enabling child sexual abuse can be distinguished from directly causing child sexual abuse. Regardless, the Church institution must acknowledge this terrible failure to protect children and then perhaps your optimism might be justified by "Francis' attempts to build a culture of governance properly respectful of the people (the Church) serves." Those attempts are at a very early stage needing much more clarity and development. Francis has a long way to go in a very difficult environment of clericalism. He needs our prayers and our strong and public advocacy for a Christ-like Church. Bill Morris is doing his best in that regard but let’s hope that the loss of that good bishop is rated more highly by the institutional Church than the loss of a canary. The evidence to date is not encouraging. I agree with Caroline's marvellous suggestion for Bill to be appointed archbishop of Sydney, which would be an excellent indication that Francis is listening to the people of the Church, a truly important step in good governance!

Peter Johnstone | 24 July 2014  

I, too, support Caroline Ryan's suggestion to have Bill Morris appointed to be the next Archbishop of Sydney.

Rosemary Crowe | 24 July 2014  

'Actions speak louder than words' - appoint Bill Morris as Archbishop of Sydney.

Joanna Elliott | 24 July 2014  

Please add my support for Bill Morris as Archbishop of Sydney. Brilliant and would go a long way to restore faith.

Jane | 24 July 2014  

I think it would be fair to say that Bishop Morris's run in with the Vatican had little to do with the child sex abuse scandal, although it must be said that his concern for the families of children abused in a catholic school seemed not to register with the Vatican's grasp of the duty of pastoral care a Bishop has for his flock. "Morris's grasp of theology was inadequate" may have been true by the purist standards of Vatican bureaucrats but his grasp of "applied theology", if I can coin a phrase, was closer to the teachings of the church's founder, Jesus Christ, and the first Pope, Simon Peter. To quote one sentence from Peter 1, c 5, v 3: "Don't be bossy to those people who are in your care, but set an example for them." Bishop Morris was a fine exemplar of St Peter's exhortation to church leaders scattered throughout Asia Minor in the first century AD.

Uncle Pat | 24 July 2014  

It must be at least 4 months since I suggested that the encouraging rhetoric from Pope Francis, including desire for Bishops with the smells of the flock on them, be transferred to serious action by appointing Bishop Bill to the freshly vacant job in Sydney. So pleasing to now see similar calls. Of course there would have been little support from members of ACBC . Besides few voices of support from the likes of Bishop Pat Power ,most were silent .Though I did hear our then Bishop Michael Putney express his regret that he and others of ACBC did not counsel Bishop Bill on his erring ways .I have had it from cleric aquantences that recently deceased Bishop Michael & others were seriously jockeying for the then vacant,major job in Brisbane ,so would dare not express support for Bishop Bill

john kersh | 24 July 2014  

Re- John Kersch's point about bishops jockeying for the plum Brisbane Archbishopric. Ambition for ecclesial positions of power ill becomes one who signs himself Servant of the Servants of God. The best Pope is the man who does not covet the job. I don't know how it happened (The Holy Spirit at work?) but the election of Pope Francis makes me think enough Cardinals saw such a man in Jorge Bergoglio. I doubt however that Bishop Morris's lack of ambition will be similarly rewarded by The Vatican and nominate him for either Sydney or Brisbane dioceses..

Uncle Pat | 24 July 2014  

Very well said, Andrew. Bill is one of the very best Australian bishops. His removal was a disgrace. Rome stands condemned for again heeding the Temple Police, as they did at the Oceania Synod. And for a patently unjust process in Bishop Bill's case. One hopes Pope Francis learns about all the facts so well documented in Bill's book.

Michael Costigan | 24 July 2014  

In a discussion elsewhere about why so many Australian Catholics no longer participate in weekly celebration of the Mass, I read a statement along the lines of, "I did not leave the Church; the Church left me." Tragically for those of us who grew up with the Vatican II outlook of a transparent, humane, loving Church which genuinely believes in its people, it feels that is exactly what happened. Some time after the death of John XXIII, the Church turned away from its belated enlightenment, back to the security of its 19th century 'certainties'. Bishop Bill Morris is a victim of the Church's preference for its institutional security, law and order than for encouraging the spiritual maturing of its people.

Ian Fraser | 25 July 2014  

"Rome stands condemned for again heeding the Temple Police, as they did at the Oceania Synod." says Michael Costigan and I agree. But the elephant in the room in this case is the community's acceptance of the Temple Police and the passivity with which they and their actions are treated. Rome's punitive treatment was well known so it is the traducers who are culpable. It reminds me of the case of the Federal Police allowing young kids with drugs to get their punishment at the hands of foreign authorities, even when this meant death. Does anyone still practise excommunication?

Michael D. Breen | 25 July 2014  

It is a serious indictment of the Church's procedures, that it has been so difficult to sack a predatory paedophile priest, while so easy to do to one whose theology is considered suspect.

Maxine Barry | 25 July 2014  

"A small minority of Catholics hostile to him complained regularly to Roman officials and were given credence." Charity permits us to opine that this small minority's complaints were based on facts and not personal hostility to Bishop Morris. Perhaps these Temple Police were right that liturgical abuses were rife in the diocese under Bishop Morris.*** If that's the case, then the question arises: if sexual abuse should not be kept secret (and it shouldn't), why should liturgical and doctrinal abuse or error not be reported? Why should concerned Catholics keep mum about some kinds of abuse, but not others as if transparency is not a universal desideratum? What's the rule here? ***(You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't in this game. If you verbally recount a liturgical abuse, the convenient defense is: "That's not what happened!". But if you take notes or video or audio record, you're accused of "spying" or being a member of the "Temple Police".)

HH | 25 July 2014  

An insightful review, Fr Hamilton. One of my deep concerns is the extent to which very unChristian Opus-Dei-like tactics undermine the integrity of the church, whilst purporting to uphold its 'purity'. It's a nasty throw-back to the Inquisition which 'the flock' won't tolerate any more.

Patricia R | 27 July 2014  

I too would love to see Bishop Bill as the Archbishop of Sydney. Thanks Ian Fraser for your comments re Vatican 2. I agree.

Toni Fritsch | 27 July 2014  

If His Lordship +Morris became Archbishop of Sydney,[highly unlikely] I would as a cancer/stroke rehab, seek sanctuary at Little Sisters Nursing Home in Melbourne asap.[ I have had a sufficient degree of liberal capers for one lifetime.] That would be my 3rd major exodus with dissenting hierarchs.

Father John George | 27 July 2014  

Having included in my previous comment, transparency as a desideratum, I must respond to HH's conflation of "liturgical and doctrinal abuse or error" and sexual abuse in his question, "if sexual abuse should not be kept secret (and it shouldn't), why should liturgical and doctrinal abuse or error not be reported? Why should concerned Catholics keep mum about some kinds of abuse, but not others as if transparency is not a universal desideratum?" Given the extreme personal injury, both immediate and long term, physical, mental and emotional, inflicted on the (often child) victims of sexual abuse and, at most, the intellectual annoyance caused by deviation from Roman rubrics, this is a gross insult to the victims of sexual abuse in our Church. Tell us, HH, that Jesus didn't mean it when he said, "Whenever two or three of you are gathered in my name, I am there with you." Or do the impermanent Roman rubrics at any time in history hold more authority than the words of Jesus? And please compare what he said about anyone who would as much as hurt a hair on the head of any of these little ones, with his reply to those who criticised him for working on the Sabbath.

Ian Fraser | 28 July 2014  

IF, I normally find your critiques to be of substance, even if I might take issue with them. But this one leaves me flummoxed. Because there's been clerical sexual abuse going on in Australia, we laity must not voice our concerns about a member of the hierarchy's liturgical or theological errors ... because that would be to rank the gravity of liturgical or theological error with clerical sexual abuse?

HH | 28 July 2014  

I have followed the Bishop William Morris saga with great interest - wondering how long he could keep up his unorthodox approach, and considering his position in the Church as a Bishop. I was not one of those who dobbed him in and have no idea who did. But I was pleased to know that someone did expose this irresponsible Bishop to his bosses in the Vatican. Like all such complaints the words of the people who complained about his behaviour and was investigated. He was given years to clear his desk until finally,he was sacked -- something he obviously wanted... to be a martyr.

John Morris | 30 July 2014  

Church attendance in greater Philadelphia has declined by more than 33% over the last decade and now less than 20% of registered area Catholics actually attending Mass on a regular basis. There is no end to internal speculation by the Catholic Church as to what to do to reverse this decline including calls for "test membership" and knocking on doors to get Catholics back into the pews. Anything, anything but to deal with the real reasons why so many Catholics have left the Church which is the long standing and still unresolved Vatican Sex Scandal. With it, the ongoing cover ups to this day. Pope Francis may be a good man and a good Pope but his words will continue to ring hollow with the majority of former Catholics who see no sign of any real change within the institution.

Bob in Philly | 19 August 2014  

Beautiful comments on a sensitively written book. I am sure that Bill Morris would smile and agree with your last sentence.

Wayne Brabin | 12 January 2015  

Does His Lordship emeritus still think priestesses are the answer out back, or rather longer ritualised Sunday liturgies by roving non Catholic Greek orthodox priests in response to that 2006 pastoral letter? Ship in late Anton Lavay's US Church of Satan, established at the Black House in San Francisco, California, on Walpurgisnacht, April 30, 1966, by Anton Szandor LaVey, He was was the church's high priest until his death in 1997. In 2001, Peter H. Gilmore became the high priest, and the church's headquarters were moved to Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan. [But always available for weekend locum tenens in far-flung Toowoomba]

Father John George | 12 January 2015  

I have read Bill Morris Book . I found it deeply troubling and very sad. Having visited the Vatican twice in the last decade, I believe that its inhabitants are far removed form the reality of the Church in the world. Therefore it came to me as no surprise when I read about the decisions surrounding Bishop Morris dismissal. Personally I would like to see a lot more input from the diocese concerned when a bishop's chair becomes vacant. There is far too much centralization of decision making in the hands of the few in Rome.

Gavin O'Brien | 12 January 2015  

No doubt, Andrew, you will stir a spectrum of church membership by keeping the Bill Morris/Abuse issues on the boil with this reflective article. "Let's move on, let's get back to some normalcy; we can't stay angry forever" is but one symptomatic scratch to this bothersome itch of our church experience.
In counselling the advice is to incorporate anger management into the therapy of those troubled by disproportionate amounts of this emotion. Yet, there are those whereby the expression of this emotion for the time is the critical way of signalling that they have been deeply hurt in some way, that there is a pain point still screaming out for acknowledgement and rectification. I say, good on them, and good on us who will not too quickly be advised to 'shut-up and move on' leaving the deeper issues of the Morris/Abuse matters to drift off into the oblivion of normalcy thereby to negate whatever corrective efforts need to flow from the claims that unfolding truths lay at the doorstep of our human experience of how we treat and are treated by our fellow human beings, even baptised ones.

Paul Goodland | 12 January 2015  

Thank you Andy. I support the proposal that Bishop Morris could be appointed to Sydney, or perhaps the next vacant See, Melbourne. Nothing is impossible. After all "better late than never".

Brian F. Kennedy | 12 January 2015  

FORGET THE SYDNEY BIT !! just let us see our Aussie Bishops show us enough guts and re-open the Morris case-in Australia we do that sort of thing even for criminals

brian | 12 January 2015  

I also advocate that Bill Morris be made Arch Bishop of Sydney

John Whitehead | 12 January 2015  

My question is, why hasn't Pope Francis reinstated Bishop Bill Morris as Bishop of Toowoomba?

Terry Fitz | 12 January 2015  

Bill Morris's book makes grim reading; may the Australian church produce many more of his calibre. We have been hamstrung too long by the pointed hats in Rome who prefer the 16th to the 21st century!

Joan Thomas | 12 January 2015  

The Epic,"Case Histories of Scotland Yard" ran with 39 spin offs from 1954 to 1961. How many reruns of +Morris Saga is overkill?

Father John George | 13 January 2015  

Fr JG, maybe it would be constructive if you outlined a couple of points where Bishop Morris was theologically incorrect. In this day and age people can question authorities decisions, and there are a lot of comments that support the former Bishop. I am not saying they are correct, nor do I see your comments as correct, but the discussion gets polarised and leads nowhere. LH

LH | 16 January 2015  

Thank you Andrew for such a succinct analysis and thank you to Pope Francis for attempting to change the oppressive Vatican culture. I pray that he will be successful and all previously frustrated and repressed Catholic clergy and laity will be empowered to live out Jesus' Gospel values and future generations will benefit from their example. Pope Francis has inspired us with hope for the future, he is a breath of fresh air for the Church!

Pia Boutsakis | 16 January 2015  

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