Editorial Comment: Provocative priest and writer, Fr Eric Hodgens, is again stirring the possum in Melbourne and calling for greater accountability from the Church leadership in Church administration. In 2006 he caused headlines questioning the appointment of a former politician to a leadership position in the Catholic Education Office seemingly without widespread consultation of stakeholders in Catholic Education. In this article recently published on his website, Fr Hodgens, queries the wisdom in the appointment of a lawyer seemingly without significant educational experience to the position of Deputy Director of Catholic Education. We publish this article on Catholica out of our commitment to generate greater scrutiny of how our Church is administered. We do receive feedback here at Catholica which strongly suggests the views expressed by Fr Hodgens do echo a larger and significant groundswell of demoralisation amongst the now large, professionally employed sectors of the Catholic Church in some dioceses in this country who are under considerable constraint and fear for their ongoing employment to not express their views publicly on aspects of how their Church is administered. The demoralisation is not uniform. Many leaders seem to have good relationships with their professional workforces and morale is healthy given all the other pressures the Church is under today in Western nations like ours.
An intriguing Catholic Education Office appointment
by Fr Eric Hodgens
Nancy Bicchieri, a lawyer, was appointed Deputy Director of the Melbourne Catholic Education Office in August 2008 and took up her appointment at the end of September.
Many had been hoping that the new Deputy would be a person of rich experience in education and Catholic education in particular. Ms Bicchieri is neither.
Many had been hoping that the new Deputy would have diplomatic skills and experience to facilitate dealings with governments.
This appointment is critical because of the re-structuring of the CEO leadership which took place during 2006. An article entitled "Melbourne's Catholic Education Office Leadership Transformation", published in November 2006 and available at catholicview.typepad.com, outlines this re-structuring. Several key persons in the CEO leadership team had been eliminated or demoted. The Director's position was vacant. Stephen Elder had been appointed Acting Director out of the blue, bypassing more qualified and experienced senior staff.
Stephen Elder's appointment as Acting Director alarmed many priests, principals, teachers and CEO administrators. He has little education qualification or teaching experience and very little Catholic education experience. He also lacks accreditation to teach in Catholic schools and the separate accreditation to teach Religious Education in Catholic schools. He has no theological training or qualification. He has not demonstrated an understanding of church relationships or church policy.
To complicate matters Stephen Elder is identified with the Liberal Party. He held a Liberal seat in the Victorian parliament during the Jeff Kennett administration. He got a Liberal staff job with David Kemp after he lost his seat in the election that brought Steve Bracks to power. The Director's task includes consulting with State and Federal governments on funding. Clearly, being aligned with one party complicates this task.
Concern about the possibility of his being appointed Director was expressed at a CEO consultation day with the priests who are the proprietors of Catholic primary schools. Archbishop Hart assured the priests at a meeting of his Priest's Council that the search for the next Director would be an open one.
Stephen Elder, nonetheless, was appointed Director by Archbishop Hart on 20 December 2006 – without any public advertisement or selection process. The eve of Christmas timing, after the schools had broken up for the summer holidays, cloaked the widespread consternation which the appointment caused.
The period since Mr Elder's appointment has been notable for lack of vision and leadership. This is hardly surprising in the light of his lack of qualifications listed above. A recent trend to bypass the authority of Parish Priests, the school proprietors, illustrates his ignorance of the traditional church structures.
The Director's office is an ivory tower. Consultation is minimal. Consultation with governments has been confrontational and political rather than diplomatic. This has not been helped by the Liberal leanings of Archbishop Hart and Cardinal Pell.
There was an expectation that the impasse would be obvious to the leadership of both the CEO and the Archdiocese of Melbourne. The solution would be the appointment of a Deputy who would be thoroughly familiar with Catholic education in Melbourne and be a politically neutral diplomat who could take on the task of contact with governments.
The appointment of a lawyer to the position of Deputy goes counter to those hopes. The rationale being spread around is that the leadership team needs a lawyer because of recent trends in educational administration. Very strange when legal consultants abound. What it really needs is qualification, competence and experience in Catholic Education at the top.
Let's hope that Ms Bicchieri is a very good listener to a demoralized CEO administration and a very fast learner of diplomatic skills for dealing both with staff, politicians and the various levels of church authorities.
Fr Eric Hodgens studied at Corpus Christi College from 1953 to 1960. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1960. He graduated M.A. from Melbourne University Criminology Department in 1973. Since then he has documented the statistics of seminaries and clergy in Australia. For seven years he was Director of Pastoral Formation of Clergy for the Archdiocese of Melbourne. He was a member of the initial committee which set up Melbourne’s Catholic Research Office for Pastoral Planning and the inaugural Chairman of the National Organization for the Continuing Education of the Roman Catholic Clergy. He has been chairman of the Priests’ Remuneration Fund and the Priests’ Retirement Foundation. The latter role has called for extensive demographic research to project future retirement requirements for priests. He has been a Parish Priest in the Melbourne Archdiocese since 1974. He was the founding Parish Priest of Holy Saviour Parish, Glen Waverley North. After 19 years there he moved to St Bede's Parish, North Balwyn where he spent 14 years. He has recently retired from active parish duties and is now writing and lecturing. You can find an index of previous articles published by Fr Hodgens in OnLine Catholics at this LINK.