28 August 2009
Today's editorial comment has been drafted by a group of priests in the Sydney area who have been dismayed at the response of the Archdiocese of Sydney to the situation that developed recently when the Parish Priest of Liverpool, Fr Robert Fuller, was arrested and charged. This editorial is not concerned with the serious allegations which have been made concerning Fr Fuller. Under our system of law he is innocent until he is proven guilty by a properly constituted Court of Law. The issue that is of concern to the priests is the manner in which the employer of priests seems, through the issuance of a media release, to have wiped its hands of a duty of care to priests who, for whatever reason, find themselves in difficulties, legal or otherwise. ...Brian Coyne (Editor)
The duty of care of a diocese to its priests ... and parishioners
On August 14 the Archdiocese of Sydney's website carried a policy statement headed Catholic Church Not Paid Bail for Accused Priest. Actually, the purpose of the statement was a correction to claims in the local media that the "Catholic Church" had paid bail for Fr Robert Fuller who faces charges of a criminal nature. However the Archdiocesan statement failed to point out that it was the Sydney Church (rather than Catholic Church per se) which was responsible for the care of Fr Fuller who is a Sydney priest. More distressing was the revelation that the Archdiocese of Sydney employs a "consistent policy" which required "priests accused of a criminal offence are responsible for their own legal costs".
The problem with the policy as outlined by Ms Katrina Lee on behalf of the Archdiocese is that it is "consistent" rather than "compassionate". Whatever the charges faced by Fr Fuller surely at this time, such "allegations" are the domain of Courts and their process should not be pre-empted by Church administration. Fr Fuller is a priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney and is entitled to expect the support of the Archdiocese which has a responsibility to uphold his right to natural justice founded in his human dignity. The dignity of the human person is the foundation of all Catholic social teaching and it is surprising to find the Archdiocese prepared to abandon Catholic teaching on justice when developing a policy for handling matters of extreme gravity such as the case of Fr Fuller.
It would appear that the Archdiocese has already decided on the outcome of the matter and has determined to treat Fr Fuller accordingly. Jesus required that his followers be compassionate rather than consistent for "...whatever you do to the least you do to me" (Mt 25:45). Following the logic of the policy that seems to have been adopted by the Archdiocese in the matter of Fr Fuller, Jesus who faced "criminal charges" would have had to fend for himself. This is not to prejudice the action of the Courts which will determine the truth or otherwise of the charges against Fr Fuller but it is to highlight his right to natural justice, two very different matters. To care for the person is not to condone behaviour and it is completely wrong for the Archdiocese to invoke any policy which would exonerate it from doing justice for "the least".
Fr Fuller was appointed as pastor to Liverpool by the present Archbishop of Sydney. As pastor of the city of Liverpool in southwest Sydney, Fr Fuller had a position which could only be compared with a CEO of companies such as David Jones or Myer. While such companies reimburse their CEO's handsomely such is not the case with priests and religious. Accordingly one could be forgiven for believing that priests and religious in justice would be financially supported and defended by their superiors. It is to the credit of the various religious communities the level of support for their members faced with criminal charges but not so the Archdiocese of Sydney.
Priests earn stipends and many don't have access to vast sums of money for a legal defence...
Regular readers of Catholica will remember that in the run up to World Youth Day that a letter from the priests of the Archdiocese claimed that they had been seeking a salary increase from the Archdiocese for five (5) years without any success. The following day, a reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald followed up the Catholica letter and the priests received their salary increase without delay. The point here is that if the Archdiocese were to pay its priests a wage at a rate commensurate with that of its lay employees then perhaps the priests might have the funds to cover their legal and other major personal expenses. If the Archdiocese espouses a "consistent policy" of requiring its priests to fund personal expenses from their own savings then it must review other policies such as its payment of clergy. This would not be because a priest is in ministry for the money but a normal consequence of the Archdiocesan policy.
The Archdiocese on the other hand, appears to have money for offices in Sydney CBD, for World Youth Day, a new Cathedral altar, religious art etc but in the final analysis things but it has no funds to ensure justice or otherwise for its priests. Is this another shortcoming of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Plan that failed to develop suitable strategies consistent with natural justice and human dignity to address clergy burn out and to assure quality pastoral care to those who have succumbed to the pressures of ministry and personal weakness? The architects of the Pastoral Plan must explain their part in allowing the Archdiocese to abdicate its pastoral care of clergy.
More incongruous is that Fr Terry Bell "a family friend and parish priest of Fairfield" had to take out a personal loan "to pay Fr Fuller's bail". If Fr Fuller had been justly recompensed for his work and commitment to the Archdiocese over the last thirty years, then it would be reasonable to expect that $25,000 be from his own funds. In justice the Archbishop of Sydney, not Fr Bell, is Fr Fuller's employer and is responsible for the clergy. The Archbishop has a duty of care and obligations in natural justice to personnel and these are not fulfilled by simply ensuring "basic care...by providing accommodation and supervision." In fact if Ms Lee's description of "basic care" is accurate then it is more like the care extended to a stray or injured animal but far short of that for another person.
The issue of supervision and trauma counselling for the parishioners and other priests of the parish...
Then there is the issue of supervision. It is unbelievable that the Archdiocese failed to contact Fr Fuller's local doctor who would be in a unique position to advise the "carers" on the best course of action to assure Fr Fuller's present and ongoing wellbeing.
Furthermore the priests and people of Liverpool are entitled to some trauma counselling following the recent events and their impact on them as a community. Hopefully, the Archdiocese will not gloss over these responsibilities by assigning them to Fr Bell or others. Indeed Fr Bell alone has emerged from this whole saga, as the one person who has demonstrated real pastoral leadership reminiscent of life in the Archdiocese prior to 2001.
What message does the Archdiocesan treatment of Fr Fuller send to the other Sydney priests? Do not expect natural justice from the Archdiocesan authorities who for the most part, are incapable of distinguishing between criminal justice and natural justice. An Archdiocese void of leadership intent on abandoning the time honoured ministries of pastoral care for impersonal policies and the people processing strategies of modern sociology.
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