Monsignor John Woods.

Monsignor John Woods. Photo: Melissa Adams

Canberra's Catholics may have a long wait for a new leader after the man considered most likely to be appointed the next archbishop was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Townsville Bishop Michael Putney was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer late last year and it has now spread to his liver.

He had been widely tipped as the most likely successor to Mark Coleridge as archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn.

Archbishop Coleridge was appointed head of the Brisbane archdiocese in May 2012. Canberra and Goulburn's Auxiliary Bishop, Patrick Power, retired a few weeks later.

The archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn is under the temporary charge of an administrator, Monsignor John Woods, who does not have the full range of decision-making powers enjoyed by a bishop.

A lengthy consultation process is usually conducted before new bishops are appointed. Bishop Putney's illness could lead to additional consultation having to be conducted for Canberra and Goulburn.

Monsignor Woods said it was unclear whether there would be a delay in the appointment by Pope Benedict XVI of a new archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn. But he said Bishop Putney's illness could have an impact on the timing of the decision.

"His illness throws a further complication into matters. Certainly he was tipped as being the fellow most likely,'' he said.

Monsignor Woods said he had the necessary authority to keep the Archdiocese running but there were some decisions that would have to wait for the next archbishop.

"For example, I can't appoint a parish priest. I can only appoint an administrator of a parish. I can't change parish boundaries. Day to day though, I would suggest that most people won't notice any differences,'' he said.

The consultation process used to help determine the appointment local bishops is conducted by the Pope's representative in Australia, the apostolic nuncio. A new nuncio, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, is due to arrive in Australia soon.

Father Brian Lucas, general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, said there was no limit on how long Monsignor Woods could serve as administrator.

"There is clear church law about the scope of his administration. There's no time limit on that,'' Father Lucas said.

"The new nuncio will arrive probably in the next month or so and then the Congregation for Bishops in Rome will receive a report from him about possible candidates.

"It is not uncommon sometimes for it to take a year or two for an appointment to be made because the investigation is very thorough - there is wide consultation and sometimes things happen during the process.''