Canberra Catholics push for more power in church decision-making
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Canberra Catholics push for more power in church decision-making

Ordinary parishioners would have a greater say in the future direction of the Catholic Church in Canberra, in reforms overwhelmingly supported at a meeting of concerned churchgoers on Thursday night.

More than 200 people attended a meeting convened by the recently formed Concerned Catholics of Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese.

A meeting of concerned Catholics in Canberra on Thursday voted overwhelmingly for reforms that would give the laity more say over how the church is run.

A meeting of concerned Catholics in Canberra on Thursday voted overwhelmingly for reforms that would give the laity more say over how the church is run. Credit:James Alcock

The group has called for more lay people, including women, to play a greater role in church decision-making, after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse pointed to power imbalances in the church as a reason why abuse in many cases carried on with impunity.

The group is also pushing for a diocesan pastoral council to be established, with more members of the laity given a seat at the table.

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Meeting chair Professor John Warhurst described it as a watershed for Catholics in the Canberra region.

"It shows significant numbers want change and believe that without reforms our church's decline in Australia will only continue," he said.

The laity compose the majority of the Catholic Church but sit at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Truth Justice and Healing Council chief executive Francis Sullivan told the meeting that for "everyday Catholics, the clerical sexual abuse scandal has been hypocrisy writ large".

"The lives of innocent children, the pastoral care of their families and the trust of parishioners have all been sacrificed in the interests of the institution," Mr Sullivan said.

"The misuse of power and position have led to decades of deceit, secrecy and concealment."

Mr Sullivan said the "pernicious effects of clericalism and the wielding of power through a clerical caste" had been laid bare during the royal commission.

"A deliberate elitist approach by some clergy to exclude others from positions of privilege.

"And with that came a propensity to hush things up, to not rock the boat and certainly not to break the unwritten but well understood code of not dobbing on your mates.

"Again the misguided sense of entitlement and self- interest by some fuelled a system of self-perpetuation, defensiveness and exclusion. This is every bit an unhealthy culture."

Mr Sullivan said the lay people of the Catholic Church also had "much soul searching to do".

"We have been far too passive and accepting. We placed clerics on pedestals and were happy to leave them there," he said.

"Most Catholic lay people are very competent in their daily lives but somehow either expect less of themselves in their Church life or assume that their competencies and participation can only ever be utilised in limited and controlled ways. These days need to come to an end."

The standing-room only-meeting asked Archbishop Christopher Prowse to take the reforms to next week's meeting of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference.

The recently embattled archbishop attended the meeting but did not speak.

"We are grateful that Archbishop Prowse attended so he could hear the strength of views from active Catholics who seek a stronger more inclusive church," Professor Warhurst said.

Earlier this year the full extent of alleged child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions over the past four decades emerged for the first time.

The commission heard between 1980 and 2015, 4444 people alleged they were abused as children in more than 1000 Catholic institutions however the true number of victims may never be known.

Counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness SC said 1880 alleged perpetrators were identified in claims of child sexual abuse. Of the 1880, 32 per cent were religious brothers, 30 per cent were priests, 29 per cent were lay people and 5 per cent were sisters.

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.