When big institutions falter, both the general public and the political elite should take note. One focus now should be the Catholic Church, whose deep-seated crisis came to public notice during the five-year-long Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The church, to whom 20 per cent of the Australian population owe some level of allegiance, has financial and structural issues. The immediate evidence for this lies in a crisis of financial sustainability which underpins a recent restructuring of its central body, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (the ACBC). While the restructuring was decided upon in November following a year-long internal analysis, the cuts and restructuring have received little public attention.
The finances of the church are deliberately opaque. Its leaders have done all they can over the past decade to keep their financial situation out of the hands of the civic authorities. They lobbied hard to do this during the creation of the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit Commission by the Gillard government. One consequence is that not just the general public but most Australian Catholics have been kept in the dark.
Yet evidence has emerged that many Catholic dioceses are struggling financially, and cutting back on staff as a consequence. The largest diocese, the Archdiocese of Melbourne, made deep cuts to its central staff last year. Several smaller rural dioceses are in serious financial trouble.
These struggles have led to dioceses being increasingly sensitive about finances, and one consequence has been greater resistance to supporting the national apparatus of the church; that is, the secretariat, councils and commissions which support advocacy, lobbying, national co-ordination and communication as well as some service delivery. This is effectively the sort of battle over finances we see in federal-state government circles.
All of this is largely conducted behind a veil of secrecy. A recent example is the huge 50 per cent funding cut to the national administration based in Canberra and the capital cities, which is funded in full or part by diocesan levies. Such an enormous budget cut doesn't affect independently funded agencies like schools, hospitals and their peak bodies, but will cause considerable heart-ache to those staff and organisations involved. Church leaders recognise this. As the ACBC president, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, admitted: "our current circumstances led us down a difficult but unavoidable path."
This negative impact has already happened, as some long-serving staff have been given their marching orders and cuts to agencies have taken effect. The most notable include the abolition of the stand-alone Council for Australian Catholic Women, staffed by the well-regarded Andrea Dean, and the cessation of all central funding for Catholic Social Services Australia, led by former senator Ursula Stephens.
The cutting of the stand-alone women's council is in itself a public relations disaster for the bishops. One prominent Catholic put it to me this way: "I can't understand the rationale or media sense of publicly claiming that because of the criminal actions of many bad men the bishops have to cut back on women's services."
The long-term impact of all administrative cuts is difficult to predict, but almost certainly - and despite hopeful talk of synergies, elimination of overlaps, and organisational efficiencies - the consequences will be a national church with less capacity to perform its mission.
There are deep-seated reasons for such a drastic change of direction. When expenses are rising and revenue is falling, something has to give in any organisation or business. That is the situation the Catholic Church is facing.
Following the royal commission, the rising expenses include substantial contributions to the National Redress Scheme and expenditure on Catholic Professional Services Ltd, the church body set up to implement the new child protection regimes. They also include current and proposed expenditure on the big Plenary Council 2020, which will aim to deal with the future of a crisis-ridden church.
The falling revenue is an inevitable consequence of the well-known problems of a church in a downward spiral in terms of active church attendance and the upward trend in the average age of church attenders. Ultimately that has a negative impact on revenue regardless of the generosity of many individuals and the support of school communities for some activities.
Getting to the bottom of what has happened takes some serious digging and reading between the lines. The minutes of the November biennial ACBC meeting, which are on its website, tell parts of the story of the huge cuts, but like most minutes they conceal more than they reveal through a combination of sparse reporting and guarded language. The only discussion is in a media release by Archbishop Coleridge primarily devoted to another subject.
Such communication is not good enough for a significant public institution. The Catholic community deserves more clarity. There is no excuse for the failure of the ACBC to issue a more informative media release which is open about these striking developments. Instead, Canberra being Canberra, the impact of the cuts is dribbling out into the community as complaints are made to the local Archbishop's office and parishioners learn about the fate of their colleagues who have ceased employment.
This is not a storm in a teacup but a crucial insight into the health and operations of the Australian Catholic Church. There can be no serious discussion about the future of the church without full disclosure of its current situation. Those attending the Plenary Council's first assembly in Adelaide at the beginning of October should, as a first step, demand a complete and open accounting from its leaders at the diocesan and national level.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn.