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Vatican asked Australian bishop to resign six times

Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba was asked to resign six times by three Vatican congregations and Pope Benedict XVI before the pontiff finally insisted that he leave office, according to documents obtained by The Record, Perth archdiocesan newspaper.

The documents also showed that Bishop Morris asked Vatican congregations for more time to resign because he was dealing with a protracted case involving sexual abuse.

Pope Benedict appointed Brisbane Auxiliary Bishop Brian Finnigan as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Toowoomba in northern Queensland to replace Bishop Morris, who was ordained bishop of Toowoomba in 1993.

In a letter to Bishop Finnigan this week Australia’s bishops expressed their support and said they had spent much time at their recent meeting discussing the events surrounding Bishop Morris’s removal, a process they called “difficult and distressing”. They reaffirmed their commitment to the Pope’s decision and said they would continue discussions about the process when they visited the Vatican later this year for their five-yearly “ad limina” visit.

Pope Benedict’s removal of Bishop Morris, 67, came after more than a decade of conflict between the prelate and the Vatican, according to documents obtained by The Record.

A document prepared by Fr Peter Schultz, Toowoomba’s judicial vicar, and Fr Peter Dorfield, former vicar general of the diocese, is an addendum to a seven-page defence of the prelate sent last month to priests, leaders and the heads of Christian denominations in the Toowoomba region.

It reveals that the conflict originally stemmed from Bishop Morris establishing guidelines for the use of general absolution within the celebration of Communal Rites of Reconciliation, which were in conflict with Pope John Paul II’s 2002 apostolic letter Misericordia Dei (“Mercy of God”). It also said the bishop’s “relaxed and open style” was generally welcomed in the diocese, but a “small but vocal minority … found fault with nearly every action he took and decision he made”.

The document said there were “some places” where there has been “a tendency to abandon individual confession and wrongly resort to ‘general’ or ‘communal’ absolution”.

Sources in Toowoomba told The Record that general absolution had been provided in the diocese several years prior to Misericordia Dei, commencing shortly after Bishop Morris was ordained as bishop.

The issue of general absolution led to a dispute between the prelate and Cardinal Francis Arinze, then prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

Bishop Morris’s “position on this sacramental matter was seen as defiant and ongoing opposition to the position of the congregation”, according to a document from the Toowoomba College of Consultors.

In his 2006 Advent pastoral Letter, Bishop Morris stated that he would be prepared to ordain married priests and women priests if the Vatican allowed it.

He also said that due to an ageing clergy, the Church should be open to recognising the validity of Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting church orders.

This, and a failed attempt to get Bishop Morris to Rome to meet Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Arinze and Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led to Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput’s apostolic visitation in April 2007. This visit included an interview with Bishop Morris.

A memorandum dated June 28, 2007, from the Congregation for Bishops requested Bishop Morris’s resignation. He received the unsigned memorandum in September and replied September 17, saying he would “reflect” on the request and reply after his October holidays.

An October 3, 2007, letter from the Congregation for Bishops informed Bishop Morris the request for his resignation was being made “in the name of the Holy Father”.

After more exchanged letters, Bishop Morris travelled to Rome and on January 19, 2008, met with Cardinal Re, Cardinal Levada and Cardinal Arinze. He was accompanied by Archbishop Philip Wilson, then president of the Australian bishops’ conference.

Bishop Morris told Cardinal Re in a letter dated January 24, 2008, that “he felt unable to resign”, which was followed by another letter from the cardinal again calling on him to resign.

More letters and documents were exchanged, and in October Cardinal Re again demanded Bishop Morris resign by the end of November 2008. The letter also stated that if the resignation was not forthcoming the bishop would be removed.

Bishop Morris replied in December 2008 saying that “in conscience he could not resign”. He then wrote to the Pope and met him on June 4, 2009, at which time the pontiff “reiterated the demands of the three cardinals”.

Cardinal Re again asked for Bishop Morris’s resignation in a July 9, 2009, letter, prompting him to write to the pope clarifying his position that “in conscience he could not resign from office”.

Pope Benedict replied on December 22, 2009, requesting that Bishop Morris resign from office, reminding him there is no appeal from papal decisions.

In their May letter, the Australian bishops said they appreciated that “Bishop Morris’s human qualities were never in question; nor is there any doubt about the contribution he has made to the life of the Church in Toowoomba and beyond. The Pope’s decision was not a denial of the personal and pastoral gifts that Bishop Morris has brought to the episcopal ministry. Rather, it was judged that there were problems of doctrine and discipline, and we regret that these could not be resolved.

“We are hopeful that Bishop Morris will continue to serve the Church in other ways in the years ahead,” they added.