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Catholic Media Watch

Winners and Losers

by Michael Mullins

For a while, Maitland-Newcastle has distinguished itself as one of Australia's more media-savvy dioceses. This was further demonstrated in the past week with Bishop Michael Malone going public on Saturday with his version of the facts on the case of Fr Guy Hartcher, whom he was suspending from parish ministry.

Some years ago, Fr Hartcher had been tried and acquitted on charges of sex abuse. Now another member of the public had come forward and made a further complaint to police about Fr Hartcher.

The subtext of Bishop Malone's media release was that there appears to be little substance to the complaint, but the Diocese is nevertheless following the Protocol to the letter.

It was all about this person scanning the Internet and finding past reference to Fr Hartcher that leads them to the conclusion that Fr Hartcher is "unfit for ministry with children". It's probably just another false alarm. But the bishop stresses that he is "committed to ensuring a safe environment for all children". He sets up a hotline, and promises to visit the parish to address concerns.

Bishop Malone manages to turn bad news into good news, with a combination of fearless proactive action, good timing, and judicious presentation of the facts. No wonder the media didn't bother about the story. The result is that he's rewarded for his savvy. He gets the benefit of the doubt, and there's not much media sensation in that.

On the other hand, a silent or hesitant bishop would have prompted some journalist to do a little digging and come up with a set of facts that would make Fr Hartcher look guilty and the complainant credible. The bishop would be forced to choose between damage control and indignant silence. Righteousness does not play well in the media, and such an approach would make the priest look guilty, and the bishop his protector.

Moving to the Victorian Diocese of Sale, Bishop Jeremiah Coffey is so far taking the silent option in his battle with a suspended priest's upheld protest to the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy. (The reason for his silence is that the decision is subject to appeal, but he has nevertheless remained silent, and must suffer the consequences).

In this case, the issue is not sex abuse, but the pastoral "bullying" of a Catholic school community in Morwell by former parish priest Fr John Speekman. Fr Speekman's supporters are past masters in the art of playing the media, and the silently brooding Bishop Coffey looks a loser.

A more proactive media stance on the bishop's part could see him make a laughing stock of both the Congregation for the Clergy and the "bully" priest. There is a certain amount of bluff in the well-written decree of the Congregation. In reality, the Congregation is a paper tiger, with the decree not binding in canon law. Its action appears to be an unfortunate example of the increasingly common phenomenon of Vatican intimidation of a local diocese. It would in fact take a personal intervention from the Pope himself to force Bishop Coffey to reinstate Fr Speekman.

As it stands, Bishop Coffey now has an excellent opportunity to strike a blow for the authority and dignity of the local Church. He can simply ignore the Congregation and ensure that he gets appropriate media coverage.

The main point of contention is Speekman's refusal to perform the required religious duties in the school because the majority of the students do not attend Mass in the parish on Sunday. It would appear that Speekman is out of step with a significant number of the Australian bishops, and Bishop Coffey could therefore presume the support of his brother bishops in Australia. Many of them have nominated evangelisation of the unchurched as their highest priority, and the Church's huge investment in the schools a major means of going about it.

It was reported last month that Bishop Coffey is "considering his options". Let's hope that he opts for a strong, proactive media stance like Maitland-Newcastle's Bishop Malone. That would give him a fighting chance of turning his loss into a victory.

Read more from Mike Mullins:

  • Issue 2: Steady as She Goes
  • Issue 4: Too much from Rome
  • Issue 6: Logic of being media friendly
  • Issue 8: Christian Bros: bad news sells
  • Issue 10: No positive spin from Pell
  • Issue 12: Close your eyes
  • Issue 14: Deal Hudson and the game of shame shifting

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