Can the Irish Church learn from Australia – Zoom Meeting

You are invited by the Association of Catholic Priests to take part in a Zoom meeting on Thursday 30 July at 12 noon with church commentator Paul Collins from Australia.

Meeting ID: 873 7993 1091

Passcode: 9DmiLz


















Population and Catholicism in Australia

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics “The religious makeup of Australia has changed gradually over the past 50 years. In 1966, Christianity (88%) was the main religion. By 1991, this figure had fallen to 74%, and further to the 2016 Census figure of 52%. Catholicism is the largest Christian grouping in Australia, accounting for almost a quarter (22.6%) of the Australian population.”
In numerical terms that is 5,263,680 Catholics in 2020 out of a total population of 25,507,000.

“Australia is increasingly a story of religious diversity, with Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, and Buddhism all increasingly common religious beliefs…The growing percentage of Australia’s population reporting no religion has been a trend for decades, and is accelerating. Those reporting no religion increased noticeably from 19% in 2006 to 30% in the 2016 Census. The largest change was between 2011 (22%) and 2016, when an additional 2.2 million people reported having no religion.

“How likely a person was to identify as religious in 2016 had a lot to do with their age. Young adults aged 18-34 were more likely to be affiliated with religions other than Christianity (12%) and to report not having a religion (39%) than other adult age groups. Older age groups, particularly those aged 65 years and over, were more likely to report Christianity” (Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Media Release, 27 June 2017).

Catholic participation rates (i.e. the number of Catholics attending Mass weekly or a couple of times a month) have also been dropping since the late-1960s. In the 1950s participation in the life of the church was extraordinarily (and artificially) high; about 75% of self-identifying Catholics attended Mass on a weekly basis. Prior to the 1950s, the average weekly Mass attendance in Australia had been between 20% and 30% of Catholics.

From about the mid-1960s practice rates started to plummet. By 2020, Mass attendances were 8% to 10% of self-identifying Catholics, with overseas-born Catholics, mainly from South Asia, saving Mass attendance figures from catastrophic collapse. A breakdown of the figures shows that 43% of attendees were born overseas, 62% were women, 36% had university degrees, and 34% were aged over seventy.

National Church Structures

*Latin Rite dioceses: There are five provinces (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth) seven archdioceses (the previous five plus Canberra and Hobart) and 21 dioceses, a total of 28. Many rural dioceses are enormous in size e.g. the diocese of Geraldton in Western Australia is 1,318,000 sq. km., an area which is 2½ times the size of France, or Toowoomba in Queensland which is 488,000 sq. km, i.e. 1½ times the size of Germany. The largest diocese in population terms is Melbourne with just over 1.67 million Catholics.

*Eastern Catholic dioceses: five (Ukrainian, Maronite, Melkite, Chaldean, Syro-Malabar).

*Plus…a Military Vicariate, Personal Ordinariate (Anglican rite), Personal Prelature (Opus Dei).

*Latin Rite bishops: 33 bishops – 7 archbishops; 20 diocesan bishops and 1 stood aside; 5 auxiliary bishops.

*Number of parishes = 1380

*Number of diocesan priests = 1831

*Number of Religious priests = 997

*Number of permanent deacons = 179

*Number of Religious Sisters = 4161

*Number of Religious Brothers = 679

The average age of native-born diocesan and religious priests is very high: my own estimate is between 69 and 73. So the numbers of priests above is misleading, for quite a few of these are retired. Priests are not being replaced because there have been so few candidates for priesthood in last forty years. Retired priest, Eric Hodgens, who has crunched the Melbourne archdiocesan numbers, says that the archdiocese “ordained fifteen [priests] a year from the 1950s to the 1970s. It needs to be ordaining nine or ten a year to provide anything like adequate priestly ministry today. But for thirty-five years the number has been more like two or three” (Hodgens, ABC Religion and Ethics Website, 1/12/11). The few Australian-born men being ordained are often very clerical in attitude, ideologically closed to contemporary culture and aligned to the John Paul and Benedict papacies.

For twenty years, the bishops have been importing overseas-born priests to fill the shortfall. In dioceses such as Perth, Bunbury, Darwin, and Broken Bay, they comprise more than 50% of all priests. Just this year (2020) more than half the priests ministering in Australian parishes are foreign-born. Almost two-thirds of them are from India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Africa (especially Nigeria).

While many of these priests have adapted to Australian social conditions, there are still serious cultural problems surrounding this priestly influx. Most are on temporary visas and because many come from patriarchal and tribal societies and are hierarchically clerical in their seminary training, there are often tensions regarding their attitude to parishioners, especially women, linked to a failure to recognise gender equality. There are also problems with their facility in English and there have been some serious failures with financial accountability.

The Ministries of the Church

Despite the decreasing number of active Catholics, the church maintains a vast ministerial structure across Australia. Almost uniquely in the world, Australian governments, federal and state, fund around 70% of the church’s work, its ‘ministry’ or ‘mission’ in theological jargon. Only dioceses and parishes are self-funded. In fact, the Catholic church is Australia’s largest non-government employer, with around 230,000 people working for the church. This figure excludes voluntary organisations such as the St Vincent de Paul Society with 20,736 members and 41,152 volunteers. Major Catholic ministries:

(i) Catholic education: the church educates 402,852 primary school children + 361,665 secondary school students. Totalling 764,517 students, Catholic schools educate 22.2% of all school enrolments in Australia. The church runs 1758 schools. These are 99% staffed by lay people. Federal and state government funding averages about 70% of recurrent costs, with the rest coming from fees paid by parents. The fee structure, unfortunately, does make Catholic schools rather middle-class, excluding poor Catholics who can’t afford fees. Capital costs are largely funded by government.

The church also has an increasingly active tertiary education system with two universities: Australian Catholic University and University of Notre Dame Australia, both publicly funded.

(ii) Health and aged care: the Catholic church runs 75 public and private hospitals + 550 residential and community aged care services or about 10% of all healthcare and aged care services in Australia.

(iii) Welfare services: the church maintains fifty-two welfare organisations across a range of services: homelessness, refugees, marriage counselling, drug, alcohol, gambling, family violence, foster care, disability, overseas aid, and employment services. Many are diocesan-based (Catholic Care); others are outgrowths of the work of religious orders or parishes. The St Vincent de Paul Society (‘Vinnies’) is also a major player in Catholic social services and is the largest voluntary charity in Australia.


The Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

The Royal Commission was established by the Julia Gillard Labor Federal Government in January 2013 and it delivered its final report in December 2017. While it was much broader in scope than just the Catholic church, Catholicism often featured in its deliberations. Part of the reason is that the church provided many services which involved children and young people. This included, as it did in Ireland, not only schools, but also orphanages, institutions for troubled youth and ministry to young people more generally. But the reality is that Catholic abuse numbers are disproportionally high.

In the sixty-year period 1950 to 2010, 4,444 alleged cases of abuse were recorded. Ninety per cent of the victims were boys, with their average age at time of abuse being 11½ years old. Girls were 10½ years old on average when they were abused. Seven per cent of priests ministering in the 60-year period have been accused of child sex offences. This is a higher figure than in the US where from 1950 through to June 2015, 5.6 per cent of the 116,153 priests who worked in that period have been accused of child sexual abuse.

In Australia a total of 1,880 alleged perpetrators (diocesan and religious priests, religious brothers, religious sisters, lay employees or volunteers) were identified in claims of child sexual abuse. Of these:

*693 were non‐ordained religious (37% of all known alleged perpetrators), being 597 religious brothers (32% of all known alleged perpetrators) and 96 were religious sisters (5% of all known alleged perpetrators).

*572 were priests (30% of all known alleged perpetrators), being 384 diocesan and 188 religious priests.

*543 were lay people (29% of all known alleged perpetrators).

*For 72 known alleged perpetrators (4%) the religious status was not known.

The Royal Commission conducted a survey of 10 Catholic religious institutes in Australia with non‐ordained religious members; and 75 Catholic archdioceses/dioceses and religious institutes in Australia with priest members. The survey sought information about the number of their members who ministered in Australia in the period from 1 January 1950 to 31 December 2010. This information, when analysed in conjunction with the claims data, enabled calculation of what proportion of the total number of priest and non‐ordained religious members of these Catholic Church authorities who ministered in the period 1950 to 2010 were alleged perpetrators.

Table 1: Overall proportion of non‐ordained religious who were alleged perpetrators

Religious institute – weighted average percent (I’m suspicious of weighted averages)

Christian Brothers 22.0%; De La Salle Brothers 13.8%; Marist Brothers 20.4%; Missionaries of the Sacred Heart 3.3%; Patrician Brothers 12.4%; Salesians of Don Bosco 21.9%; Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart 0.6%; Sisters of Mercy (Brisbane) 0.3%; Society of Jesus 4.8%; St John of God Brothers 40.4%


Table 2: Overall proportion of priests who were alleged perpetrators

Priests overall – weighted average percent: All Catholic Church authorities with priest members 7.0%, Diocesan Catholic Church authorities 7.9%, Religious Institutes with priest members 5.7%.

Just in conclusion, the financial situation of both dioceses and religious orders is increasingly difficult with three dioceses already essentially bankrupt and religious orders running out of money to pay both criminal and civil claims which are increasing. There is a feeling of deep concern among church administrators as to the cost of sexual abuse with real consequences for the church’s ministerial services.

Note on Royal Commission and Cardinal George Pell:

Part of the Commission’s report on Cardinal George Pell’s evidence was redacted until after his trial for the sexual abuse of two choir boys in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral sacristy concluded with a final appeal to the High Court of Australia. This was to avoid any prejudicing of his trial. However, in May 2020 federal parliament cleared release of the redacted portions. Here is the Brisbane Catholic Leader (May 7 2020) report on the newly-released redacted portions: Cardinal George Pell was aware of Catholic Church child abuse as early as the 1970s – and “considered measures of avoiding situations that might provoke gossip” – according to the child abuse royal commission. About 100 pages of previously redacted findings from the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, dealing with Cardinal Pell’s handling of child sexual abuse claims were released in the Federal Parliament today. Cardinal Pell, a former archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne and the Vatican treasurer, gave evidence to the Commission in Sydney in 2014, and again in Rome in 2016.

The unredacted report reveals that child sexual abuse by priests was on Cardinal Pell’s “radar” in 1973 and that it “ought to have been obvious” to him during the late 1980s that abuse was being carried out. In the 1970s Cardinal Pell, then a junior priest in the Diocese of Ballarat, was aware of children being sexually abused within that diocese, and it was “implausible” that other senior church figures did not tell the then Fr Pell abuse was occurring. The report shows the commission rejected Cardinal Pell’s evidence that he had been deceived and lied to by Church officials about Gerald Ridsdale – considered to be one of the country’s worst offending paedophile priests – and Melbourne parish priest Peter Searson.

“We are satisfied that in 1973, Father Pell turned his mind to the prudence of Ridsdale taking boys on overnight camps,” the report said. “The most likely reason for this, as Cardinal Pell acknowledged, was the possibility that if priests were one-on-one with a child, then they could sexually abuse a child, or at least provoke gossip about such a prospect.” Ridsdale was convicted of abusing more than 60 boys over decades. The report said the royal commission was satisfied that Cardinal Pell, as an adviser to then Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns, knew of Ridsdale’s abuse, and that was why Ridsdale was moved from the Victorian town of Mortlake, in the 1980s. “We are satisfied Bishop Mulkearns gave reasons for it being necessary to move Ridsdale. We are satisfied that he referred to homosexuality at the meeting, in the context of giving reasons for Ridsdale’s move,” it said. “However, we are not satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns left the explanation there, as Cardinal Pell said there would have been a discussion. “Cardinal Pell gave evidence that the bishop did not give the true reason for moving Ridsdale – namely his sexual activity with children – and that the bishop lied in not giving the true reason to the consulters. We do not accept that Bishop Mulkearns lied to his consultors.”

In the unredacted report, the royal commission found that later, in the 1980s when Cardinal Pell was an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne, he should have advocated for Fr Searson to be removed. Fr Searson died in 2009 without facing charges, but the commission heard he abused children in parishes and schools across three districts over more than a decade. A portion of the unredacted report reads: “Then-Bishop Pell ought to have removed or suspended Peter Searson after complaints were made about sexual misconduct with children.” The complaints came from a delegate of teachers who met with Bishop Pell in 1989 and told him about the allegations raised against Fr Searson.

“We found that these matters in combination with the prior allegation of sexual misconduct ought to have indicated to Bishop Pell that Fr Searson needed to be stood down,” the report said. “It was incumbent upon Bishop Pell as an auxiliary bishop with the responsibility for the welfare of the children in the Catholic community of this region to take such action as he could to advocate that Fr Searson be removed or suspended or at least a thorough investigation be undertaken of the allegations…It was the same responsibility attached to other auxiliary bishops and the vicar general when they received complaints…On the basis of what was known to Bishop Pell in 1989 we found that he ought to have been obvious to him at the time…We found that he should have advised the Archbishop to remove Fr Searson and he did not do so.”

The findings made by the Royal in December 2017 were redacted in order to avoid prejudicing the trial of Cardinal Pell, who was then charged with child sexual abuse. Cardinal Pell was convicted in February 2019 and then acquitted last month (April 2020). This allowed the release of the redacted sections of the royal commission’s reports. In response Cardinal George Pell says he is “surprised” by critical findings of the child abuse royal commission, claiming they are “not supported by evidence”.



B.Theol., Th.M. (Harvard University), Ph.D. (ANU), F.T.C.L. (Trinity College, London)

Web page:


Born in Melbourne in August 1940 and educated in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and the United States, Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. For many years he worked in varying capacities in TV and radio with the ABC. He has also acted as a commentator on SBS television and radio, the BBC, National Public Radio in the US, RTE, New Zealand TV, Sky TV News, as well as many commercial TV and radio stations across Australia. He has written for most of Australia’s leading newspapers and magazines, as well as for the London Tablet, the National Catholic Reporter in the US and for several magazines in Germany, Austria and Italy.

He has taught church history and theology in Australia, the US and Pacific countries and worked as a parish priest in Sydney, Canberra, Launceston and Hobart. He has wide experience in tertiary and adult education and lectured in Australian history at the University of Papua New Guinea.

In March, 2001 he resigned from the active priestly ministry of the Catholic Church after 33 years service due to a doctrinal dispute with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over his book Papal Power (1997). From January 1986 to January 1996 he was a producer-presenter in the ABC in radio and TV, and for three years he was Specialist Editor-Religion for the ABC. He also acted as co-ordinator of Radio National in Melbourne. He also presented the program Insights for five years on Radio National. Between 2004 and 2006 Collins worked on a contract basis for the ABC presenting Sunday Spectrum on Sunday mornings on ABC TV. Some 150 episodes of this half-hour in-studio interview program were produced covering ethical, religious, faith and spirituality issues.

Over the last 24 years Collins has published fifteen non-fiction books. Three of them focus on the relationship of Australian Catholicism to social and national affairs, five concentrate on the broader world church and the history of the papacy and Vatican, and two focus on the relationship between theology and ecology. He has also written on Australian history looking at Tasmanian convict history and the environment in Hell’s Gates (2002), and his history of bushfire in Australia since European settlement Burn (2006) is the first accessible, general book on the social, historical and ecological issues surrounding bushfires in Australia.

This output has made him one of the country’s best-known independent commentators on Catholic and religious affairs especially in relationship to public life. He has also established a reputation in the area of ethics, environmentalism and nature, with his books God’s Earth (1995) and Judgment Day. The Struggle for life on Earth (2010). The ABC subsequently made a major TV documentary based on God’s Earth.

He visits Rome regularly and was there in April 2005 to cover the election of Benedict XVI and in March 2013 to cover the election of Pope Francis for the ABC, SBS and the Seven Network. His most recent book Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world was published by Public Affairs in New York in 2017.

His published books are:

Mixed Blessings. John Paul II and the Church of the Eighties [Penguin, 1986].

* No Set Agenda. Australia’s Catholic Church Faces an Uncertain Future [David Lovell, 1991].

* God’s Earth. Religion as if matter really mattered [Harper Collins, Melbourne and Macmillan, Dublin, 1995].

* Papal Power [Harper Collins, Melbourne and London, 1997].

* Upon This Rock. The development of the papal office from Saint Peter to John Paul II [Melbourne Univ Press, 2000 & Crossroad, NY, 2002]

* From Inquisition to Freedom [Simon and Schuster, Sydney and Continuum, London, 2001]; published in the US as The Modern Inquisition [Overlook Press, New York, 2002].

Hell’s Gates. The Terrible Journey of Alexander Pearce, Van Dieman’s Land Cannibal [HardieGrant, 2002. New ed 2014].

* Between the Rock and a Hard Place. Being Catholic Today [ABC Books, 2004].

God’s New Man. The Election of Benedict XVI and the Legacy of John Paul II [Melbourne Univ Press & Continuum, London & NY].

Burn. The Epic Story of Bushfires in Australia [Allen& Unwin, 2006. New edition Scribe 2009].

* Believers. Does the Catholic Church in Australia have a Future? [UNSW Press, 2008].

Judgment Day. The Struggle for Life on Earth [UNSW Press, 2010; Orbis Books, New York, 2011].

The Birth of the West. Rome, Germany, France and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century [New York: Public Affairs, 2013].

A Very Contrary Irishman. The Life and Journeys of Jeremiah O’Flynn [Morning Star Publishing, Melbourne, 2014].

*Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world [New York: Public Affairs, 2017].




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  1. Phil Greene says:

    “The few Australian-born men being ordained are often very clerical in attitude, ideologically closed to contemporary culture and aligned to the John Paul and Benedict papacies…For twenty years, the bishops have been importing overseas-born priests to fill the shortfall.
    While many of these priests have adapted to Australian social conditions, there are still serious cultural problems surrounding this priestly influx. Most are on temporary visas and because many come from patriarchal and tribal societies and are hierarchically clerical in their seminary training, there are often tensions regarding their attitude to parishioners, especially women, linked to a failure to recognise gender equality. There are also problems with their facility in English and there have been some serious failures with financial accountability.”
    What a mess …As the institution is in “repeat” mode then we must brace ourselves for all the other crimes associated with clericalism to be listed here in another few years..
    In today’s sermon notes on this website …
    “The parable of the weeds is starkly simple and yet widely ignored. To the question “Do you want us to go and weed it out?” the answer of Jesus is a categorical “No.””
    I must disagree, the management of the CC are incompetent fools with high IQs .. this whole field needs to be ploughed and replanted. Lay people cannot always be fed these weeds.

  2. patrick Rogers says:

    Phil Green seems to advocate a slash and burn policy to rebuild the church from foundations upward… but the Farmer in the parable will allow weeds and wheat to grow together for the good of the wheat. Radical Revolution and wholesales slash and burn will not bring about the kingdom of God. Perhaps we need time to reflect upon just how wrong our enemies are and how certain are we have our own positions before we decide to rid the world of this this rubbish// the weeds.
    I would agree however that patience and a certain respect for the views of others are very much required today if we are to continue sharing this planet of ours.

  3. Colm Holmes says:

    Many thanks to the ACP for organising the very interesting ZOOM event today with Australia’s Paul Collins! He highlighted a number of similarities between Australia and Ireland:

    (1) Church is in retreat
    (2) The abuse cover up scandals have undermined credibility
    (3) Bishops are not leading the reforms.
    (4) Renewal & reform will come from the grassroots

    What I found most interesting is that in Australia the 18 Renewal groups are working together.

    Food for thought and action.

  4. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    In relation to the remarks on Cardinal Pell, there is a useful reminder of how important it is to avoid the trap of judging the past by the knowledge and understanding of today in the Ryan Child Abuse Commission Report of 2009.
    The Report includes a section on Residential Child Care in England, 1948 – 1975: A History And Report, requested by the Commission from Richard Rollinson. This 52-page section can be found at

  5. Phil Greene says:

    @ Patrick Rodgers – Firstly, I am delighted that you are on the mend,great news!
    Radical change as we all know is badly needed. The Church does change we are told, albeit slowly (gently even) and we must be patient.
    But change is too slow, if at all – do you see the pattern in the post above – the Church is willing to ordain thieves and misogynists rather than honest women and honest married men. The only change is that they are being found out earlier because lay people no longer accept and tolerate this behaviour, but the Church itself had continued to proceed as it has done in the past, and yet we lay people are expected to be patient – at what cost? and to whom? Who does the Church see as its enemies?
    You talk about respecting each other. I totally agree with you.
    Please respect that I am angry with the Church disrespecting me as a woman in so many ways (some see our plight as no more than a passive “interesting” observation). Whilst some of the laws of the Church are no longer fit for purpose and should be confined to the history books, it is so frustrating that they remain in law to maintain autocratic control by the clergy. Why is the Church allowed to maintain its own “certain position” on laws that cause so much offense and unnecessary pain on so many levels?
    But mostly I ask you to reflect upon the disappointment and hurt within our Church -how it is being allowed by selfish men with too much power to stagnate before our eyes; how it is seen by many as a dishonest organisation supported by mindless (lay) idiots. How future generations cannot see any reason for religion to be part of their lives and cannot understand why their parents would want to be part of this Church that judges them and finds fault so readily in a generalised way. (nicely of course).
    In our world we know that the weeds will grow with the wheat, it’s inevitable. But we all need to work together to keep the weeds at bay. It is when the weeds are allowed to ruin the crop we must ask if it is worthwhile to employ labourers to harvest mainly weeds, or leave them to rot, or indeed burn them.
    And so perhaps I should have asked initially the real questions –
    what will the farmer do the following year to ensure a better crop? Will he take advice from others?– and have a crop worthy of harvesting for all to be fed and nourished.

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    Pat, good to see you back from your ordeal and sharing your biblical wisdom with us. I find the Psalms are a wonderful outlet for all the feelings we have about “enemies” or bad trends in society, and they are a school of patience. It’s a pity that their role in the liturgy makes people feel they are just snippety ornaments.

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