Vatican’s reach helped by ‘temple police’ secret spies

“Say you look over your back fence, and you see the man next door who’s killed his wife, and he’s chopped her up and he’s eating her, would you go to the police? I think you would. That’s what I’ve done.” That is Richard Stokes, a man who’s accused of being part of a secret fundamentalist Catholic group, dubbed the ‘temple police’, who travel between parishes in Queensland to spy on priests and Bbshops who are straying from the liturgy. When a clergyman is disobedient or defiant of what’s laid down by the Vatican, a letter is shot off to the state’s Archbishop or Pope Benedict XVI. Such letters this week helped end the career of the Bishop of Toowoomba William Morris, a popular leader who presided over 35 parishes in south-west Queensland for 18 years. It’s the second clergyman’s scalp since 2009, after Brisbane’s rebel Catholic priest Peter Kennedy was outed by parishioners and sacked for unorthodox practices such as allowing women to preach the homily and blessing same-sex relationships. Bishop Morris, 67, says there is currently a conservative shift in the Vatican that is seeing the church become more Rome-centric and authoritarian. It is also seeing bishops and voices outside the Vatican having less input into reforms, particularly into the new translation of the liturgy that will be used in churches throughout the world by the end of the year. His sacking has renewed debate on the direction and the rule of the Catholic Church and the Vatican’s relationship with parishes in Australia. Bishop Morris said during his time as leader, he had put a number of people offside who didn’t agree with his stance on social justice issues such as reconciliation, refugees and coal seam gas mining. They were also upset that he respected and honoured different faiths and traditions, supported communal reconciliation and pushed for lay people to become leaders within the parish. He said a group of “disaffected” priests and parishioners then “deliberately misinterpreted” a letter he wrote to the diocese in 2006 and made a complaint to the Vatican. The letter invited discussion on options to address the shortage of priests in rural and regional areas and pointed to national and international debate on whether women and ministers from other churches should be ordained, topics closed by the Vatican. Bishop Morris said he wasn’t advocating change but just opening discussion. After a five-year investigation, he said 14 months ago he began to be pressured by the Pope to retire. He finally accepted the early retirement. Bishop Morris said he was never privy to the final report of the investigation and there was no detail provided when the retirement was announced by the Church of Australia on May 2. “It’s been my experience that Rome in some ways controls bishops by fear and if you ask questions or speak out openly on subjects Rome declares closed, you are censored very quickly, told your leadership is defective, that you’re being unfaithful, that you have broken communion, and are threatened with dismissal,” he said. “If you ask questions and push and push and push in areas, whether it be reconciliation or so on, in those areas where people don’t want you to ask questions, you can be a bit of nuisance and the easiest way is to move you aside.” The complainants to the Vatican against Bishop Morris have not come forward to the media. Mr Stokes, a teacher and avid church-goer, lives in Morayfield, north of Brisbane, but owns a second home in Stanthorpe within the Toowoomba Diocese. He said it wasn’t him who pushed the complaints but he “certainly knew” people who were upset. “People seem to associate me with Bishop Morris’ retirement, guilty by association,” he said. “There are a lot more people out there who are dissatisfied, but we don’t make a big noise or squeal about it, we avoid the media.” He denied there is a secret group, dubbed as the ‘temple police’, but said if there was one he’d want to join it. “I’m thinking of getting T-shirts printed with ‘temple police’ on them and selling them, I’d make a killing.” He said rather than an organised group that is against unorthodox practices, it’s simply individuals making complaints over “disobedience, defiance on what’s laid down by the Vatican”. “If they’re like me, they like to just sit quietly and let Rome take care of it,” he said. “If you see something being done and it’s serious, you want to go to the police and the police in my case was the Archbishop and secondly the Vatican - that’s what I’ve done.” Mr Stokes played an instrumental role in having South Brisbane St Mary’s priest Fr Kennedy sacked in 2009, the first of its kind in Australia. Fr Kennedy was found to be out of step with the church for allowing women to preach the homily, using unorthodox prayers, having a Buddhist statue in his church and blessing same-sex relationships. Mr Stokes said he used his mobile phone to film “invalid” baptisms and also compiled photographic and other evidence on to a CD-rom and sent copies to Rome. Brisbane Archbishop John Bathersby said he has heard of people who are travelling to different churches to police strayings from the liturgy. “And I’m not happy at all about that,” he said. “I don’t know how they can go there and pretend to worship and instead pick here and there. “I don’t think that that is helpful and I don’t think that that is what God would want.” Although the Vatican is strict on priests following the rule during ceremonies and the liturgy, it is unclear how open the church is to allowing priests to discuss contentious issues such as homosexuality, divorce or the ordination of women. The Archbishop was asked repeatedly if bishops and priests can debate issues without a fear of a crackdown. “There is room for freedom and discussion but there are areas where the church won’t move away from because it believes it has got the truth in a particular situation, so that is where the difficulty lies,” he said. “The church has rules and regulations and expects people to live within those, but that’s the same everywhere, you’re not trembling and that, but nevertheless, there is a possibility that one day someone will say move on.” Bishop Morris said the church should not walk away from any problem the community faces. “Sometimes it pulls the blind down, and sometimes it ignores it, sometimes it’s frightened, and sometimes it wants the thing to go away,” he said. Bishop Morris said there is currently a period of conservative change in the Catholic church, where there is a growing authoritarianism and centralisation to Rome. He said it’s in reaction to radical change that occurred following the ‘Second Vatican Council’ between 1963 - 65. During the liberal upheaval, masses were delivered in the language of the country for the first time instead of Latin, priests faced the parishioners instead of having their back turned and lay people were able to give communion, lead prayers and singing became more prominent. Bishop Morris said over the last 10 to 20 years the Vatican has been trying to draw back some of those reforms. For example, a new translation of the liturgy - the books used for religious services - will be introduced internationally by the end of the year. The last time it was translated was in the early 70s. Bishop Morris said that unlike the period of change half a century ago, this time around people outside the Vatican were not allowed to give as much input. “There is a feeling that the voice of individual churches and the national church aren’t being heard as clear today as they would like to be heard, especially in enculturation of the liturgy within the context of the country,” he said. There has been vocal support of Bishop Morris, or Bishop Bill as he’s affectionately known, since his sacking. Eight priests, who are consultors in the diocese, criticised the move as unfair and disheartening, adding that it trivialised his good work in the community.