Monday, March 29, 2010

Outback priests fight for Wilcannia-Forbes diocese

A dispute between rural priests and the Catholic Church hierarchy has emerged over the diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes, which covers central and western NSW.

A proposal from NSW bishops that Wilcannia-Forbes be dissolved is understood to have been rejected overwhelmingly by local priests.

Moves to reconfigure Wilcannia-Forbes have been considered for more than three decades, as the diocese faces the challenges of declining church attendance and changing rural demographics.

Wilcannia-Forbes encompasses more than 414,398 square kilometres -- an area bigger than France -- and most of NSW.

It is home to 20 parishes and 20 priests. Of late, the diocese has needed to recruit priests from India, The Philippines and Vietnam.

The last bishop, Chris Toohey, left his position in mysterious circumstances last year, citing personal health reasons.

Bishop Terence Brady has been appointed in a caretaker role as apostolic administrator. He says the diminishing size of outback populations has placed greater demands on the diocese's ageing clergy, who have to provide services for scattered parishioners.

"The decline has been most in the far west, near the old boom towns like Broken Hill," Bishop Brady says. "The big grazing families with a dozen people just aren't there anymore."

At a meeting earlier this month of the Sydney Bishops Conference, attended by all bishops from NSW, a consensus was reached to propose the suppression -- or dissolution -- of Wilcannia-Forbes.

Subsequently, Cardinal George Pell, accompanied by an Apostolic Nuncio (a diplomatic representative from the Holy See), convened a meeting with the diocese's priests and put the bishops' proposal to them.

At a secret ballot the following day, the priests rejected the plan. They also requested that a permanent bishop be appointed.

While it had been previously presumed that Wilcannia-Forbes would be absorbed within NSW, Bishop Brady suggested that discussions will be held with abutting dioceses in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.

If the bishops concerned reach agreement, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is likely to recommend that Wilcannia-Forbes be reconstituted.

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