Vatican orders reinstatement of wrongly removed Sale Diocese parish priest

Vatican orders reinstatement of wrongly removed Sale Diocese parish priest

Michael Gilchrist

The Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, in a Decree dated 20 November 2006, has for a second time upheld the appeal by Fr John Speekman, parish priest of Morwell in the Sale Diocese, against his removal by Bishop Jeremiah Coffey in 2003. The Vatican upheld Fr Speekman's earlier appeal in July 2004.

The present Decree calls on Bishop Coffey to reinstate Fr Speekman "without further delay" and to notify the Congregation "in a prompt manner" when this is done. However, at the time of writing, after almost two months, the Bishop is yet to comply with the Vatican directive.

News of the Decree appeared in the Morwell parish bulletin just two days after Fr Speekman - working for the time being in a Sydney parish while awaiting his return to Morwell - received a faxed copy of the decree. The parish administrator, Fr Thomas Cleary, commented in the bulletin:

"A few days ago the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome reaffirmed its decision in favour of Father John Speekman in his dispute with Bishop Coffey. This verdict brings us up to where we thought we were in July 2004.

"The next move must now be made by Bishop Coffey. He may decide to reinstate Father Speekman as his Pastoral Collaborator here in Morwell or he may appeal to the Signatura - a higher court in Rome - which he is legally entitled to do.

"The likely scenario is that Bishop Coffey will launch an appeal next year [2007] and this process will take us up to his retirement as Bishop of Sale on or before January 2008. After that a new Bishop will be appointed who may have other ideas on how this unhappy saga can be drawn to a close".

It is not clear if this is Fr Cleary's personal interpretation or if it represents Bishop Coffey's official stance, as there has been no communication from the Bishop.

Contract broken

The crisis was originally sparked by the Morwell parish school Principal with the support of members of the Sale Catholic Education Office. The Principal complained to the local CEO consultant about Fr Speekman's alleged "bullying" behaviour without first raising the matter with Fr Speekman, thereby breaking her contract with him. The consultant then passed on the complaint to the CEO Director, also without first notifying Fr Speekman.

At no stage was Fr Speekman approached about the allegations which were then presented to the Bishop and even brought to the attention of the teachers' union.

Those keen to be rid of a Catholic parish priest who dared to confront today's prevailing dumbed-down Catholicism pressured the Bishop into assuming Fr Speekman must be at fault. The Bishop was apparently made to worry over possible "union action" and legal costs.

Yet there was not a shred of evidence of any wrongdoing on Fr Speekman's part - as the Vatican has now concluded for a second time. It seems Fr Speekman's only crime was that he sought to ensure the school and parish were authentically Catholic. It is the CEO, the Principal and the Bishop who are the real wrongdoers.

In its July 2004 decree the Congregation for Clergy upheld Fr Speekman's appeal against his removal and called for his reinstatement, dismissing the allegations of incompetence as groundless.

The November 2006 decree points out that no further evidence of incompetence has been provided so the earlier Decree stands.

That Decree noted that Father Speekman, following his appointment as parish priest in Morwell in 2000, "encountered numerous irregularities in pastoral and sacramental practice".

Over the next three years, Father Speekman "gradually corrected these abuses, but not without resistance". This resistance was particularly evident from "members of the parish staff as well as teachers at the parochial school".

Things came to a head at a meeting of the parish Sacramental Team, when there was "a particularly vocal disagreement" between Father Speekman and the school Principal.

A formal complaint was subsequently filed against Father Speekman with the Bishop who set up an investigation at which some witnesses alleged Father Speekman's conduct had been "unprofessional" and "bullying". However, Father Speekman told the investigation, "At the risk of stating the obvious I will point out that it is my duty to teach the faith in its entirety, not just the bits and pieces the teachers or the parishioners find palatable".

Vatican conclusion

The Vatican agreed with Fr Speekman: "The 'verbal aggression' was really ideological differences - the confrontation that happens when an orthodox priest with clear directions and goals for the reform of the pastoral problem areas under his authority meets a primary school Principal firmly committed to the status quo and to having her agenda prevail ...

"A minority of the parishioners, with help from the teachers and employees of the Diocese, has convinced the Most Reverend Ordinary to remove Father Speekman because they disagree with his Catholic leadership."

The evidence indicated "simply a disagreement with a small minority of employees who disagree with Church teachings." Any "confusion or disturbance ... which the Most Reverend Ordinary has ascertained might well be attributed more to the actions of the Most Reverend Ordinary than to those of Father Speekman".

In short, there were no "valid causes or arguments" for Fr Speekman's removal.

As far as Rome is concerned, the position at the beginning of 2007 remains the same as it did in 2004. We therefore hope the ball is not simply left in Bishop Coffey's court again allowing him to ignore a clear Vatican directive for a second time.

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