Discussing the report in The Age of 6 July 2002 about Father James Whelan and Catholic laws regarding his suspension and retirement.


About John Lilburne



0940 K Sat 6 Jul 2002

Today The Age has a front page article about allegations of sexual abuse against a Catholic priest in Melbourne: Father James Barry Whelan.

I have linked to Martin Daly's articles in The Age. I see both as important reading for anyone interest in the Catholic Church in Melbourne and more generally the challenge of dealing with abuse by Catholic clergy.

I will focus on the issue of Canon law. The headline is "Rome backed sex-case priest". From the article:

Father James Barry Whelan, 67, was removed from his duties in about 1996 after allegations of his conduct were revealed. But it has now been disclosed that he successfully appealed to the Vatican under canon law and was reinstated to his parish in West St Kilda.

The Melbourne Vicar General, Monsignor Christopher Prowse is reported as making a statement yesterday:

"Having regard to these facts, I believe that archbishop Pell did all that could have been done at that time, within the jurisdiction of his office and the provisions of canon law," the statement said.

"During his suspension, Father Whelan appealed to the Vatican under canon law and his appeal succeeded." ...

So what does this mean? Monsignor Prowse believes Archbishop Pell did the right thing by suspending him, but a Vatican court did not. I don't know the facts. But either a case can be brought against him for dismissal from the clerical state or it cannot. Did Archbishop Pell try to bring such a case? I suspect he suspended him without bringing a case. I think this is what would concern the Vatican and me.

According to the Vicar General's statement:

"Father Whelan is now officially retired," ...

"Father Whelan does not have the faculties (rights and responsibilities) of the Melbourne archdiocese, and accordingly is no longer permitted to celebrate Mass publicly, to preach, to hear confessions or administer the sacraments."

The article reports Father Whelan as having resigned on 27 June 2002. I suppose that means he is no longer in the position of Assistant Priest at the parish of St Kilda West.

These are my questions and I think (if an answer were given) it would be "Yes" to each:

Does the Melbourne Archdiocese continue to pay Father Whelan as a retired priest?

Does it continue to provide him with accommodation?

Does he continue to have the right and duty to dress as a cleric?

What basis is there for saying that Father Whelan does not have the faculties to administer the sacraments? Faculties can be removed for confession, but even then, according to Canon 976:

Any priest, even though he lacks the faculty to hear confessions, can validly absolve any penitents who are in danger of death, from any censures and sins, even if an approved priest is present.

Monsignor Prowse said Father Whelan does not have the faculty to preach. Canon law seems to envisage that a bishop can remove this faculty. According to Canon 764:

Without prejudice to the provisions of Can. 765, priests and deacons, with the at least presumed consent of the rector of a church, have the faculty to preach everywhere, unless this faculty has been restricted or removed by the competent Ordinary, or unless particular law requires express permission.

Its a powerful provision. I am unsure how it would be done. It would seem enable bishops to go a long way towards suspending a priest without a Tribunal case, although he could still celebrate the sacraments. Perhaps this is what Father Whelan's case to the Vatican was about.

Given the allegations, I believe an appropriate response is a Tribunal case. Following a just process the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state could be given.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 6 July 2002.

Other sites:

Report by Martin Daly on the front page of The Age

Living Hell on Earth, by Martin Daly, The Age, Insight, page 5.