Fired Australian bishop calls church authoritarian

An Australian bishop who was fired by Pope Benedict XVI after suggesting the church consider ordaining women and married men defended his actions on Tuesday and accused the Vatican of becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Community members rallied around Bishop William Morris of the Toowoomba diocese, west of Brisbane, and eight priests signed a letter of support for the popular parish leader, calling his removal disrespectful.

The Vatican confirmed in a statement Monday that Morris had been "removed from pastoral care," an unusually strong move by Vatican standards. Generally, church leaders who are being ousted are asked to resign, with the Vatican later announcing the pope has accepted their resignations.

Morris said he was removed because of a letter he wrote to his parish in 2006 in which he suggested that the church could help solve the problem of priest shortages by considering ordaining women and married men.

Benedict, as did his just-beatified predecessor, John Paul II, has staunchly upheld Vatican teaching that only celibate men can be ordained in the Roman Catholic church, although married men in the Latin rite church loyal to the pontiff can become priests.

On Tuesday, Morris said he hadn't meant to advocate the idea that women and married men should be priests, but simply wanted the church to keep an open mind on the matter. In an open letter to his parish this weekend, Morris said a handful of people unhappy with his leadership used his 2006 comments as a basis for complaint to the Vatican, which then launched an investigation.

Although not angry over his removal, Morris said he was "sad" the Vatican had not given him or his parishioners a voice in the matter.

"There's a creeping centralism in the church at the moment that everything is going to centralization and there's a creeping authoritarianism," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "I think in many ways local bishops have been sidelined."

Eight priests from the Toowoomba diocese issued a statement of support for Morris, calling his leadership "constructive, informed and life-giving." Catholics in the Toowoomba area planned to hold a candelight vigil in his honor later Tuesday.

"In our view, Bishop Morris has not been treated fairly or respectfully," the priests' statement said. "We find his removal profoundly disheartening."

The auxiliary bishop of Brisbane, Brian Finnigan, was asked to oversee the Toowoomba diocese while a permanent replacement is found for Morris, who had been Toowoomba's bishop since 1993.

Finnigan also issued a statement praising Morris' service, particularly his handling of a sexual abuse case in which students at a Toowoomba Catholic school were assaulted by a teacher. Morris quickly accepted legal liability for the abuse, sparing the victims a court trial.

"The good work that Bishop Morris has done to address the needs of the victims will continue into the future," Finnigan said.