by Jeff Dillon
Despite a somewhat challenging year — which he could hardly have envisaged when he started — the leader of Dunedin diocese, Bishop Michael Dooley, still managed to joke and smile when looking back over his first 12 months in charge.
He recalled that he had a strong sense of foreboding when he was initially contacted by the Apostolic Nuncio, who wanted to see him. He had also sensed what the meeting might be about. Despite his initial concern at the prospect, he did feel there was a deeper call and decided to say “yes” to being the seventh Bishop of Dunedin.
Keeping that information to himself, until it was officially announced many days later, was difficult. But when it became public, it was a great relief and, with the number of calls and messages he received that day, it became a very uplifting and positive experience.
His 18 months as vicar-general prior to becoming bishop was a helpful introduction to understanding the administrative side of the diocese. He gained an insight into the diocesan finances and he managed to get his head around that. But there were a lot of other aspects that were completely new. He noted that the change in his relationships with people and priests took a bit of getting used to. The responsibility for making decisions — as there was no one else to whom the buck could be passed — became more apparent. But there was an advantage in that he could play his part in getting things dealt with quickly and fairly.
There was no real “honeymoon” period after assuming the mantle. Within about a month, the local media attention on the sexual abuse issue suddenly flared up, and he was fielding a barrage of questions from journalists about the handling of historic cases.
He acknowledged that it was stressful because he was new to the job, and he had to come to terms with how he should respond. He came to the conclusion that he had to be honest and to be himself and not rely on prepared statements. He learnt that it was better to trust his own judgement and deal with the issues with his own wisdom and caution. He acknowledged that, generally, the journalists have been respectful of that. He accepted that journalists play an important role in bringing things out into the open and holding people accountable.
At the time of the media attention, an intended royal commission was to deal only with abuse in state institutions, but Bishop Dooley had strongly backed calls for religious institutions to be included in the investigation. He certainly concluded that it was his responsibility now to oversee a safe Church and to make sure processes were in place for any complaints.
While he had been aware of the historic cases before he became bishop, there had been a “culture of silence”, with people unwilling to talk about what had happened and understandably so. But with the publicity had come the opportunity for some victims to come forward and to talk to him as the bishop. He has so far had about six to ten in-depth discussions with local victims, while others had contacted him by email and left it at that, with no wish to take it further. The conversations had been “fruitful”. The
people involved had all come of their own volition and were grateful for the opportunity.
Bishop Dooley is very aware that this is a “long haul process”. The royal commission will take years to work through its task, with a final report scheduled for early 2023. “It is long and slow, but at least it is done properly.”
At this stage, he sees the issue occupying much of his future time as bishop. He is certainly striving to deal with any historic matters that apply to Dunedin diocese. He anticipates that, in due course, he will have to appear before the royal commission.
Besides dealing with the demanding issue of historic sexual abuse matters in the diocese, Bishop Dooley has had a chance to enjoy his role as the leader of the southern Catholic community. One of his joys is when he gets to visit the various Catholic schools, meeting welcoming pupils and supportive teachers. “We’ve got great schools,” he observed. He recently visited the 26-pupil school at Bluff, which is the southernmost Catholic school in the world, and he enjoyed the experience.
Getting out and visiting the different parish communities throughout the diocese was also an enjoyable aspect. “Each place is quite different and, even though they are quite small, there is always a small group of people with strong faith who keep things going.” Dunedin diocese is a geographically dispersed region of small faith communities.
One of the things that surprised him about his duties was administering the sacrament of Confirmation in parishes. Initially, he was unsure how he would feel going into an unfamiliar parish. However, he has found Confirmation ceremonies to be a very uplifting experience and he enjoys doing that now.
Ensuring the pastoral care of parishioners in such a dispersed diocese of small faith communities is one of his concerns, looking to the future.
“Are we making sure that people are connected to the Church and receiving some type of pastoral care?” He added “so I have to look to the future and make sure that we have priests to celebrate the sacraments in those areas and have parishes organised so that parishioners can care for each other”.
Bishop Dooley is contemplating what can be done to build up the faith communities.
Financial concerns have been a significant issue for Dunedin diocese for a number of years, but Bishop Dooley believes that the problem has been tackled and things are now tracking in the right direction, with the processes that have been put in place.
He sees preaching the Gospel in today’s society as the biggest challenge. It is not so much that people are “anti”, but rather that they have not seriously thought about the Gospel. “Quite a few people see the Church as irrelevant and they haven’t thought about it any further”.
Despite the challenges and the testing times during his first year, Bishop Dooley is firm in his view that he is happy to have taken on the position. He certainly feels more comfortable with his role after his first 12 months. He has received encouragement and support from within the Catholic community, but also from other denominations, which has been positive.