A Catholic priest is battling to repair his name and reputation
Two years ago Father Daniel Donovan walked into a lecture theatre of 32 students to conduct a summer school course in theology as he had done for 14 years without complaint.
By the end of the month class notes taken from that week had been anonymously circulated overseas and in Australia, in effect labelling Father Donovan a priest holding "unorthodox opinions".
Among his so-called sins, the lecturer at the Australian Catholic University was alleged to have argued that the concept of original sin was not in the Bible, that sex was not a sin and that God was mother.
But Father Donovan said his attempts to rebut the allegations his lawyer dismisses as hearsay and his canon lawyer as gossip had been frustrated by the church.
Having permitted the matter to drag on without any closure, the church hierarchy had denied him natural justice, he said.
The priest’s case comes in the wake of long-running criticism that church conservatives are isolating Catholics they suspect of straying from positions of doctrinal purity.
The archdiocese has also been criticised for intervening in other areas of religious education, notably Cardinal George Pell’s direct appointment of a new director of religious education to the Sydney Catholic Education Office.
The question of Father Donovan’s teaching was first drawn to the attention of the priest’s superiors by a Catholic Canadian, the priest said, who emailed the material to the Catholic journal AD2000, which later published it.
Father Donovan said the allegations represented one student’s understanding of discussions within the lectures. Sex, for example, had never been sinful within marriage.
He said the archdiocese had failed to contact him directly, even when he sought a meeting with the cardinal, and had not provided the name of the informant.
His canon lawyer had advised him the archdiocese was obliged to institute an investigation into the allegations or dismiss them in writing as baseless. The allegations should have been referred by the archbishop’s office directly to the university’s vice-chancellor, who has jurisdiction to investigate, not its professor of theology.
"Allegations are exactly that, allegations and not an article," Father Donovan said. "Also, the allegations are not lecture notes but notes taken by a student in lectures. The lack of appropriate action by the archdiocese allowed AD2000 to go to print.
"Surely such allegations should have been treated as gossip and steps taken to protect my character rather than shrouding the whole issue in anonymity."
He said the biggest disappointment was that the email from a Canadian academic was considered to have more weight than the reputation of a person who had worked in the archdiocese pastorally and academically for more than 39 years.
An archdiocesan spokesman said there was no formal complaint against Father Donovan for it to investigate. In February 2005 the archdiocese sought to clarify the matter and Father Donovan was invited to respond and meet the cardinal to discuss it further, the spokesman said.
The archdiocese was told by Father Donovan that the university had decided to take legal action over the matter and a meeting with the cardinal would be inappropriate. "We also understand that throughout this matter Father Donovan had retained lawyers to represent him personally," the spokesman said.
"The archdiocese strongly refutes the suggestion that it frustrated Father Donovan’s attempts to rebut what was published in AD2000. This allegation is simply false."
He said the cardinal expected lecturers in Catholic theology at the university to teach Catholic doctrines. "The cardinal has not taken any further action in this matter, nor does he propose to."
The chairman of the National Council of Priests, Ian McGinnity, said the archdiocese was remiss not to have begun a formal investigation.
"While I am unaware of the details of this specific case, it would seem clear, that as a general principle, accusations as serious as this should be investigated," Father McGinnity said. "The accuser or accusers should not remain anonymous and the one accused given the right to defend such accusations."
Father Donovan has braved archdiocesan censure to go public with his case. "My concern is not so much myself but for the number of people who have similarly experienced this kind of treatment and have been unable to defend themselves with civil lawyers and canon law.
"The church today will only be relevant to people in its teaching and critiques of society if it can present itself as the bastion of justice and be truly a sacrament of the kingdom, especially in doing justice and effecting peace in the world."