Real story of an Ex-Priest – (Dr) Peter J Wilkinson, Australia

This letter was written by Dr. Peter J Wilkinson, B.Ed., L. Miss., D. Miss. (PUG) Melbourne, (Australia) an Ex-Priest, in response to the post we had published yesterday – 'Rehabilitation of Ex-priests and Ex- religious', which was forwrded to us by Shri. Reji Njallani (State Organizing Secretary for KCRM). Learning how various Orders handle the situation might enable KCRM to find out the areas were Ex-Religious require support. Thank you Dr. Peter! -Editor

Dear Reji,

In 1961 I was ordained a Catholic priest in Melbourne, Australia, as a member of the Missionary Society of St Columban. I did post-graduate studies at the Gregorian University in Rome and worked for 4 years in South Korea. In 1975 I resigned from the ministry and was canonically laicized. Just on 200 Columban priests resigned between 1965 and 1995. The average age on resigning was 40.1 years and on average they had been engaged in priestly ministry for 15.2 years. Around 90% married. Across the world during the same period about 100,000 priests resigned. Far more lay religious, men and women, also took leave of their religious vows. In 2005 a small group of Former Columbans sought to discover what had happened in the lives of those who had resigned. They wrote to all 200 and asked them to write their story. One hundred and thirty four responded and their stories were printed in a book titled ‘Reconnection and Bridgebuilding Project’. The group then contacted the Columban Society superiors and began re-establishing a connection; not the old one, but one entirely new. The group, called the Committee of Former Columbans, took to the superiors three concerns: 1) To reach a satisfactory level of reconciliation and understanding between present and Former Columbans; 2) To come to an agreement on the care and support of those who left; and 3) To explore the possibilities of a closer working relationship with the Society. In 2008 I organized and conducted an international survey of all the Columban priests who had resigned, but not necessarily sought the rescript of laicisation. By 2008, just 155 were still alive and of these 126 responded to the survey. I wrote up the results in a (restricted) report titled ‘Helping to Heal’ which was presented to the Columban superiors. An exchange of correspondence followed, and regional meetings were held in Australia, Ireland, the UK and the US. Agreement was reached on what the Society would do for Former members who found themselves in difficult economic circumstances. Some regional superiors also agreed to write a formal Letter of Thanks to those former members who wanted one. The letter acknowledged the contribution each had made to the mission of the Society. For men with family and children, this acknowledgment was important. Across the regions a new relationship with the Society developed and former members are now welcomed back to the Society’s houses and invited to celebrate annually the feast of the patron, St Columban. Internal Society newsletters are also circulated to former members, and superiors are advised of the deaths or sicknesses of former members. In 2010 the Committee prepared a Statement on the Roman Rescript (attached) which was considered by an International Meeting of Superiors Generals of Missionary Societies. They appointed a delegate to discuss the matter with the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and some changes were made to the Rescript conditions as a result. Here in Australia, if any Former Columban falls on hard times, we immediately notify the Columban Regional Superior and he follows up. If the Superior finds that the person is worthy of assistance, it is forthcoming. The amount of assistance is usually not disclosed, but my guess is that it is in the vicinity of US$10,000 – $20,000 and is once-off. Across Australia, I estimate that around 1000 priests, diocesan and religious, resigned from the priesthood between 1965 and 1995. Very few have resigned in recent years, but there may still be a trickle. Most dioceses and religious congregations (male and female) now provide transitional financial assistance, but it was not always so. Universally, I would say, the Catholic community in Australia is very understanding and welcoming of all those who have resigned. Many resigned priests teach in Catholic universities (as I did myself) and have great credibility in the church community and secular society. They are certainly not looked on as ‘defectors’ or ‘traitors’ as they were in the 1970s. Given the dreadful scandal of clerical paedaphelia and the Episcopal cover-up of these crimes, resigned priests are today seen in a different light. Regarding the situation of former religious sisters in Australia I suggest you might read a 2009 Report titled ‘The Paradox of Service’. The LINK is I don’t wish to overload you with documentation, but if I can be of assistance in any way, please let me know.

With warmest best wishes for your project, (Dr) Peter J Wilkinson, B.Ed., L. Miss., D. Miss. (PUG) Melbourne, Australia

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