In 2009 a small group of overseas priests began arriving in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle to help alleviate a chronic shortage of clergy. At the end of the year their visas will begin to expire. A review of the controversial Overseas Priests Program has found that while the program should continue, many changes need to be made to better its success. So where to now?
A controversial program to bring overseas priests to the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle needs to be radically overhauled before it is reinstated for a second time, a new report has found.
The report – a Review of the Overseas Priests Program 2008-2012 – has found that, while the program should continue, substantial changes need to be made.
“It was a very controversial decision to bring the priests here in the first place,” Lochinvar nun and member of the working group responsible for the report Patricia Egan said.
“And it came at a really bad time in the diocese.
“There were a lot of difficulties and people who probably would have been involved in helping the priests settle in were not available so the priests were put into parishes almost immediately.”
The report includes results from a parishioner survey including 951 returned questionnaires from the Chisholm region (taking in Rutherford, Maitland, East Maitland, Lochinvar, Beresfield and Dungog).
More than 90 per cent of parishioners either strongly agreed or agreed to the program continuing.
The five Indian priests started to arrive in 2009 in a bid to alleviate the diocese’s chronic clergy shortage.
The program coincided with a difficult period in the history of the diocese with diocesan clergy struggling with a reduction in numbers as priests left the ministry, no vocations were forthcoming and the church was experiencing the ongoing effects of abuse scandals, the report read.
As a result inadequate planning and the lack of resources of personnel, time and past experiences of such programs led to a range of problems both for the overseas priests and parish personnel.
“All of this resulted in fragmentation of the clergy, who felt unsupported and ignored,” the report stated.
The report also found that within the program there were many challenges, stresses and strains for all involved and many issues need to be addressed if the program is to continue.
Some diocesan priests felt the program should be wound up and if need be to “let things fall into a screaming heap”. Others felt that the program needed to continue but that it be radically overhauled.
“In conclusion, the Overseas Priests Program has not been a resounding success,” the report read.
“However, everyone has learned valuable lessons from this experience and the priests have shared those experiences and lessons openly and honestly in the interview process. If the program is to continue it is obvious that substantial changes have to be made.”
But Sr Egan said the imported priests have contributed immensely to the diocese.
“The overseas priests have contributed a lot and helped us a lot and I’m sure this program will be a lot easier the second time around,” she said. “The ideal is that we have our own priests but if we don’t have enough then I don’t know what the future will be.”