Prepared for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, proposals in the report include more inclusion for divorced and remarried Catholics; better selection of priests; more involvement for lay-people; and an end to discrimination against LGBTI people.
The need for women to have a greater role in the church, and more support for victims of child sex abuse, are also on the agenda.
But while the Plenary was initially viewed as an opportunity for bishops to set a new direction after years of scandal and unrest, many have become increasingly sceptical in recent weeks about the church’s ability to change.
Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli has faced a significant backlash, firstly for saying he would rather go to jail than break the seal of confession to report on a paedophile; secondly for suggesting Pell’s conviction could have been a case of mistaken identity on the part of the surviving victim.
“So you’re not questioning whether he’s been abused – you’re questioning whether it was George Pell?” 3AW presenter Neil Mitchell asked in an interview after the cardinal lost his appeal.
“Yes,” said Archbishop Comensoli, pointing out that he believed Pell was innocent.
Anger also spilled into state parliament on Thursday as MPs debated new laws compelling priests to report on child abuse disclosed during confession.
Labor MP Paul Edbrooke – whose own father was sexually abused by a Catholic clergyman – lashed out at the Archbishop’s earlier comments, telling the chamber: “It certainly takes a man detached from all logic and reality to go on radio and sell our community this rubbish. But it takes an even stupider one to expect people to believe it.”
A spokesman for the Archbishop said he would not be responding to Mr Edbrooke’s comments, and also refused to be drawn on suggestions that Pell’s conviction should be viewed as a “wake-up call” for church reform.
However, when asked what role the Archbishop would have in the Plenary Council, and whether it was being taken seriously by the hierarchy, the spokesman replied: “Archbishop Comensoli, while not an official part of the early phases of the process, said he was thrilled that so many people had participated and looks forward to next year’s Council meeting in which he will participate”.
Next year’s Plenary Council will kick off in October, and almost 18,000 people have so far handed in submissions outlining ideas for reform. The highest number of those submissions came from the Archdiocese of Melbourne (2440) followed by the Archdiocese of Brisbane (2269).
Mr Johnstone said the church was facing an existential crisis, so “bishops have a responsibility to ensure it focuses on the need for renewal of the Church, and not just kick the can down the road for a few years”.
Farrah Tomazin is a senior journalist and investigative reporter for The Age, with interests in politics, social justice, and legal affairs.