Christianity, Friendship, Respect




- Who Owns What in the Bunbury Diocese -

Dear Parents

People have been asking me about possible implications for parishes and Catholic schools of legislation passed earlier this year related to payments to survivors of abuse. I have tried to answer their questions in a Pastoral Letter entitled ‘Who Owns What in the Bunbury Diocese?’ This Letter can be found on the website. What follows here is a short summary.

Works of the Catholic Church

Everyone knows that the Catholic Church in Australia comprises parishes, charitable and educational organisations and many other communities of self giving people, priests and religious. They serve the young and old; the sick and poor; the disadvantaged; indigenous Australians; the homeless, families in need and many others.

Over time, assets have been bought or donated for these purposes. They include churches, hospitals, schools, facilities for the aged and parish buildings. To understand who owns what, it is essential to understand the basic structure of the Catholic Church.

The basic structure of the Catholic Church

When instituting the Church, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of man, instituted the offices of Peter and the Apostles, their successors today being the Pope and the Bishops. [1] Peter’s office was the rock ‘upon which I will build my Church’. [2] This basic structure has remained ever since.

Peter and the Apostles travelled the world of the time, establishing autonomous local ‘churches’. These came to be called dioceses. They were bound together by a shared Catholic faith and acceptance of the unique authority of Peter and his successors.

Each Diocese in the world today remains autonomous from others, including the Diocese of Rome. In addition, parish communities and communities of religious Priests, Sisters and Brothers, and charitable organisations developed over time.

Sometimes people speak of the ‘wealth’ of the Church without realising that assets for the many Church works across Australia alone are owned by 28 geographical and 8 non-geographical dioceses; more than 1400 parish communities; and more than 100 religious institutes and countless other Catholic organisations.

Nor is the Church anything like a multinational organisation. Its members are bound together by a shared faith, as has been the case for two thousand years.

The Bunbury Diocese

The Bunbury Diocese was established in 1954. Most parish communities, the life blood for Catholic charitable works across the south of our State, existed before the Diocese.

Parishes and their schools

Parish assets are the result of efforts of local communities of priests and parishioners acquiring land and building churches, schools, presbyteries and other facilities. Many of you will recall local fundraising efforts, as well as such activities as bazaars, cake stalls, quiz nights and various farm schemes.

Parishioners and Catholic school parents also volunteered skills, time and machinery to help with building, maintaining and landscaping Catholic schools. Parish and Catholic school communities continue today because parishioners and parents continue to contribute financially. They make themselves available too for busy bees and other projects.

Church law applies the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Christ to the life of the Church. It recognises, therefore, that Church assets are owned by those who paid for them. Parishes, therefore, are not owned by a Diocese (though the Bishop must supervise the proper stewardship of parish assets).

What assets belong to the Bunbury Diocese: a charity?

The Bunbury Diocese was established for pastoral reasons, and has always been one of the least resourced in Australia. It is recognised legally as a charity by the Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission.

Its basic assets are for charitable and administrative purposes, and to provide for retired priests. These have been purchased by the Diocese itself or donated to it.

Also, when the Diocese was established, the parish church in Bunbury was designated the Cathedral – the church in which the Bishops’ Chair (or cathedra) was placed. The Diocese does not own the Cathedral church and, should unforeseen circumstances arise, the centre of the Diocese could move elsewhere. Then another church would become the Cathedral and the present Cathedral would revert back to being the Bunbury parish church.

The Bishop as a corporation sole

In 1911, to save the State government from having to deal with multiple Catholic communities, the Western Australian Parliament legislated that the Office of Bishop of Perth become a ‘corporation sole’ for all assets of Catholic bodies. This gave the Bishop legal ownership of them all.

However, asset ownership has two parts in law. One is legal ownership, the other is beneficial ownership. The Bishop, therefore, was legal owner of Church body assets, but not the beneficial owner. Hence, he could not claim any financial or other benefit from assets not actually paid for by the Diocese itself.

In 1955, the Parliament established the Office of Bishop of Bunbury as a corporation sole for all Catholic Church assets in the new Bunbury Diocese. While having legal ownership, he could not take control of any parish or other asset of which he is not the beneficial owner.

How do the new laws affect assets in the Bunbury Diocese?

The new laws, passed earlier this year, are discussed more fully in the Pastoral Letter. Here follow a few brief points.

The National Redress Scheme

This scheme was legislated by the Commonwealth Parliament. It makes it possible for survivors of abuse to seek reparation for up to $150,000. It saves survivors from lengthy Court proceedings and legal costs.

With other Australian Catholic Dioceses, the Bunbury Diocese is committed to joining this voluntary scheme when the State Parliament has passed legislation permitting it to do so. In the meantime, preparatory work is being completed.

The Civil Liability Act

This legislation, passed by the State Parliament, makes it possible for survivors of abuse to seek Court awarded compensation against office holders, such as the Bishop of Bunbury, for proven negligence by their predecessors. Importantly, it also permits, but does not force, the office holder to confiscate properties he or she owns legally, but not beneficially, to pay Court awarded damages.

The Attorney General, Me John Quigley, explained to the Parliament why the legislation is permissory

The assets of many churches and other religious organisations are held in trusts. This is not in order to hide assets; it is to ensure that the assets are available for use by the parishioners and their families, and the people these institutions serve.

In small regional towns and elsewhere, these institutions are a very important part of the social infrastructure and a very important source of support for families in the community.

We did not want to open a pathway whereby a plaintiff could instruct a sheriff to auction off the local Catholic primary school and deny an educational facility to children who attend that school ….

It is not the intention of the legislation, therefore, to penalise parish and Catholic school communities today for the crimes committed by a few in the past. Nor should they be penalised.

Morally speaking, no Bishop can confiscate any asset of which he is not the beneficial owner because it was paid for by others. As for any other Christian, to confiscate such an asset would be a violation of the Seventh Commandment, and so would be a violation of God’s law.

And, for any human being, such a confiscation would be a violation of natural justice.

Any possible Court awarded costs against the Bishop of Bunbury, therefore, will be the responsibility of the Diocese of Bunbury.

A problem

The new legislation, being retrospective, breaks new legal ground. It poses challenges for all not-for-profit organisations because of their limited assets. Like dioceses, most of these are autonomous and have no higher body to call on for assistance.

Legal damages awarded against companies penalise shareholders, reducing their financial return. Damages against not-for-profit charities, such as the Bunbury Diocese, penalise those whose needs they serve.


The priority of the Church will always be to help survivors heal. Its Towards Healing programme will continue. However, I urge all parishioners and Catholic school parents to study the full Pastoral Letter on the diocesan website. All need to be informed about the important legal matters it discusses.

God bless you all

+ Gerard J Holohan

Bishop of Bunbury

18th November 2018


[1] Matthew 16:18; 18:18

[2] Matthew 16: