The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle’s newest bishop, Bishop Michael Kennedy, has paid tribute to his predecessor as a man of “humanity” who was able to see beyond issues to individuals, including those affected by clergy sexual abuse.
Bishop Kennedy was installed as the ninth bishop of the New South Wales diocese at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Hamilton on 17 March.
The diocese’s Catholics had been without a bishop since the death of Bishop William (Bill) Wright from lung cancer, aged 69, in November 2021.
The diocese was the national epicentre of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, as highlighted by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Bishop Wright gave evidence to the commission in 2016, which advised that his diocese’s approach to support and healing for victims could be promoted for the consideration of other church leaders.
At his installation Mass, Bishop Kennedy said he was always impressed by Bishop Bill’s humanity as well as “his kindness, his respect for people with different options and his humour”.
“May the good Lord grant me some dose of these same qualities,” he said.
The bishop said he was pleased to find in Maitland-Newcastle a local church “looking outward with a missionary focus to spread God’s word and love.”
“I know that a particularly shameful and traumatic part of the story of our diocese is the abuse of children, young and vulnerable people, and the failure of the church and some of its leaders to respond to this evil and to the individuals harmed,” he said.
“The ramifications of these failings remain current to this day for some people. Like Bishop Bill and Michael [Malone] before him I apologise unreservedly and say sorry.
“I recommit myself and the diocese to actions to work towards healing the horrors they have suffered and to promote the safeguarding of all who participate in our diocese.”
More than 550 people gathered for the occasion, including Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, and bishops from around the country.
The Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Balvo, read the apostolic letter of appointment from Pope Francis.
The Mass was preceded by a welcome to country for Bishop Kennedy, held outside the cathedral by elders of the Awabakal nation.
In opening remarks, Archbishop Fisher paid tribute to Bishop Wright, saying he gave himself totally in service to the people of the diocese from the first day of his appointment.
“He led important pastoral development and was a champion of survivors of abuse and of church reforms to help the church better respond to these matters.
“A warm, considered and deeply faithful man with a wry wit, he had a great capacity for sitting patiently with people, especially down and outs, joining them with a cigarette and a beer until as late as was needed. He was a good shepherd.”
Bishop Kennedy told The Catholic Weekly he always found joy and fulfilment in saying “Yes” to God, going wherever he is sent.
He was grateful for the warm welcome he had received in the weeks since his 2 February appointment but said it had been hard to say goodbye to the people of the Armidale diocese, which he has led for the past 11 years.
He will spend much of this year “hitting the road” to spend time in parishes, schools and other works of the church.
He said he aspires to be “a good bishop who is patient and kind and build up others in faith, hope and love.”
“I don’t come with any set plans or priorities other than to share the message and the person of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Kennedy said.
“Once I get to know the people and their situation then more definite plans can emerge, and there are already plans in place within the diocese that have to be taken into account as well.”
In his time shepherding the Armidale diocese Bishop Kennedy said he had learned to trust in the grace of God.
“I have a strong sense of being ‘sent’ by Jesus but he sends others who are also carrying out their own mission in the church, so I’ve also learned to trust in the people around me,” he said.
“Sometimes as a bishop you’re asked to make decisions that have a significant impact on people’s lives and these decisions not to be taken lightly. I know the importance of listening to and consulting with people and I think I’m getting better at it.”
Bishop Kennedy is the youngest of nine children. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1999 in his home diocese of Wagga Wagga, and at 43 was Australia’s youngest bishop when he was ordained to lead the Diocese of Armidale in 2012.
His motto is Euntes docete, referencing Jesus’ final words to the apostles to “go forth and teach.”