On June 20, the Bishop of Parramatta, Vincent Long Van Nguyen, broke ranks with Australia’s Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), calling for end to dithering over its response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

He demanded the release of the 1000 page report of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, commissioned by the church and completed in April, saying it should not be kept “in-house for any period longer than necessary”.

In this, Long, underscored the stasis in which the Australian church finds itself and how deeply it is split, like the church worldwide, at the highest levels. The church is embroiled in its own version of the culture wars: conservatives v progressives/centrists as a public smear campaign against Pope Francis by some cardinals and bishops makes clear.

The new president of the ACBC is Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, a man with a foot in both camps; a centrist with a leaning towards clericalism (a term describing the primacy of the clergy over regular church-goers and an anathema to Pope Francis).

Yet the unrelenting influence projected by the ultra conservative clericalist Cardinal George Pell, despite his present circumstances, continues to permeate the Church. Coleridge was elected only narrowly, beating out Pell’s chief acolyte and proxy, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, by one or two votes, according to senior Catholics.

The royal commission, in its final report, drew attention to the weak leadership at a national level. Long, a Vietnamese refugee, admitted before the royal commission of being victim, as an adult, of sexual abuse by the clergy when in the seminary. No wonder he is angry.

The aim of the ACBC is to speak with one voice. But as Long made clear, it does not have one. The Council’s report goes unpublished, and a long planned letter to all Australian Catholics concerning the royal commission is still unwritten by its nominated authors, among them Coleridge and Greg Homeming, Lismore’s Bishop. 

Embarrassingly for the church, governments are now taking the lead in responding to the commission. South Australia and Canberra have moved legislation to make legally binding a duty to “breach” the confessional, a key recommendation, if it relates to Australian laws.

The Vatican is also, finally, acting on the issue. Long’s move came only three weeks after the Pope made the unexpected decision to appoint an Administrator to replace Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson, who was found guilty of covering up child sex offences decades ago and may face jail time.

In the words of one senior church figure, both the move and its speed was “extraordinary”. Wilson’s Vicar-General, Philip Marshall, who would normally have  taken Wilson’s duties temporarily, was pushed aside for Port Pirie Bishop Greg O’Kelly until the Pope makes his next move.

Wilson decided not to resign following his conviction, just as Pope Francis, who has dithered and made some bad calls on the issue, dramatically changed tack after his ill considered support of a Chilean bishop involved in covering up sex scandals. Francis listened and his response was swift and clear. He  summoned all the Chilean bishops to Rome, then demanded their resignations. He has has accepted three and will likely accept more. His new policy: responsibility and zero tolerance.

The real test of Australian conservative Catholics and their leader Pell, who retains powerful friends in Rome, will be the appointment of the next Archbishop of Melbourne, Australia’s largest diocese by population. A raft of names of Australia’s 33 bishops is floating around, including Long.

Coleridge is an obvious candidate but is seen as slightly too old and having had sufficient senior posts already. The presumed favorite is Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe. The popular choice would be Melbourne’s Vicar-General Greg Bennet or another Melbourne native, Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright. Both men would fit in with the Pope’s promise to appointed more bishops who “smell of sheep”.

Also in the mix is Canberra-Goulburn Archbishop Christopher Prowse, another conservative but who performed poorly at the royal commission. But it’s thought that Pell and Fisher may be backing arch conservative Peter Comensoli, Bishop of Australia’s largest diocese Broken Bay, which takes in much of northern Sydney.

Many in the church expect his selection or that of another conservative would be, in all ways, a further step back for an organisation that many predict will already take two to three generations to rebuild.