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The Catholic Church's toll on Aboriginal Australia

  • 25 June 2013

Public confidence in the Catholic Church has eroded considerably. There are several reasons for this, but one for which it has failed to take much responsibility is its failure in regard to Indigenous affairs. Not just the part it played in the Stolen Generations, but also its role in the destruction of Aboriginal cultural integrity and language.

Present members of missionary orders, when writing up the story of their predecessors, tend to present these pioneer missionaries as enlightened men and women suffering hardship to spread the gospel. It is true, these men and women travelled into the unknown, poorly prepared, terribly equipped and unsuitably clothed — think of the nuns in their wimples and habits toiling under the sun — to share the story of the healer from Nazareth.

And today there is a vibrant body of Australian Aboriginal Catholics who delight in the gift of the faith passed on. The destructive effect of the approaches taken by some missionaries does not negate the good work of many others. But it is part of the story and should be told.

For two years in the early 1980s my family lived at Ernabella in the far north-west of South Australia. Ernabella was established by the Presbyterian Church in the late 1930s in an effort to prevent the destruction of Pitjantjatjara people in the region encompassing the lands abutting the Western Australian, South Australian and Northern Territory borders. It was a wonderful experience and I am still in touch with anangu from Ernabella

Dr Charles Duguid, who inspired the mission, told his missionaries to respect the local language and culture. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography he said there should be 'no compulsion nor imposition of our way of life on the Aborigines, nor deliberate interference with tribal custom' and that the vernacular language should be used, medical care offered, and responsibility passed to the local people as soon as possible.

He hoped the local people would see the gentle caring lives of the missionaries, recognise that their lives were based on the teachings of Jesus, and come to want to live like that.

Ron Trudinger, a young teacher and linguist from Adelaide, having been able to learn the language and develop Pitjantjatjara orthography quite quickly, began to teach the children in Pitjantjatjara. Photos and films of these early days show groups of laughing, naked anangu children attending school and singing and writing in their own language. Over