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A voice for the voiceless


On Wednesday 5 April, Terence Darrell Kelly was sentenced in the Perth District Court to thirteen years and six months imprisonment.  He had abducted four-year-old Cleo Smith from her parents on a camping trip in the Gascoyne region of Western Australia in November 2021.

The abduction and eventual finding of young Cleo attracted much media attention at the time, both in Australia and overseas. The image of Terence, arrested and in a leg and neck chain, made the front page of newspapers.  Understandably, there was much rejoicing in the safe reunion of Cleo with her parents.

We will never know how much the separation from her parents affected Cleo at the time and what she will remember in later life. We can hold some confidence that her mental health will be carefully monitored, hopefully building on some of that resilience she appeared to show during her abduction.

In sentencing Kelly, the Chief Judge Julie Wager revealed details about his life and the ‘chronic and complex trauma and profound disadvantage’ that had shaped and broken his existence.  Here was an example of generational trauma handed on from an abusive father and drug dependent mother.  ‘Sadly’, the Judge noted, ‘many people have suffered from the adverse impact of colonisation. I accept you are one of them’. 

Sad indeed. However, Terence Kelly is not an isolated example of the intergenerational trauma that colonisation has brought to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.   

The great colonisation of the north of Australia has had an enormous impact of those who were already living there. As cattle, goats and sheep replaced the native fauna, Aboriginal people were cajoled, pressured, invited, and even forced into missions, settlements, and reserves where they could be with family, housed and fed. Despite the authoritarian regimes that existed in such artificially created communities, where different tribal groups were often located together, Aboriginal people largely experienced some peace and security. 


'Chief Judge July Wager accepted that Terence Kelly had suffered from the adverse impact of colonisation. There are many others who have similarly suffered, but whose Voice we still do not hear.'


In the late 1960s and early 1970s a new wave of colonisation affected many Aboriginal people. The winds of change blowing across the nation promised new life. Institutions like missions and reserves began to be dismantled and the dormitories that had separated children from their parents were closed.  Alcohol and other drugs became available as did access to motor vehicles and unemployment benefits. Many adults became adrift in this new ‘promised land’.  Some families thrived. Some did not. But all were impacted to some degree.

 I have much admiration for those non-Aboriginal people who live off the land in northern and remote Australia. It has not been easy for these settlers, facing floods, fire, and drought at various times.  It can be very demanding on body and soul. Some families go back generations, committed in good times and bad to living close to the land. 

It cannot be easy for these new generations of settlers to see, if not daily then at least on a regular basis, the effects which colonisation has had on many Aboriginal people. Children roaming streets at night, restless, angry, and hungry. The noise of drunks and domestic violence. Police sirens. Shortage of houses and overcrowding. People living in poverty. The effects for many have been soul destroying.  Every day these relatively recent settlers witness the historical effects of colonisation and the dislocation of people from their traditional homelands. It calls to mind the words of Psalm 51, composed in the context of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the planned violent death of her husband, ‘my sin is ever before me’.  

This ‘sin’, visible and audible day and night in many parts of north and remote Australia, reveals that we stand on ground which for millennia provided life and spiritual meaning for ancient bodies and souls.  We new Australians have benefitted directly and indirectly from the dispossession of the original custodians of the land, and yet we can still wonder why we see so much hurt, pain and damage around us.

While the imprisonment of Terence Kelly may be seen as a just result for his crime, it is hard to see that spending years in jail will address his serious mental health issues. His voice will be muted and we will avoid facing the complex of factors that led to his trauma and crime. 

Those who see men and women like Terence Kelly every day are likely to wish that change will come quickly to those most affected.  It can be tempting to focus on the immediate and practical without addressing the deeper, wounded soul of our nation.  And this is an issue for each of us as Australians to address.  There was no treaty, no agreement to the forced acquisition of Aboriginal land.  There was no appreciation of the costs of separation to the soul of those who had lived for generations in close connection to the land and the ruination of their spirituality and culture.

Listening to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice will not come simply or easily, because there is no one single voice but many, just as there are many faces of trauma. But these are voices and faces all Australians need to hear and see in an ongoing relationship. At risk is the health and soul of our nation.  In these present times, we are called to listen more deeply and carefully than we have ever done before. We need the courage and leadership to find a deeper and more united national way of moving forward, one that holds and pays attention to the deep wounds that people, like Terence Kelly, have carried since they were born. The longer a wound festers the longer it hurts and takes time to heal.

Hopefully, we will also pay attention to children, like Cleo, who suffer trauma at an early age and may need support at a later age to face it and any of its harmful consequences. We need skilled counsellors to accompany those most in need. We need to pay attention to the trauma that has affected many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and adults, and all its evident social consequences. But we also need a mechanism at the highest level of government that can hear the Voice of First Nations people and, together with them, begin to heal this legacy of trauma. This will be no easy task to achieve.  If we fail, our sin will always remain before us. And that will be a shameful legacy to pass on to future generations. 

Chief Judge July Wager accepted that Terence Kelly had suffered from the adverse impact of colonisation. There are many others who have similarly suffered, but whose Voice we still do not hear. Silencing voices will only increase the pain and suffering that too many of our sisters and brothers have endured for far too long.




Brian F. McCoy SJ has spent around half of his adult life from 1973 in the north of Australia and with involvement in some dozen urban and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities: from Townsville and Palm Island in the east to Broome and Warmun in the west, from Bathurst Island and Wadeye in the north to the south-eastern Kutjungka desert region in the Kimberley.  He is a former Jesuit Provincial and the author of Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the health of Aboriginal men.

Main image: Terence Darrell Kelly boards a plane after being taken into custody. (Photo by Tamati Smith/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Brian McCoy, Indigenous, Terence Darrell Kelly, Colonisation



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Existing comments

Brian McCoy's advocacy for the Voice is admirable and heartfelt. However, the lack of agreement evident among indigenous peoples on the initiative's utility and representativeness remains a serious hurdle to its reception.

John RD | 21 April 2023  

Fr McCoy displays an understanding and experience beyond that of most citizens of this country. Like the Jesus of the society to which he belongs, he challenges the existing attitudes and laws which fail to serve all people. Maybe we need a meaningful treaty with the multiple indigenous nations, a treaty that also brings those indigenous nations who disagree historically with each other together. Such a treaty must be drafted by the indigenous population not by the Canberra clique. The same colonisers were forced into a treaty by the Maori tribes who had engaged them in wars the colonisers realised they couldn't win. Once a treaty has been established perhaps then A Voice to Parliament will have more clout and be more binding. Nevertheless, a yes vote is important to avoid the status quo that a no vote would provide without any advancement of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Dutton and his blind associates are shouting, "Crucify them! Crucify them! They must not be allowed to win.

john frawley | 21 April 2023  

Brian McCoy, it is so good to read your thoughts about voice. We live at a time when we think it is important to have a voice, but we pay less attention to the listening aspect of it. Who listens? How do they understand what they hear?

It is disappointing that the public discussion has narrowed, focussed on political point-scoring and fear-mongering. Your invitation is welcome, that we look at one another and see how it is for ourselves and others.

You write “we stand on ground which for millennia provided life and spiritual meaning for ancient bodies and souls.” That is something I have considered a lot, in particular with regard to my own place of being born and raised, along the Parramatta River.

I am descended from those who arrived late and pushed aside the Wangal people who soon disappeared from settler-consciousness, although in my own family story there are memories of encounters, some hostile and violent, some based on an appreciation of shared humanity.

I have been hoping that the Voice, as envisioned by that gathering at Uluru, would be something for all of us, a way for us to learn from one another and move forward together.

Janet | 21 April 2023  

Is it really surprising, John, that there is a diversity of views among Indigenous people? Absolute unaminity is rarely achieved on any question. What is relevant here, as elsewhere, is the relative support for differing views. Given the depth and breadth of the lengthy consultation and consideration process that led to the formulation of the Uluru statement, I think I'd put my money on that view as being representative, and not on the personal views of a few dissenting individuals, prominent though they might be. Where's your evidence that the dissenters represent the views of the indigenous peoples or that they, themselves, have consulted widely ?

Ginger Meggs | 21 April 2023  
Show Responses

The voices of Nyunggai Warren Mundine and Jacinta Nampijimpa Rice have strong grass roots credibility and traction among their peoples, having consistently expressed significant criticisms of the Voice proposal and its processes, including its democratic legitimacy, viability, and real relevance to the practical needs of indigenous peoples and the cause of reconciliation. Mundine has described the Voice as the brainchild of "a minority of Aboriginal elites." On the other hand, Pat Anderson, an Alyawarre woman, a co-chair of the Referendum Council that ran the Constitutional Dialogues, ascribes dissent from the Voice proposal to a small minority of "naysayers".
Either way, it seems to me the division does not augur well for a proposal that is meant by its very naming to be substantially representative, cohesive and unifying.

John RD | 24 April 2023  

Could it be ,John, that those nominal Aboriginals opposed to the voice whom you mention are, through their education and development in the colonising, predominantly white European culture, are remote from Aboriginal culture as it exists in genuine Aboriginal communities and are not representative of that culture?

john frawley | 24 April 2023  
Show Responses

I don't regard them as "nominal Aboriginals", jf. No more than I do Patrick Dodson, and Mick Dodson who benefited from education in "a white European culture" as a nominal aboriginal leader.

John RD | 24 April 2023  

Lack of agreement on the way forward among any group is hardly novel John (RD) but that's no reason not to proceed with the majority proposal so long as it does no harm to the minority. Have you considered how divisive the rejection of this proposal would be ?

Ginger Meggs | 24 April 2023  
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As a possibility, yes, Ginger - but not as an assumed outcome.

John RD | 25 April 2023  

Sadly, you can never wind back the clock and sometimes speaking with the wisdom of hindsight is unhelpful. If I remember correctly, Terence Kelly is below average intelligence and had a fascination with dolls. I do not think a prison sentence was warranted. I think he needed help, real help. Hopefully Cleo will be OK. As far as I am aware she had not been molested in any way. Some Aboriginal people are a reminder of the reverse side of the Lucky Country. I am reminded of Thomas Merton saying that Harlem was what God thought of Hollywood. I am unsure how the referendum on the Voice will go. Whichever way it does, it should not be greeted with either elation or despair. There is so much more that needs to be done until we are a genuinely just and egalitarian country for everyone.

Edward Fido | 25 April 2023  

John RD. I have three Irish born grandparents. I was educated by the Irish Catholic nuns and brothers. I wore a green ribbon on my school shirt on St Patrick's Day. My only daughter finished her secondary schooling at Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, Eire. My heritage is strongly Irish Catholic but I consider myself an Australian and make no pretensions towards being Irish - I don't want to be and am culturally remote from the true life, culture, and politics of Ireland. I am not a culturally "nominal Irishman" because I am not qualified to be. I hope that explains my meaning of "nominal culture"

john frawley | 25 April 2023  
Show Responses

Thank you for your clarification, jf - but I doubt any of the leaders to whom I've referred would consider themselves unqualified to speak on behalf of the people they represent on account of their exposure to "white European culture." On the contrary, I think from what I know of them that they'd acknowledge how their formal education, for instance, has helped equip them with valuable tools for their vital work of advocacy.

John RD | 25 April 2023  

John Frawley is, once again, on the money. The website Dark Emu Exposed shows many of those with no Aboriginal ancestry whatever who now claim to be Indigenous to their own advantage. Having worked with disadvantaged Aboriginal people in Mt Druitt for many years and seen their many problems, I find this practice abhorrent and exploitative. https://www.dark-emu-exposed.org/

Edward Fido | 27 April 2023  

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