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Election day reflections on religion in the public square


I have been asked to address media ethics and responsibilities in the modern era. A key question for you at this conference is what are the fundamental principles that stand despite the radically changing nature of media (the rise of online and of social media etc.) - both as media professionals, and as religious media professionals. In this context your organisers have suggested that I might have something to say about the place of religion in the public square, within this context.  And how clever of you to choose the day of the federal election for me to offer these reflections.  I come amongst you, not as a publisher or journalist but as an advocate in the public square animated by my own religious tradition as a Jesuit and Catholic priest engaged on human rights issues in a robustly pluralistic democratic society where religion definitely aint trumps.

Remembering the passing of Seamus Heaney let’s commence with the first stanza of his poem 'From the Republic of Conscience':

When I landed in the republic of conscience
It was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
Who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
And showed me a photograph of my grandfather
The woman in customs asked me to declare
The words of our traditional cures and charms
To heal dumbness and avert the evil eye
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
Your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.

Attentive to the silence, the curlew, the old man, and the woman, let’s reflect on the burdens we carry and the privileges which are disappearing as we conduct ourselves as religious people in the public square convinced that we have good news to offer for all.

How can those of us with religious beliefs credibly contribute to discussion in the media about human rights and social justice?  Is moral outrage our only trump card? In which case is it always beaten by the Joker of public apathy and relativism? Do the new social media and the Internet provide us with the opportunity to constitute and cultivate an informed readership who are hostage neither to religious orthodoxy and authority nor to secularism and the group think of an electorate and political elite in a constant electoral lather?  Do outlets like Eureka Street provide the opportunity for creating a socially and effectively engaged citizenry animated by religious tradition at its best or the temptation to create a self-referential readership who add their comments satisfied that they have satisfied their civic responsibilities?

AC Grayling and the Perceived Hypocrisy of Christians

Something crystallised for me at a recent appearance of the Opera House with the British philosopher A C Grayling, author of The God Argument, and Sean Faircloth, a US director of one of the Dawkins Institutes passionately committed to atheism. We were there to discuss their certainty about the absurdity of religious faith.  Mr Faircloth raised what has already become a hoary old chestnut, the failure of Pope Francis when provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina during the Dirty Wars to adequately defend his fellow Jesuits who were detained and tortured by unscrupulous soldiers.  Being a Jesuit, I thought I was peculiarly well situated to respond.  I confess to having got a little carried away.  I exclaimed:  Yes, how much better it would have been if there had been just one secular, humanist, atheist philosopher who had stood up in the city square in Buenos Aires and shouted, 'Stop it!'  The military junta would have collectively come to their senses, stopped it, and Argentinians would have lived happily ever after.  The luxury for such philosophers is that they never have to get their hands dirty and they think that religious people who do are hypocrites unless of course they take the course of martyrdom.  It’s only as Church that I think we can hold together ideals and reality, commitment and forgiveness.

Atomisation of contemporary responsibility – the infallibility and authoritarianism of the mainstream media commentariat

Many of the contemporary public issues being agitated in the public square relate to the past practices of governments, churches and other agencies.  Think of the Stolen Generations, forced adoptions, Aboriginal deaths in custody, and now the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.

With the royal commission, those who have no institutional allegiances, alliances or commitments are unlikely to share any responsibility for past wrongs committed in wake of contemporary practices, always having the option and luxury of espousing the modern view on past practices.  

Many contemporary issues get discussed through the template of human rights.  Much of that discussion is one dimensional and superficial – positing only the conflict between individual rights, with no acknowledgement of the need to balance individual rights over against the common good and public interest.  It is the latter which is always the most fertile and contested ground for philosophical discourse.  It never features in the one minute sound bites or the public discussions such as the ABC Q&A.

Disagreement within Churches and Faith Communities

A constant challenge for you as religious publishers is knowing what to do with disagreement within your faith communities.  Do we just try and put forward a united front?  Like Pravda of old, are we here just to put the party line, even if it is espoused by few other than those in positions of religious authority?  Do we encourage diversity of opinion to the extent that it can never be said that there is one Christian or Catholic or Anglican position on anything being discussed in the public square?

This is being discussed with contesting editorials in a couple of the leading Catholic periodicals in the USA at the moment.  The new editor of the Jesuit sponsored America magazine has said, 'The church in the United States must overcome the problem of factionalism. This begins by re-examining our language. America will no longer use the terms ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative’ or ‘moderate’ when referring to our fellow Catholics in an ecclesiastical context.'  Fr Malone SJ, the editor, says, 'How we say things is as important as what we say. America seeks to provide a model for a public discourse that is intelligent and charitable. In the next few months, America will announce a new set of policies for the public commentary on our various platforms.'

The lay controlled Commonweal finds such an approach too controlling, purporting to paper over real differences which need to be acknowledged if there is to be fruitful dialogue. The Commonweal editorial policy states:

Commonweal’s mission is to provide a forum for civil, reasoned debate on the interaction of faith with contemporary politics and culture. Read by a passionate audience of educated, committed Catholics, as well as readers from many other faith traditions, Commonweal presents well-argued, respectful points of view from across the ideological spectrum. In an often contentiously divided Catholic church and secular culture, its status as an independent, lay-run journal of opinion encourages conversations that can be difficult in other settings.

Taking the challenge right up to Fr Malone at America, the Commonweal editorial of 29 August 2013 states: 'Factionalism can indeed be a threat to the church (or to the country), but honest disagreement is not always destructive of ecclesial communion; in fact, it is often constitutive of it.'  The editorial goes on to say:

In fact, church unity is more often threatened when not enough room is made for the airing and resolution of honest disagreement. Nor does it do any good to pretend that the contemporary church is actually a community of harmony and virtue simply because ideally it should be. American Catholics belong to the church, but also to many other communities and organizations. They cannot, and should not, leave those attachments behind at the church door, nor should they regard their political commitments as peripheral to their Christian witness. 

Though a Jesuit, I must confess to being more with Commonweal than with America on this one.

Governments asking that we spare them the moral outrage – Agitating Asylum Issues in the Public Square

After my first visit to the Woomera Detention Centre in 2002, I went to Canberra to meet with Minister Philip Ruddock. One of my government contacts warned me that they were sick of the moral outrage from the churches and other advocacy groups.  I was urged to keep cool.  I kept cool until Easter that year.  I then wrote to the minister:

My three hours in the detention centre on the evening of Good Friday convinced me that it was time to put the message to you very plainly despite its public unpopularity and despite your government's immunity to moral outrage: 'Minister, this is no place for kids.' When children end up in the sterile zone against the razor wire with tear gas and batons around them in Australia, it is time for all parties including the Commonwealth government to stop blaming others and to effect policy changes so that it can never happen again.

In the end, the government did apologise to the mother of the seven year old boy whose bruises I had seen after he had been hit with a baton and tear gas.  When the rights of a despised minority are being trampled by government implementing a popular policy driven by fear, we who try to be the religious enlargers are well placed to contribute to social and political change because our motivations are not purely political and because we see the contemporary political issues in a broader, even transcendental perspective.

We need a variety of fora and platforms to make our message heard.  As a public advocate and priest, I often write and comment on the Eureka Street site.  Many of my addresses published there are to church audiences and presume on a shared religious tradition.  Other addresses are given in the public square to legal and political audiences where no faith perspective is presumed or evangelised.  The great thing about a platform like Eureka Street is that you can make material from a variety of fora available to the discerning reader.  The rampant secularist cannot take offence at my religious writing for religious audiences but it is good that it can be available so even the secularist can have a more comprehensive view of my thinking and writing should he or she want it!

On some issues where groupthink takes over with the major political parties and media outlets, we need our own platforms so we can continue to agitate our message in season and out of season.  I have been an advocate in the public square for refugee rights in Australia these last 25 years.  There are days like today when I wonder if it has all been in vain.  But there is a need to keep chipping away.  A platform like Eureka Street can be augmented with Facebook.

Here’s one recent example.  The Murdoch Press has been running a campaign to get rid of Refugee Convention.  In May 2013, The Australian was giving plenty of airtime to the Convention’s critics.  I could not get any letter published.  On 18 June 2013, The Australian published an editorial calling for the debate to commence.  But even then I could not get a letter published.  I ran into their editor at large, Paul Kelly, at a Qantas Lounge and told him of my beef with the paper.  I then wrote to him on 19 June 2013:

Dear Paul

Good to see you this morning.  This is what I placed on Facebook today.  Tomorrow June 20 marks the complete legal death of the Malaysia Solution. It cannot be resurrected before the election.  The Coalition would need to agree to abolish even the parliamentary disallowance provisions in the Act.



The Australian is running a campaign agitating against the Refugee Convention. It's editorial yesterday said it welcomed discussion on the topic. Since 3 May the only published letters and opinion pieces have been against the Convention. So the discussion, if anywhere, has to be conducted offline, or is that online. This is my latest rejected letter:

Your editorial 'Refugee convention outdated' (18/6) 'welcomes discussion about the relevance of the convention', urges that we 'find new ways to deal with our obligations' and rightly warns that 'withdrawal would be a drastic action and should be avoided'.

You wonder why the government refuses to turn back the boats. But the Houston expert panel found that 'the conditions necessary for effective, lawful and safe turnback of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia are not currently met' and that 'the State to which the vessel is to be returned would need to consent to such a return.' 

You wonder why the Opposition won’t back the Malaysia Solution but tomorrow is the last day Parliament could receive a revised Malaysia proposal and still have the statutory time to consider it before the September election. 

Like all other countries, we are rightly obliged to receive those persons arriving on our shores in direct flight from persecution. We are entitled to return safely to Indonesia persons who, when departing Indonesia for Australia, are no longer in direct flight but rather are engaged in secondary movement seeking a more benign migration outcome. We could credibly draw this distinction and fly boatpeople back safely if we co-operated more closely with Indonesia providing basic protection and fair processing for asylum seekers there. Until we do that, there is no way of decently stopping the boats. Withdrawing from the Convention won’t help.

Next day, the Oz published my letter.  The letters editor, like Paul, a very decent fellow wrote to me, saying:  'Sorry it was a day late. It lobbed on my day off and my stand in overlooked it. I haven’t asked him why. I haven’t seen any reaction so far.  All the best.'

I replied, 'No worries.  I was starting to suspect a conspiracy!!'  There wasn’t one, but there was definitely no one on duty at the Oz keeping an eye out for a fairly run debate on the issue.

One more, and far more substantive example, of the effect of a platform like Eureka Street.  On Friday afternoon, 19 July 2013, the newly re-elected prime minister Kevin Rudd announced that he had spent much of the week with his Immigration Minister Tony Burke in discussions with the PNG government.  He announced his PNG Solution whereby all boat people headed for Australia would be moved to PNG for processing and ultimate resettlement with the guarantee that they would never reach Australia.

I had been in Myanmar out of reach all that week.  I landed in Sydney on the Saturday morning.  My first telephone conversation was with Paris Aristotle, the refugee advocate who had been a member of the Houston Expert Panel.  Paris said to me, 'Frank, you are never to leave the country again without permission.'  I phoned Tim Kroenert at Eureka Street and disturbed his weekend telling him that I needed to publish my assessment of the PNG solution by 3pm.  I settled in at the Qantas Club, wrote a draft, sent it to Tim, and asked him to hold it until I landed in Brisbane having time in flight to consider what I had written.  I landed, phoned and cleared the article for publication.  One hour later, I entered the home of Kevin Rudd and Therese Rein for Therese’s birthday party.  Ushered into the prime ministerial study, I was able to say that I had already published my view on the new policy.  Kevin and I, being friends, agreed that we had our distinctive tasks and duties to perform.  The piece was firm but restrained, sparing the moral outrage.  During the following week I was then interviewed for ABC 7.30 and ABC TV News, interviews which received multiple coverage and repetition.  If I had simply expressed moral outrage in my Eureka Street piece, that would have been the end of my commentary.  By being restrained, I was able to stay involved in the public debate upping the moral censure as the week unfolded with the later announcement that unaccompanied minors would ultimately be sent to Nauru with no prospect of resettlement in Australia.  The Eureka Street platform was crucial to my whole media strategy.  I said as much as I needed to say, and no more, avoiding the trap of being dragged into partisan comment during an election campaign.

A month before I had spoken at the National Asylum Summit in Adelaide setting out the ethical and legal preconditions for Australia being able to turn back the boats.  Many refugee advocates were upset with me for conceding that any such theoretical discussion could occur.  I knew that we were headed for a dreadful election campaign at the end of which Tony Abbott would be elected with the simplistic promise that he would stop the boats.  The only unresolved issue was how far the Labor Party would go in chasing him to the bottom of the precipice.  There was an urgent need to focus the public mind on how best to do this dastardly thing.  I immediately published my view on the Eureka Street site, and as often occurs, it was taken up on the ABC Religion and Ethics site.

Then on 14 August 2013, I gave the annual Barry Marshall Lecture at Trinity College University of Melbourne.  This very detailed lecture was immediately published on the Eureka Street site and repeated on the ABC Religion and Ethics site.
Each time, I gave links to these sites on Facebook and on Twitter.  The important thing is to get the ideas out there, to be a credible consistent voice, and to provide readers with a one stop shop where they can find the information for which they are looking to inform their consciences and to shape their political responses even in the most difficult of times.

The New Media’s web of intrigue and prejudice – same sex marriage

Now for the downside of our new media.

About once a year, I write a piece on the issue of same sex marriage.  (November 2010, March 2011, June 2012, July 2013)

Basically I distinguish civil marriage and sacramental marriage.  I have long supported civil unions for same sex couples but have distinguished marriage because of concerns about children’s issues.  Given that neither side in the polarised debate has been much interested in civil unions, I have accepted the inevitability of civil recognition of same sex marriage given the developments in equivalent jurisdictions like Canada, the USA, the UK and New Zealand.  I don’t see the acceptance of inevitability as a test of religious orthodoxy any more than the acceptance of the inevitable election of Tony Abbott today is a matter of religious orthodoxy.

On 18 July 2013 one strong religious opponent of same sex marriage had circulated a wide email list saying:

It was dismaying to read Fr Brennan’s latest essay at Eureka St, which appears to be abandoning the defence of a child’s right and falling into line with the ‘inevitability’ argument created by the media and pressure groups. Other brave men have been broken by their need to get back in communion with the Zeitgeist – think of David Blankenhorn and poor Dr Spitzer – but I hoped Fr Brennan had more courage of his convictions.

 I understand there is an SBS Insight programme on same-sex marriage to be recorded on August 7th. I am tentatively invited to be part of that – and if any on this email list are interested (I have already suggested Fr Brennan, or at least the old Fr Brennan), let me know and I will pass on a recommendation.

I wrote to the gentleman setting out my position.  This is what I said:  

I have been involved in robust public debate about all sorts of issues for thirty years.  I am not one for rolling over or falling into line with the prevailing trends.  I pride myself with having been very consistent on this issue.  I have always distinguished sacramental marriage and civil marriage.  I have long espoused civil unions.  I have always said that it is the issue of children primarily (and complementarity secondarily) which distinguishes marriage and a civil union.  I have been disappointed that neither side of the debate in countries like Australia have been willing to pursue to civil union option.   Yes, I now see same sex civil marriage as inevitable which it was not 4 or 5 years ago when I first wrote about this issue and that’s for two reasons.  Both sides have taken an all or northing approach refusing to countenance civil unions.  Once equivalent societies (by which I mean UK, NZ, US and Canada) recognize same sex marriage then it is necessary for the law in Australia to deal with the status of such couples who migrate to Australia.  Once we recognize such 'marriages' for migrating couples, we must recognize such marriages for Australian couples.

I am sorry to have disappointed you.  But let me assure you that I think I have been completely consistent and true to my convictions throughout this debate.  Go back and read what I have written.

It might interest you to know that I was asked to go on the SBS program a couple of weeks before it was recorded.  I declined on the basis that my views were too complex, not capable of full expression on a show of such a format.  A few days before the show was to be recorded, I was contacted by the secretariat of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference asking if I would be happy to appear because they had asked numerous bishops, none of whom was willing to appear because each of them pleaded jetlag from World Youth Day or diary clashes.  I was later told that no less than 12 bishops were approached.  I said that I did not know that my views were sufficiently orthodox.  Having agreed on these terms, I arrived at the studio to find that at the last minute Monsignor John Woods had also been asked.  I immediately emailed the ACBC secretariat saying: 'Why didn't you tell me I wasn't needed any more. I only agreed because you couldn't get anyone else. John Woods is here and he tells me there is to be a Sydney priest too.  A waste of time!'

Here is the transcript of my remarks which were broadcast on the Insight program  and my own recollection of my other remarks which did not go to air, as well as a final observation I added to the piece on the Eureka Street site about Ben and Nam.  I also posted those remarks on Facebook.  

Broadcast Remarks

JENNY BROCKIE:   Frank, you're sitting here, you're sitting here listening to this, Father Frank Brennan, now you've shifted ground on same sex marriage as a Catholic priest. Where do you sit? 

FR FRANK BRENNAN, AUSTRALIAN CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY:   Yes, I'm a Catholic priest but I'm also a human rights lawyer, I'm a citizen of a pluralist democratic society. I'm so grateful that we now live in a society where Ben and Nam can now come tonight and speak as they have but I'm ashamed.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Albeit with great difficulty. 

FR FRANK BRENNAN:  Well I'm ashamed that I live in a society where it's still - it requires courage to do it. So you know, let's hope and I pray to God that we will get to be a society where that sort of courage will no longer be required. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So what's your position on same sex marriage? 

FR FRANK BRENNAN:    My position is I have been strongly in favour of civil unions, I've had issues about children which we can come to, but where I think there's going to be change and I simply accept it, is with the recent decisions of the US Supreme Court and the recent legislation in the United Kingdom.  There is obviously a need in a society like Australia to give recognition to civil same sex marriages which are now contracted in Canada, the United States, in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And to call them marriages, for them to be marriages, secular marriages. 

FR FRANK BRENNAN:  They're married. I mean they've been married in Canada you've got to be recognised civilly as being married here. 


FR FRANK BRENNAN:  Religion is much less relevant now because the marriage rate continues to decline and if you look a century ago, 95 percent of marriages were church marriages, 1970's it was two-thirds, well now two-thirds of all marriages in Australia are civil.  

Comment Posted on Eureka Street, Facebook and Insight Website

There has been some commentary about the editing of the Insight program.  I was a participant in the two hour recorded studio event.  I got two bites of the cherry in the final one hour edit.  I will leave it for others to judge the editorial bias if any.  I made four other interventions which did not get to air.  Two out of six ain’t bad when you’re the second stringer Catholic priest on that sort of show.   I am not complaining but I thought some readers, especially those who thought I was equivocal, might like to know what the additional four interventions were, as I do see it as a complex issue.  I have been a long time proponent of civil unions, being wary about using the term marriage to cover all unions when a couple desire the attribution of the term.  As a lawyer I have conceded that the recognition of same sex marriage in the laws of Canada, the UK, New Zealand and now an increasing number of states in the US makes it inevitable that we will need to recognise such 'marriages' in Australia when such couples migrate to Australia.  

(1) I said that I found talk of homosexuality being a disorder unhelpful.  Addressing Penny Wong, I said that I thought her homosexuality as natural, complex and mystical as my heterosexuality.  

(2) I said that the issue of children needed to be addressed separately.  I distinguish four different groups of children: (a) those children already in same sex families who would be helped in their development and social acceptance by making available civil marriage to their 'parents' (and I admitted my surprise to learn from the US Supreme Court decision that there were already 40,000 such children in California alone); (b) children available for adoption who were related to one of a same sex couple; (c) children available for adoption who were not genetically related to either person in a same sex relationship – and whose best interests must always be considered when it comes to adoption; and (d) children who would be created in the future using the genetic material only of a same sex couple, thereby not having a known biological mother and a known biological father – I surmised that this was a big step for humanity which should not be pre-empted by the same sex marriage debate.  

(3) I said that I had done three things in preparation for the program: (a) I had asked the congregation at my regular Sunday mass for comment after mass and many older parishioners said that they did not want to see any discrimination against same sex couples but they were not sure that a same sex relationship was the same as their marriage; (b) I asked a young couple whose marriage I had recently performed with a nuptial mass what they thought and they made it very clear to me that for their generation the whole discussion was a bit of a yawn and the answer for civil law was self-evident; and (c) I called a lesbian Catholic I knew who had children with her partner and she told me that she was a lesbian and always would be; that she was Catholic and always would be; that the clergy should get over this idea that they were the gatekeepers to the gospels and the sacraments because the key message was that God is love.  

(4) I said that the diversity of views expressed during the two hours and the passion and moral certainty and diversity with which those views were expressed highlighted the need for a conscience vote on the issue in our Parliament.  

As I said in my broadcast comments, 'I'm so grateful that we now live in a society where Ben and Nam can now come tonight and speak as they have but I'm ashamed that I live in a society where it still requires courage to do it.  Let's hope and I pray to God that we will get to be a society where that sort of courage will no longer be required.'  

Since the program and reading the comments to this piece, I remain a little bemused by the whole issue but that’s because I went to uni in the 70s when it was very politically incorrect to speak of marriage.  Amongst my generation in leftie circles, one, to this day, is almost invariably introduced to a person’s partner and it is very politically incorrect to ask if they’re married.  If civil marriage is extended to same sex couples in Australia, I really hope it does help couples like Ben and Nam but I suspect acceptance and endorsement are still some way off regardless of which way the 'marriage equality' campaign plays out.  I suppose the sign of ultimate social acceptance will be when Ben and Nam can introduce each other as partners, it then being politically incorrect to inquire if they are married.  And then we’ll wonder what the whole debate was really about.

I then preached in my Canberra parish about the need for Christians to show greater respect in our discussion about homosexual issues.I published the homily on the Eureka Street site and on Facebook.  I continued receiving a steady stream of vile emails from religiously righteous individuals who were on the original email list which had been circulated informing them of my errant views. I had not realised how nasty the scene really is, all in the name of proclaiming a gospel of love and forgiveness. Here is but one example:

Angry reactors


I do not address you as a Catholic Priest as long ago you gave up the Faith and self ex-communicated - Latae sententiae

What you don’t know is that from the sidelines I have quietly circulated, not just on this occasion but over the years, your evil Satanic views to Jesuits who are orthodox Catholic Priests and who thoroughly repudiate your heretical sinful position.

Poofters make up no more than 1.7% of the population yet they are calling the shots with the help of faithless, sinful and gutless people such as yourself who falsely represent themselves as the Church.

As Christians we are called upon to admonish not just the sun but the sinner – consider yourself so admonished. As Saint Faustina witnessed in her vision granted by the Lord you are on the broad easy path filled with countless merry Souls who, listening to the music of Satan, are singing and dancing their way to the precipice (the moment of death) over which they fall into the pits of Hell.

I would urge you to immediately go to Rome to humbly prostrate yourself at the feet of the Holy Father, a Jesuit, to confess your grievous sinfulness and beg the forgiveness of the Lord.

However I doubt that you will as you are filled with the evil of Satan inspired hubris. Your Eternal Soul is at a grave risk of perishing for Eternity in the fires of Hell.

Remember the parable of the Gospel where the Lord warned of the man whose Soul would be taken that night – this fellow focused not on Heavenly matters and the fate of his Soul, but on his own self-fulfillness, self glory and self gratification here in this temporal world.

Moral outrage is not confined to those of us agin the government of the day.  The new media platforms can become circles of viciousness and vindictiveness.  But at least they help us know what our enemies are thinking.  And as ever, our greatest enemies are likely to be found within our religious ranks.

Speaking in the name of the Church when we will be perceived as being self interested or defensive

On the night Prime Minister Gillard announced the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse I appeared on ABC Lateline.  This is part of the interview:

EMMA ALBERICI: Now you were opposed to a royal commission per se. What are your reservations?

FRANK BRENNAN: I was opposed to a national royal commission because I thought there were a number of state inquiries underway that could be useful. And my concern about a national commission - I would hope for the sake of victims nationwide that it will bear fruit. 

My worry has been that a national royal commission, for example the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which was restricted to 99 deaths over just a 10-year period, that took 3.5 years. So I think a commission of the breadth that the Prime Minister has announced, if it was to be anything more than broad brush, but if it were to have the particularity that we were looking for with state inquiries, I think it will take at least five years.

EMMA ALBERICI: So would it have been better to have been kept to just the Catholic Church?

FRANK BRENNAN: I don't know whether just to the Catholic Church or whether within the jurisdictions that were conducting these things. Let's remember within the federation that we have that most of the agencies which deal with children are under state jurisdiction. And at the moment in the three most populous state - Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria - there are inquiries presently running and they are running as a result of royal commissions that have been previously held. 

So my concern is simply that at a national level a royal commission asking the feds to come and investigate the states, particularly where it's a federal Labor Government on the ropes in the lead-up to a federal election with Liberal state governments, I think there are all sorts of complications there and I would hope for the sake of the victims that things do not get too politically messy.

EMMA ALBERICI: The Prime Minister in making her announcement today said the royal commission would look at institutional responses to abuse. From what you've seen thus far, has the Church always in your view put the welfare of children first?

FRANK BRENNAN: No, it has not. And I think particularly prior to 1997 there's been abundant evidence that the Catholic Church, which is the church I know best, the interests of children were not put first and often it was the interests of the Church as an institution or of particular clerics who were spared and children were sacrificed.

EMMA ALBERICI: And is it still policy to move a priest to another diocese if he is accused of abuse or convicted and then released?

FRANK BRENNAN: As I understand since 1997 with the protocols that have been put in place, definitely not. If there have been breaches of that, then it's not only a breach of the law, it's a breach of the Church's own protocols.

EMMA ALBERICI: So is there a structure in place to determine that that definitely won't happen?

FRANK BRENNAN: There is. After the Wood Royal Commission in NSW we had a protocol set up nationally for the Catholic Church, as for other equivalent churches. It's been accepted since 1997 that every church has to have a protocol in place, as should any organisation that's dealing with children. 

Definitely there have been problems that - Catholic protocol I know has been revised twice with independent legal advice, but there are still criticisms of it from victims, their families and their loved ones. There's still work to be done. The question is: how that's best to be improved.


EMMA ALBERICI: You've said before that there is a disproportionately high number of child abusers among the Catholic clergy. Why do you think that is?

FRANK BRENNAN: That I don't know. I was referring to the evidence that was given before the Victorian inquiry by Professor Patrick Parkinson. Now the thing about Parkinson is he is an independent lawyer who's done a lot of work both for the Catholic Church and for the Anglican Church and he drew a comparison of the figures between the Catholics and the Anglicans. 

Now that's an area where I think a lot more work is needed to be able to explain that. And at the moment, even Catholics, those of us of goodwill, we don't have an explanation for that. And I think that's where work is needed, and that's why in the past I've said the Victorian inquiry, under-resourced as it is, has available to it the retired Justice Frank Vincent, who I think is one of the most outstanding retired criminal law judges in the country. 

And so, I think to be able to draw on the resources of people like him as they forensically investigate those questions is critical. My worry now with a national royal commission which isn't just looking at the Catholic Church, but looking at agencies right across the board, I think it's going to be another five years before we get those sorts of forensic answers, which I was hoping we might get within some months.


EMMA ALBERICI: Is there something wrong with the structure of the Catholic Church in so far as there is no sort of umbrella hierarchical structure here in Australia, it is so state and diocese-based so it's very hard for you to know perhaps if a priest's been moved from interstate or indeed from overseas, what his particular past has been?

FRANK BRENNAN: I think there are now protocols in place that deal with that. If I may say, I think the real problem with the Catholic Church is the sort of unaccountable clericalism. 

I was preaching in my parish in Canberra on Sunday and I told them the story: I'd been in Rome two years ago. I attended a meeting. I went across with two of my brother Jesuits from the United States. I attended a splendid concert that the Vatican put on and there was Pope Benedict and as the symphony played, an American priest turned to me and said, "That man beside the Pope, that's Cardinal Law." He said, "If he was back home, he'd been in jail." 

I was very ashamed at that moment and I thought there is a structural problem, but it's not in terms as you've discussed. I think it's more the sort of unaccountable clericalism of a male celibate hierarchy and I think there are fundamental challenges for the Church in the 21st Century.

EMMA ALBERICI: He'd been in jail for what?

FRANK BRENNAN: Well, for things to do with failure to deal adequately with priests who'd been proven to be engaged in child abuse.

EMMA ALBERICI: So the accountability or the lack of accountability goes that high up within the Church?

FRANK BRENNAN: Sadly it does.

EMMA ALBERICI: So do you have faith in the ability of your Church to deal with these matters in such a way that protects children?

FRANK BRENNAN: I think the Church is a very broken institution, but one of the great things in living in a country like Australia is that we robustly pride ourselves on the rule of law and we're a pluralist democratic society where the Church is not exempt from things on the basis of some spurious pleading of freedom of religion. 

And so what's essential - and I think this is accepted in good faith. I mean, the statement by our Australian Catholic Bishops today indicates they're accepting of a royal commission. They'll do anything they can to cooperate. 

Now, the cynics about the Church will say, "Well of course they'd say that now, wouldn't they?" But I think part of the reality of living in a pluralist democratic society is the people you meet in church every Sunday, they're members of the church, but they're also citizens of a robust pluralist democracy which prides itself on the protection of the vulnerable, including the most vulnerable children. 

But what's going to be shown from this royal commission isn't only churches, it's the nation as a whole and there are going to be very political questions as to what's ruled in and what's ruled out with a national commission of this inquiry.

The Commissioners having been appointed by letters patent issued by the Governor-General were then formally appointed under Western Australian law on 22 January 2013, Queensland law on 24 January 2013, New South Wales law on 25 January 2013, Victorian law on 12 February 2013, Tasmanian law on 4 March 2013 and South Australian law on 7 March 2013.

The Commission will hold its first public hearing on 16 September 2013.  I daresay this is the first Royal Commission in Australian history which will not have held any public hearing before both the Prime Minister and Attorney General who instituted it have left parliament, and before the government which established it has lost government.    This is not just a Commonwealth Royal Commission.  It is a joint Commonwealth-State Royal Commission and its subject matter mainly relates to issues primarily within the jurisdiction of the States, not the Commonwealth.  

The Commission has the largest budget of any royal commission in our history.  It will have a huge research arm.  Like the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody it will be torn between attention to traumatic individual cases about which in the end it will not be in a position to do much and research into underlying causes and patterns of institutional response.  Another huge issue will be that over time there will be the growing realisation that most child abuse occurs in families and the overwhelming statistical institutional failure to respond to such abuse will be found to be by state child welfare departments which are notoriously under-resourced and always have been.

Within this vortex, there will be much attention given to the Catholic Church, to abuse of children by church personnel, and to the Church’s institutional responses to such abuse.  Some elements of the media have already shown that they are hostile to the Catholic Church, but that is by no means a universal phenomenon.  Those elements which are hostile will undoubtedly find added spice in the idea that the new Prime Minister and Attorney General will both be Catholics.  The spice will reach positively chili proportions if John Madigan the DLP senator from Victoria is a lynch pin in the new Senate being one of a trio holding the balance of power for any Abbott Government.

I remain of the view that the Catholic Church and the victims of child abuse will be able to gain much from the more targeted inquiries including the now completed Whitlam Inquiry in Armidale, the continuing Cunneen Inquiry in Newcastle, and the ongoing Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry.  Each of these inquiries has their limitations but they are sufficiently targeted to provide a quarry of evidence and reflection to assist all those wanting to improve Church processes and structures to minimize the prospect and damage from child abuse committed by church members.  I remain agnostic about the long term effects of the royal commission, knowing that it will cost so much, take so long, and be in need of new political patrons while it navigates the impossibly wide terms of reference and even wider community expectation that it will provide thousands of victims the opportunity to tell their stories thereby achieving some healing as well as a sense of justice. 

It will be a major challenge for church media in the next few years to report faithfully on the Commission, contributing to healing for the victims, while sounding appropriate warning notes about community group think, including anti-religious animosities, which will bear little fruit other than endless social research and mainstream media intrigue with QCs tripping up church leaders. Let’s remember that the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found that Aborigines died in custody at the same rate as other Australians.  It was just that they were ten times more likely to end up in jail in the first place.  And for all the efforts of the Commission, the imprisonment rate for Aborigines is higher today than it was before the Commission began.  There’s only so much lawyers can achieve armed with letters patent as royal commissioners.


I have been tantalised by Charles Taylor’s recent essay A Catholic Modernity? in which he suggests:

In modern, secularist culture there are mingled together both the authentic developments of the Gospel, of an incarnational mode of life, and also a closing off to God that negates the Gospel.  The notion is that modern culture, in breaking with the structures and beliefs of Christendom, also carried certain facets of Christian life further than they were ever taken or could have been taken within Christendom.  In relation to the earlier forms of Christian culture, we have to face the humbling realisation that the breakout was a necessary condition of the development.

Sometimes it is the state or civil society which provides a corrective or a further spur to the Church to be true to its finest ideals.  

In an Abbott Australia, the Murdoch press will be somewhat bereft looking for a new social agenda having got its government of choice.  It will turn again to being government critic but the public won’t be much interested until the Labor Party has rebuilt.  The Fairfax press will continue its yuppie lifestyle decline.  The Guardian and other online services will fill some of the gap.  The religious press will provide the bridge between the church and the world, between gospel values and present political reality.   As ever, moral outrage will have its place, but only if tempered by public reason.  

When the going gets tough and the way ahead is not clear, we Church people can take to heart the observation of Morris West:

The pronouncements of religious leaders will carry more weight, will be seen as more relevant if they are delivered in the visible context of a truly pastoral function, which is the mediation of the mystery of creation; the paradox of the silent Godhead and suffering humanity.

That’s what Pope Francis has been doing so well of late.  At all times in the public domain, whether in dialogue with government about social policy or in giving a public account of church perspectives, we who speak with a Church mantle must speak with the voice of public reason. Therein lies the tension. Without trust between those whose consciences differ, we will not scale the heights of the silence of the Godhead nor plumb the depths of the suffering of humanity; we will have failed to incarnate the mystery of God here among us. This mystery is to be embraced in the inner sanctuary of conscience where God’s voice echoes within, to be enfleshed in the relationships we share as the people of God, and to be proclaimed in our calls for justice in the public domain.  The need is urgent given that our two major political leaders and their two acolytes in the migration portfolio – Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Tony Burke, and Scott Morrison – are all publicly professed Christians committed to stopping the boats at almost any cost. Yes, they want to stop deaths as sea, but they want to stop much else as well, and not primarily for the well-being of those on the boats.  As a nation we have lost our way in tending the needs of the poor, the widow and the orphan.  Let’s recall the old man at the end of Seamus Heaney’s poem with which we began:

The old man rose and gazed into my face
And said that was official recognition
That I was now a dual citizen
He therefore desired me when I got home
To consider myself a representative
And to speak on their behalf in my own tongue
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
But operated independently
And no ambassador would ever be relieved.

Those of you charged with the carriage of the religious press in Australia and New Zealand are indeed dual citizens of your nation and of your church, of your community and of the republic of conscience.  You are to speak on behalf of those whose interests are sidelined by the prevailing political ethos and media bias.  You are to speak in your own tongue informed and animated by your religious tradition.  And your job will never be done.  You will never be relieved of your post.  I thank you for your dedication in providing us with the platforms and the fora to proclaim the good news for all, in season but especially when it is out of season, as it is now.  Have a happy election day, and spare a thought for the asylum seekers and those who would have been helped had we maintained our commitment to foreign aid.  Moral outrage is not our only trump card, but without it, we may as well always bid Misere.

Frank Brennan headshotFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University, and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. This is the text of an address given at the Australasian Religious Press Association Conference at the Marriott Hotel, Melbourne, on 7 September 2013. It was titled ‘Is moral outrage our only trump card? Media ethics and responsibilities in the modern era’.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Seamus Heaney, media, press, politics, religion



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Once again Father Brennan contradicts with impunity in ES church teaching opposing SSU ! http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20030731_homosexual-unions_en.html And again His Eminence. Cardinal Law is maligned. In Fact His Eminence had previously given evidence before two grand juries and been fully investigated by the state attorney general and the five district attorneys in the counties in which the archdiocese operates. When the state attorney general issued his report entitled "Child Sexual Abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston" (July 23, 2003) he did not allege that Law had tried to evade investigation and he did state that Law had not broken any laws .

Father John George | 09 September 2013  


tony kevin | 09 September 2013  

Well thought-out speech! Some of my thoughts: re the A C Grayling paragraph and your statement "It's only as Church that I think we can hold together ideals and reality, commitment and forgiveness". I think God's sweep is broader than that. Surely God is involved with all of mankind and it is possible for ideals and reality, commitment and forgiveness to be part of a secular agenda. At least I fervently hope so. The way religious media interacts with its faith community is vitally important, I think when people are categorised as "liberal", "conservative" etc. it is most unhelpful to dialogue. Many people are truly a combination. Much more I could say, but suffice that "respect" is always a two-way street and those in religious media need to be scrupulous about personal agendas not entering debate. Thanks for a great essay.

Pam | 09 September 2013  

I voted early on Saturday morning 7th September at a polling booth on the far south coast of NSW. The people handing out How To Vote cards were courteous and smiling and chatting with one another at five to ten paces in the early morning sunshine. What a contrast to the past three years of the bitter antagonism that had marked federal (and NSW) politics. When I drove past the booth later that afternoon only ALP and LNP supporters were still at their posts, sitting at the one table and chatting amicably. What a great society we have in Australia, I thought. Later on Saturday night when the PM conceded defeat and the Leader of the Opposition claimed victory before enraptured audiences, I thought this is another world. This is an artifically confected world equivalent to the bread and circuses of ancient Rome. How one gets matters of conscience heard among such cacophony, I don't know.But I did laugh when I heard Tony Abbott's last minute advice to votes - keeping to the Negative Campaign strategy - Don't vote for minor parties. The Senate results cheer me up. Tiny voices will have to be listened to.

Uncle Pat | 09 September 2013  

Frank Brennan does not need titles like His Eminence or worldly titles. He should be the Archbishop of Sydney. The church is broken and there are no leaders to unite it. The Bishops in Australia are conservative old men in their own Club, all medieval thinking. We need thinkers. Recently we have a new Bishop from Parramatta and I can say the poor darling is so not with people and could not lead sheep to water in Quilpie. Toowoomba Diocese is broken from Benedict. We are hurting.

Francis Douglas | 09 September 2013  

Further to Fr George’s remarks, I note that the 2003 Report of the Office of the Attorney General, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, “The Sexual Abuse of Children in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston” states: “The evidence gathered during the course of the Attorney-General’s sixteen month investigation does not provide a basis for bringing criminal charges against the Archdiocese or its senior managers. Although evidence gathered during the investigation establishes that senior Archdiocese managers did not report suspected child abuse to public authorities, the state’s child abuse reporting law is not applicable because it was not expanded to include priests until 2002.” The investigators found that during Cardinal Bernard Law’s tenure, “the Archdiocese’s response to allegations of clergy sexual abuse of children included at times quietly transferring the alleged abuser to a different parish in the Archdiocese, sometimes without disclosing the abuse to the new parish or restricting the abusive priest’s functions.” I am sorry if I have unwittingly maligned Cardinal Law by repeating the remark made to me by an American priest when we attended the Vatican concert: “If he was back home, he'd been in jail.” On the matter of civil recognition of same sex marriage, I doubt that I am contradicting church teaching with impunity. As I understand it, even Pope Francis indicated that he favoured civil unions before he became pope. I think there is a strong ethical case for civil unions, and that case is unrelated to the Catholic theological understanding of marriage. Re civil recognition of same sex marriage, I have simply said that I think it is inevitable in Australia given the legal developments in the USA, UK, Canada and NZ. Church teaching will have reached fairy tale proportions if it is to include a definitive ruling on what might or might not be prudentially judged to be inevitable in non-theocratic societies like Australia.

Frank Brennan SJ | 09 September 2013  

And Fr Brennan you unwittingly malign His Holiness as have others ! Father Brennan, that Cardinal Bergoglio upheld gay unions is just not true! Lifesite reported 'Miguel Woites, a "confidant of Pope Francis while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, is denying a widely publicized claim that the then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio suggested the endorsement of gay civil unions as an alternative to "homosexual marriage" during a private meeting with fellow bishops in 2010. In an interview granted to the Catholic news agency ACI Prensa, Woites said that the story "isn't true. It's a complete error." The principle source of the claim, Bergoglio biographer Sergio Rubín, "never said who told him, when they told him," said Woites. Furthermore (CNSNews.com) - In 2010, when his native Argentina was considering a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage, Pope Francis I, then archbishop of Buenos Aires, said that the legislation was a total rejection of God's law and an effort by the father of lies to confuse and deceive humanity. I suggest any volte face on that other grave mortal sin viz SSU by then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio would be preposterous!

Father John George | 09 September 2013  

A propos of my last post Fr Brennan, Miguel Woites, the director of the Catholic News Agency of Argentina, who works directly for the Argentine Episcopal Conference and as such worked closely with Bergoglio when he was head of the conference, has high credibility in denying that Bergoglio ever made such a proposal supporting SSU

Father John George | 10 September 2013  

Fr George would be aware of the coverage of this issue by Rorate Coeli. See http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2013/04/ncr-report-from-argentina-bergoglio-did.html. He would also be aware of the thorough investigation of the matter from John Allen at the National Catholic Reporter. See http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/hard-questions-about-francis-argentina-and-lesson-chile. After the New York Times had reported that Bergoglio had been supportive of civil unions, Allen went to Argentina to investigate. What did he find? He was aware of the denial by Miguel Woites, the only evidence quoted by Fr George. This is what Allen reported: “On this score, I was told by three sources in Argentina that the Times basically got it right: Bergoglio did, in fact, favor civil unions. That was confirmed on background by two senior officials of the bishops' conference in Argentina, both of whom worked with Bergoglio and took part in the behind-the-scenes discussions as the conference tried to shape its position. ‘Bergoglio supported civil unions,’ one of those officials told me. Mariano de Vedia, a veteran journalist for La Nación, has covered church/state issues in Argentina for years and said he could confirm Bergoglio's position had been correctly described in the Times account. Guillermo Villarreal, a Catholic journalist in Argentina, said it was well known at the time that Bergoglio's moderate position was opposed by Archbishop Héctor Rubén Aguer of La Plata, the leader of the hawks. The difference was not over whether to oppose gay marriage, but how ferociously to do so and whether there was room for a compromise on civil unions. Villareal described the standoff over gay marriage as the only vote Bergoglio ever lost during his six years as president of the conference. Behind the scenes, sources say Bergoglio tried to avoid fireworks on the gay marriage issue. One young Catholic told me, for instance, he had wanted to organize a public recitation of the rosary on the eve of the vote outside the legislature, knowing that supporters of gay marriage would also be there and the prayer would be a provocation. He wrote to Bergoglio seeking advice, he said, and Bergoglio called him directly, suggesting they pray at home instead. Oesterheld suggested Bergoglio went along with the harder line espoused by the majority of the bishops' conference even if it wasn't his own instinct. ‘At that time, there were different views within the bishops' conference on how open the church should be [to compromise solutions],’ Oesterheld said. ‘The cardinal went along with what the majority wanted. He didn't impose his own views. He never publicly expressed his own feelings on the matter, because he didn't want to seem to be undercutting the common position of the bishops.’” The vehement denial by Miguel Woites is clearly not the whole story, even though that narrative suits the purposes of Fr George. I am not into maligning Pope Francis, wittingly or unwittingly. Let’s all commit ourselves to caritas in veritate.

Frank Brennan SJ | 10 September 2013  

The Editorial Staff of Fr Brennan's exceptionally endorsed NCR supplied this"narrative" on August 13:"Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron told the Detroit Free Press that he heard Francis reiterate Catholic doctrine, which opposes homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Vigneron said the pope made it clear that gays must try to "repent and put their lives in order." "There's no change" on the Catholic church's view on homosexuality, Vigneron said. "He may have had his own Pope Francis way of putting it, different from maybe the way Pope Benedict would put it, but they're saying the same things." San Francisco's Archbishop Cordileone stated on July 29 in response to Pope Francis remarks: "With regard to sexual acts, the Church has always faithfully taught, and always will, the teaching she has received from her Lord, namely, that they find their proper order and purpose within the marital union of husband and wife, and outside of the bond of marriage, they are sinful. Both natural and revealed law teach us this truth." [Truth in clarity, no equivocations!]

Father John George | 10 September 2013  

Archbishops Vigneron and Cordileone's ringing endorsement of papal magisterium re homosexuality in Church teaching, of course implicitly includes CDF condemnation of SSU political tolerance: [Again 'truth in clarity' Fr Brennan!] http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20030731_homosexual-unions_en.html

Father John George | 11 September 2013  

Thanks Eureka Street for this share and thanks Frank for this magnificent presentation.

Marie O'Connor sgs | 11 September 2013  

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