Eyeballing injustice

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Frank Costigan QCIn March, a couple of football teams of Costigans gathered at Currajeen to mark the 80th birthday of Michael Costigan and to remember his twin brother Frank (pictured). There was a lot of talk about Collingwood but much else besides. For a Queenslander like myself, it was the 'besides talk' of church, politics, law and justice which I found more engaging.

I recall my first meeting with Francis Xavier Costigan QC. He was Chairman of the Victorian Bar Council. I was a young law graduate from north of the Murray. I wanted to do my reading at the Bar during university vacation time while pursuing my theological studies here in Melbourne at Jesuit Theological College. Entering Frank's chambers, I was greeted by one who was completely at home at the Bar. I had entered his intellectual warren, the sanctuary of his conscience.

He considered my request while casually drawing on his cigarette. For a moment I had a sense that my future was in the same balance as the spent ash on the precarious end of that cigarette. He smiled gently and with that characteristic glint in the eye surmised that the problem though unique was not insuperable. He seemed to take some delight in paving the way for a Jesuit to come to the Victorian Bar — his Bar — though briefly. He was, after all, a proud alumnus of St Patrick's College, which to Frank's abiding displeasure is now the carpark for the Cathedral bearing the same name.

Some time later, I asked a mate Colin McDonald if I could squat in his chambers. Colin approached the Chairman who expressed gratitude for receiving notification from such junior counsel. Frank said, 'I had heard that you and the Reverend Brennan were thinking of co-habiting. Though it is not the usual practice, in fact a sinful practice usually frowned upon, I would be required to act only on receipt of a complaint. I can't imagine any member of the Bar lodging a complaint in such circumstances.'

Frank was a lawyer who knew, respected and always lived by the rules and mores of his profession, while maintaining the common touch, common sense, and a wise perspective on the purpose and limits of rules and law — and always with a deft touch of humour.

At his funeral two years ago in the cathedral adjacent to his old school, Frank's son Tim spoke for the family:

He taught us the importance of tolerance and acceptance. Many times he welcomed with great openness the oddest, rudest and most disturbed people — our friends! Into his home. He was known fondly to the punks and hippies of Fitzroy as 'the chairman' and later 'the commissioner'. For some of these young people, our father was the only adult who bothered to really talk to them and accepted them for what they were. I believe this gift has given all of us the ability to both survive and thrive in the complex and unusual world we inhabit.

These were the qualities he brought to the board of Jesuit Social Services for so many years. That is why we honour him. That's why Julie Edwards still, when in a corner (and she often is), asks with that disarming smile, 'What would Frank have done?' She then does what she wants to do, knowing that Frank is smiling from above musing, 'Though it is not the usual practice, in fact a sinful practice usually frowned upon, I would be required to act only on receipt of a complaint. I can't imagine any member of the heavenly court lodging a complaint against Jesuit Social Services in such circumstances.'

This past year, Jesuit Social Services has mourned the loss of its longtime chaplain Fr Ian Dillon SJ. I was in Townsville, North Queensland, the day he died. That was a wonderful coincidence given that was where I first met Ian on his return from many years work he had performed in Papua New Guinea. Townsville was a good place for his re-entry as he thought many things about Australia had turned pompous and flabby in his absence.

After a counter meal at the local pub on our first meeting, we walked home but with Ian meandering down the middle of the street. I timorously suggested that here in Australia we had footpaths and they were there for a purpose. He told me to get something or other and continued to walk down the middle of the street a free man.

At Ian's funeral, Julie Edwards said:

He had a very personal and deep love of Jesus which he opened up to us — through his homilies at mass, but mostly through his gift of being present and available. He had the common touch.

He attended every staff orientation — handed out his mobile phone number and told new staff he was the only free 'perk' they got with the job — that he was there for them and to ring him any time. He'd then add — and the best time is 3am. He meant it. He said if you're awake at 3am — that bewitching hour — it's exactly the right time to ring him.

Ian was truly welcoming, discerning and courageous — for everyone and at all hours, embodying the best of the Jesuit tradition.

I was in Townsville to visit an Aboriginal friend who is doing life in the Townsville Women's prison. Though Aborigines are a single-digit, small percentage of our population, they are the overwhelming majority in that North Queensland institution. We talked for hours.

As I was leaving she said to me: 'Look with two eyes. Look beyond. Look for things which are unspoken. They are the things that matter. When your spirit is broken you cannot communicate your pain. That's why my people are sick.' Jesuit Social Services dares to dream and take practical steps towards building a just society — looking beyond for the things which are unspoken while providing practical help for people breaking cycles of poverty and incarceration.

People like the late Frank Costigan QC and the late Ian Dillon SJ showed us how to be welcoming, discerning and courageous in the midst of moral confusion and political chaos — whether behind prison bars, on the streets with the homeless, or at our desks researching and advocating for change. Frank and Ian were both very familiar with the ways of the world; they had fought many good fights; they maintained a smile and a serenity in the midst of human suffering and connivance. Their humour and determination inspired others to persevere when justice seemed out of reach or the preserve only of the privileged.

Frank and Ian showed us that a faith that does justice is not confined to the religious cloisters or to the corridors of power. In fact, those cloisters and corridors will only echo a faith that does justice if we are engaged with people who have no access to those places, and if we enter those places with the stories, facts and figures which explain the chasms between the cloisters, the corridors, and the neighbourhoods of those reached by Jesuit Social Services.

We want to be true to our Jesuit tradition and true to the people we serve. Whether the issue is indigenous imprisonment rates, income management or even our response to climate change, we bring our critical minds and open hearts to the issue at hand, from the perspective of the common good and the public interest and not just our own self interest, and with an eye to the needs, dignity and entitlements of the vulnerable including future generations who are not here to vote or speak for themselves. We take some pride in the fact that seven years ago at this dinner Paul Keating who had previously described me as the meddling priest said that governments rely heavily on the good work done by Jesuit Social Services. He went as far as to say, 'Thank God for Jesuit Social Services'.

One task for us in the year ahead is to work so that last year’s speaker, Julia Gillard, might also say, 'Thank God for Jesuit Social Services.'

We can be, and we need to be, present and credible in the policy debates which impact so significantly on those on the margins if people are to continue thanking God for Jesuit Social Services.

Remember the Northern Territory Intervention of 2007. The Howard Government regularly trotted out Noel Pearson as a respected Aboriginal leader as a supporter of this intervention. And yet one month ago, Noel Pearson finally distinguished his own North Queensland Intervention from the NT proposal. Writing in The Australian he said:

Commonwealth legislation underpinning the Northern Territory Intervention and Cape York welfare reform was passed at the same time in mid-2007. While the reform objectives are similar, there are fundamental differences. The first difference is that in Cape York the reform agenda has been the initiative of Aboriginal leaders and the policy proposals have come from the Cape York Institute, not from government. The Northern Territory policy is unilaterally decided by government. A second difference is that in Cape York the reform agenda is being implemented in large part by Aboriginal leaders and organisations. State and commonwealth governments work in partnership with our organisations, whereas in the Territory it is almost exclusively a government-run show.

Many government critics were saying as much three years ago. But they were identified as trendy lefties who were out of touch, not understanding tough love. Jesuit Social Services has recently set up a project in Alice Springs to resource the local parish and local Aborigines from Santa Teresa who are wanting to take more control of their own lives in the wake of the roll back of CDEP, the amalgamation of shires and the Canberra directed Intervention — three policy changes by different levels of government which cumulatively have left local people feeling powerless and lacking in agency. We have now appointed Xavier Desmachelier as our project officer. Only with a grounded presence can we have any credibility in the national debate about indigenous policy.

Like many welfare groups, Jesuit Social Services has been very wary about the income management programs introduced by the Howard Government, maintained by the Rudd Government and now expanded by the Gillard Government. Once again to quote Noel Pearson:

Cape York income management occurs only in cases where welfare recipients have failed to fulfil their conditions for receiving income support. Where welfare recipients fail to send their children to school or fail to look after their children and abide by their housing tenancy obligations and the law, a group of local elders appointed to the Family Responsibilities Commission, established under complementary Queensland legislation, is empowered to ensure mutual obligations. The Family Responsibilities Commission has the discretion to decide what proportion of income is managed and for what duration.

The difference from the (Northern) Territory is that the Cape York scheme encourages community members to take up their responsibilities. If people are being responsible, they are not affected by income management.

These same points were been made eloquently by national welfare groups including Jesuit Social Services three years ago. But we were not being heard amidst the din of bipartisan tub thumping against long term welfare recipients. Once again there is no substitute for a grounded presence and a concerted research and national advocacy program.

Jesuit Social services is a proud leader in the provision of post release services for Victorian prisoners. How heartening it was during the year to hear Judge Fran Hogan of the Victorian County Court when launching the ground breaking report Young People On Remand In Victoria, co-authored by Dr Matthew Ericson and Professor Tony Vinson for Jesuit Social Services, say:

In my time on the Bench there have been quite a number of times when I have privately thanked God in the same way (for Jesuit Social Services as did Paul Keating). Frankly, at times, without the intervention of Jesuit Social Services in between the time a young offender was charged and committed in the Magistrates' Court and ultimately came to his plea in the County Court, there would have been little material to give a court confidence that it was appropriate to release the offender into the community.

Instead, a young offender, thanks to Jesuit Social Services, has often been able to demonstrate stable accommodation and some positive steps on the way to rehabilitation by the time we, in the County Court, hear the plea.

Jesuit Social Services has been doing this work now for 35 years. Fr Brosnan once said, 'When people get out of prison they need three things — a place to live that's decent, a job they can handle and friendship — and the hardest to provide is friendship.' We've been doing just that for 35 years. We have a strong track record of forming relationships with people that others won't or can't. We don't give up on people. At Brosnan Youth Services, we form relationships with more than 500 such young people each year.

Yesterday morning, I enjoyed a late Brunswick breakfast with Chris Dunk and Alec Darwia from the Connect Program at the Brosnan Centre. We spent an hour or two with a young indigenous man just out of jail. He was being offered friendship, mentoring and practical advice about employment and house rental – in good humour and in a space where he could be himself expressing his bold hopes and deep anxieties. No easy, cheap solutions but companionship on the journey.

Early in the year, we at Jesuit Social Services were assisting the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council on its forthcoming statement for Social Justice Sunday on prisons. I was privileged to read one of the last reflective letters from long time prison chaplain Fr Kevin Ryan from Queensland. He wrote just a few months before his death:

We see it often and we wonder why is it that someone who has served a long prison sentence is back in trouble again. Didn't he or she ever learn? We ask that question as if punishment is the answer to all society's woes. Coming up every election, politicians vie with each other as to which one will be toughest on asylum seekers, robbers, rapists and molesters. Still the offences go on. We forget that barbed-wire fences will not stop water. There must be other forces at work ... All that is achieved by long prison sentences is the offender is deprived of a chance of doing it again while they are locked away.

He went on to make some poignant observations about our Church and prisoners. He said:

We (Catholics) are obsessed with teaching. Let's turn that around and take time to listen to the marginalised and become a learning Church, one of hospitality. It is rare that we find former prisoners finding any comfort in a parish church of any traditional group, but they do find a place in the small community places, often run on Pentecostal or evangelical lines.

Many prisoners read Scriptures and pray. Doctrine as expressed in Catechisms of rules as in Canon Law mean little to these people, but they will respond to genuine love of God. Come to think of it, it was people like these with whom Jesus formed the New Testament church community.

We at Jesuit Social Services are pleased within the Octave of Easter to celebrate with you our friends and supporters tonight. As a Jesuit, might I join with my fellow Jesuits here this evening and share with all of you (whether Jesuit or not, churchgoer or not) the remarks of our last General Congregation:

In his day, St Ignatius gave shelter to the homeless of Rome, cared for prostitutes, and established homes for orphans. He sought collaborators and with them established organizations and networks to continue these and many other forms of service. To respond today to the pressing needs of our complex and fragile world, many hands are surely needed. Collaboration in mission is the way we respond to this situation: it expresses our true identity as members of the Church, the complementarity of our diverse calls to holiness, our mutual responsibility for the mission of Christ, our desire to join people of good will in the service of the human family, and the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is a grace given to us in this moment, one consistent with our Jesuit way of proceeding.

With your ongoing and increased support, we can contribute a courageous and discerning welcome to the outsiders and strangers who wonder whether there ever could be a society which gives them a fair go, or even a learning, hospitable Church. If we are to get our teeth into issues of acute injustice, we need to mix with both the decision makers and those affected by those decisions and who would never dream of being master.

We must always be eyeballing both. Otherwise we risk becoming sanctimonious. Eyeballing both, with both eyes, looking for things which are unspoken, we might make contagious that Costigan glint in the eye and that Dillon laugh which are the tell tale signs of a faith that does justice, on the margins, in the tough times, with some of the unlikeliest characters and yes even at three in the morning. 

 Frank BrennanFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. The above text is from his 2011 Costigan Oration at the Jesuit Social Services Dinner, Melbourne, on 30 April 2011.

Topic tags: Frank Costigan QC, Ian Dillon SJ, Jesuit Social Services, Julie Edwards, Paul Keating, Noel Pearson



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Existing comments

What a tonic to enjoy Frank's own easy to read wisdom & great Costigan quotes ,absolute pearls .I am particularly at one with the stated correlation between the dignity of work & incarseration .My own sumation of core of Indig male health is D&D ( Diet <-> Dignity .)

Interestingly I believe my lengthy comment on Brian McCoy's article re Remote student's issues in southern boarding schools ,has much to say about this subject .I can assure you that during that part of Balgo's history ,incarseration was zero for approx 16 years ( Halls Creek & Broome jail records would verify this ). Regards John
John Kersh | 04 May 2011


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