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The uncomfortable legacy: colonisation and the church



This is an excerpt of Brian McCoy's full essay, available to read here.

In November 1986, Pope John Paul II came to Blatherskite Park in Alice Springs. A winding track was carefully designed in the park to allow visitors from various parts of Australia to have their own designated space and meet the Pope. However, in their intense preparations, the local organising committee, led by a formidable parish priest, forgot one critical thing: there was no allowance for the Pope to first meet the elders of the Arrernte people, the local traditional people. They had been forgotten. Eventually, the Pope did arrive and meet the Arrernte elders before moving along the designed track. But in both Uluru and Alice Springs key leadership within the Church at that time — clerical, episcopal and male — did not get it.

Main image: Aboriginal flag waving (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

They might have come with good intentions but they also came with assumptions born of a colonial and Church history and where male clericalism did not know how to reflect on its own power and authority. It did not know how to listen. Or, as someone once commented: ‘We did not know what Aborigines [sic] thought about it all. We would never have dreamed of asking them’.

I believe one of the tasks of this coming Plenary Council is to begin and open up a safe, listening space with First Nations people where, as a Church, we can hear what we ‘did get’, what we ‘failed to get’ and what calls us now to get down on our knees and say ‘sorry’! And then, when we stand up, to show that we are committed to a new path and ‘getting it’. Not by ourselves but in a new partnership and relationship.

The paper, Instrumentum Laboris, in preparation for the coming Plenary Council, attempts to offend no one, at least in the descriptor nouns it uses: it refers to First Nations (6 times), Indigenous (10), Aboriginal (7), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (10). And it mentions ‘dadirri’, one of the few acknowledgements that other Australians have anything they can learn from First Nations peoples.

However, I found myself quite disappointed by the lack of depth, awareness and any sense of the need for an apology in this paper. Much less an openness to any serious conversion that is needed within the Church.

One reference particularly concerned me: 'While dioceses and religious orders have done much to share faith, education and pastoral services with Indigenous communities, much suffering has been inflicted by the misguided attempts (my emphasis) of those who were ignorant of this cultural richness.' (40) If we think that our failures were no more than ‘misguided attempts’, we clearly show we have not learned from or accepted our history of ignorance, paternalism and, at times, racism. We have failed to see that, while we might ‘have done much’, there are many times when we failed and offended, mistreated, controlled and patronised. Too often, myself included, we have stood as bystanders and allowed terrible things to happen. In our efforts to do good we have failed to listen to our fears, our uncertainties, ignorance and vulnerabilities. Without a treaty or any formal agreement we have tried but floundered as we sought to know what best to do.


'All Christian Churches have benefited from the dispossession of First Nations people. This is a legacy that we have yet to publicly acknowledge.'


Greg O’Kelly SJ in writing about the Jesuit mission in the Northern Territory (1882- 1899) described the Jesuits in the Territory at that time who ‘spoke often of “dark deeds, that are never allowed to see the light of day” and "would to God that these (killings) were matters of past history!’’’ (A History of the Jesuit Mission Stations in the Northern Territory 1882-1899, 1986, 9). This past, in many ways, still remains with us. It can lead to denial or guilt about our colonial past. But neither denial or guilt will ever free or liberate us. Only conversion will. I acknowledge that I walk upon the traditional lands of First Nations peoples I pay my respects to them and recognise the continuing gift of their cultures to the life, land and spirit of Australia.

The attitudes that many Australians have held, and some continue to hold, towards First Nations people, have consistently failed to recognise them as fully human, much less as our teachers, friends or close companions. The Catholic Church, as did all the Christian Churches, went along with government policies as the various Churches competed with one another for the right to evangelise particular groups.

The growing Irish Catholic communities of the south-east Australia showed little interest in outreach to First Nations people. That was left to others, mainly European missionaries.

As the colonisation of this country spread over the whole land, white Australians only allowed First Nations peoples to live on that land that white Australians did not want (but sometimes, later, found it did want and then took). The best and most fertile land we have kept for ourselves. All Christian Churches have benefited from the dispossession of First Nations people. This is a legacy that we have yet to publicly acknowledge.



Brian McCoyBrian F. McCoy SJ is the former Provincial Superior for the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus (2014-2020). He was the Director of the Australian Jesuit Tertianship program from 2013-14. He completed a doctorate in Aboriginal men’s health at the University of Melbourne, later published as Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the health of Aboriginal men.

Topic tags: Fr Brian McCoy SJ, First Nations, Plenary Council, Pope John Paul II, Arrernte



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Existing comments

I would suggest that the colonisation of the indigenous people of this country did not come from "white Australians" but from "white Englishmen" who employed the same tactics in every country they invaded and stole, just like every other expansive and exploring European nation (France, Holland, Belgium, Spain and Portugal to name the main offenders). The current white Australian cannot be held responsible for the past and those who feel the pain of others' past misdoings need to give up the hand ringing and burden of England's guilt and embrace the present and future. Get over the past or we will not progress and our indigenous people will continue to be disadvantaged.

john frawley | 08 July 2021  

The dispossession of the first peoples of this land was made possible by an assumption of the invaders that their (the invaders) culture was superior, the people being invaded were somehow less than human and because conquest was seen as legitimate. The church was complicit in these assumptions. And that thread has been woven into our history and caused so much damage both to the dispossessed and the invaders. The first nations of this land continue to suffer and the churches need to acknowledge their complicity in causing the suffering and must begin to live out reconciliation.

Pam | 08 July 2021  

I was first educated by the Christian Brothers at Waverley College and then by the Jesuits at St. Ignatius College in the 1950's and at no stage was I ever told that the land in Australia owned by our first nations aboriginal peoples and that the English white men took this land from them. It seems that the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits believed that this land was terra nulls, totally empty as stated by George 111 to Captain Phillip. Both the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits helped the white settlers attempt to integrate and wipe out of our first nations people in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Shame Shame Shame !

DAVID FIELD | 08 July 2021  

Fr Brian, besides public acknowledgement by all Christian Churches of their dispossession of First Nation peoples' land that you call for, what practical compensatory and conciliatory implications and possibilities do you see for this acknowledgement?

John RD | 09 July 2021  

I must take you up here, with all due respect, Brian. When the First Fleet landed in 1788, Great Britain, the colonising power, was represented by the Reverend Richard Johnson, a Church of England priest. He was a very good man, and, on returning home to England, became involved in the anti-slavery movement with the great William Wilberforce. Whilst here he befriended Aboriginals and took an Aboriginal girl into his household. He was no racist, neither was Governor Phillip. There was no official Catholic presence on the First Fleet. Ireland lay under the heavy hand of the Ascendancy. The Irish hierarchy were often seen as being toadies of the British. Mannix was completely outside this 'norm'. Australia, till well into the 1960s, was viciously sectarian, especially in Melbourne, where I grew up in the 60s and Catholics were kept out of employment in certain firms. It was like Ascendancy Ireland. Catholics had to survive and work their way up into the middle class, which they did, extremely successfully. There was some very good work done by Catholic missionaries. That excellent Australian of Irish descent, John Frawley, like Johnson and Phillip absolutely not a racist, is appreciative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their unique cultures but is quite correct in saying the Dreamtime mythology and religion are different to Christianity and cannot be absorbed by it. The Catholic hierarchy in this country owes ATSI people; women; all those molested by priests, brothers and nuns and so many others an abject, grovelling apology. The likes of Comensoli just haven't got either the vision or bottle to do it.

Edward Fido | 09 July 2021  

Fr Brian has nailed it! The paternalistic and racist Catholic and Protestant missionary history in Australia has greatly added to the generations of disadvantage our First Nations have been subjected to. Only by acknowledging this and respectfully seeking forgiveness can the Church play any role in future pathways for our original inhabitants.

John Allen | 09 July 2021  

Fr Brian perhaps reconciliation is possible for Australia by a series of written treaties with our indigenous first peoples just as the Maori people did with Britain. Better late than never. Saying "sorry" is so meaningless in retrospect. Its akin to a letter offering an apology to an abuse victim from the Superior of the order while the perpetrator retires to the monastery and a life of comfort with a smirk on his face. "The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of New Zealand. An agreement entered into by representatives of the Crown and of Maori iwi (tribes) and hapu (sub-tribes). Named after the place in the Bay of Islands where the Treaty was signed 6 February 1840. The Treaty was not drafted as a constitution or a statute. It was a broad statement of principles upon which the British officials and Maori chiefs made a political compact or covenant to found a nation state and build a government in New Zealand to deal with pressing new circumstances. Like many treaties, it is an exchange of promises between the parties to it." The Treaty has three articles. English version, Maori cede the sovereignty of New Zealand to Britain; Maori give the Crown an exclusive right to buy lands they wish to sell and, in return, are guaranteed full rights of ownership of their lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions; and Maori are given the rights and privileges of British subjects. The Treaty in Maori was deemed to convey the meaning of the English version, but there are important differences. Most significantly, in the Maori version the word ‘sovereignty’ was translated as ‘kawanatanga’ (governance). Some Maori believed that the governor would have authority over the settlers alone; others thought that were giving up the government over their lands but retaining the right to manage their own affairs. The English version guaranteed ‘undisturbed possession’ of all properties, but the Maori version guaranteed ‘tino rangatiratanga’ (full authority) over ‘taonga’ (treasures, which can be intangible). The precise nature of the exchange within the Treaty of Waitangi is a matter of debate." Source History of New Zealand. A treaty series could remedy the defects in how Australia was settled and provide redress for historic claims and enable Aboriginal self-empowerment. Treaties should recognize the sovereignty of Aboriginal peoples, subject to the laws of the nation. Does it matter that many tribes were nomadic? That they did not have a settled system of agriculture? That they set fire to the bush to flush out wild game? That they lived in a humpy, also known as a gunyah, or wurley instead of a rectangular wharepuni (sleeping houses)? That they were not as warlike or as organised in battle as the Maori? They were just as territorial. That their weapons were more primitive? Time passes and these wounds do not heal. We have confront historical injustices such as: "TASMANIA- George Hull was posted at Hobart as the Deputy Assistant Commissary in 1819 and was granted a large estate. He reported that it was a favourite amusement to hunt the Aborigines; that a day would be selected and the neighbouring settlers invited, with their families, to a picnic. After dinner all would be gaiety and merriment, while the gentlemen of the party would take their guns and dogs, and accompanied by two or three convict servants, wander through the bush in search of blackfellows. Sometimes they would return without sport; at others they would succeed in killing a woman, or, if lucky, a man or two'. Hull also wrote that a fellow European he knew had a pickle tub in which he put the ears of all the blacks he shot."In 1831 he was obliged to retire from the Commissariat Department, as he was becoming too deaf, but in July 1832 was appointed a justice of the peace, and in 1837 held the position of assistant to the director-general of roads. In 1839 he was fulfilling the duties of sitting magistrate and he was buried with his wife in the grounds of St John's Church, New Town. Obviously a very Christian man. Rewarded by the Crown for his keen sense of justice. Its time we did something about it.

Francis Armstrong | 09 July 2021  

‘The growing Irish Catholic communities of the south-east Australia showed little interest in outreach to First Nations people. That was left to others, mainly European missionaries’. True. What a pity there wasn’t more support for Bede Polding, an English Benedictine, who certainly did have a well-informed and sympathetic interest in the indigenous peoples.

Joan Seymour | 09 July 2021  

It is so basic. One of the ways religions gain and maintain adherents is by giving them others to look down on. It is difficult for us to grasp a spirituality which is so basic, so under our feet as mother earth which needs to be respected and honoured. The evangelism has been telling. Could it not be more useful to keep asking about how to join in their spirituality? Or ask how we can help them with their being heard? One thing Jesuits could do is to interrogate, evaluate and reflect on the business of dragging a first nation child into a college like Riverview, as if that will help. It looks like rank cultural appropriation and adornment of the brand with what will satisfy the market. Why not get some of the students to live on country? School officials, boards and marketing teams cannot claim decent sensitivity but can observe comfortably and complacently from afar and with little skin in the game. The latest Riverview magazine sports a photo of a first nation lad and adviser in what looks like staged media, and the words of the boy sound as if he is speaking through a PR spinner. What Brian McCoy is decrying is going on right now.

Michael D. Breen | 09 July 2021  

Excellent piece Brian, candid, insightful and truly from the heart.

Rob | 10 July 2021  

Thank you Brian for your continuing contributions in word, thought and deed. May I note the suggestion from M. Breen that “PR spin” has entered the Catholic Church in regard to Relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

K. McPadden | 10 July 2021  

When I look around the congregation in my church on the weekend, I see that the Catholic Church in Australia owes much of its existence to imperialism and the colonial powers that brought Catholicism to the countries of their empires. The Irish came here because they had been colonised by the British, as did the Maltese. The Filipinos and many of the South Americans by the Spanish. The Mauritians and the Vietnamese by the French. The Sri Lankans and southern Indians by the Portuguese. Perhaps the Italians were the only ones who came here who had not been subjected to imperialism, just devastation at the end of the war. So perhaps it's time for those of us who are the descendants of the products of imperialism to recognise the effects our colonial ancestors had, and continue to have, on Aboriginal people.

Anne Sheldrick | 11 July 2021  

Hold on right there Anne Sheldrick. For God's sake don't try and force collective guilt on every white Catholic! You obviously know nothing of British or Australian Colonial History. The poor bastards who joined the British Armed Forces in the heyday of Empire, if they didn't drunkenly take the King's Shilling or fall prey to the press gang, were often the starving underclass of society, especially in Ireland, where rack rents were often five times those in England and the representatives of absentee landlords happy to evict for any reason. Starvation or the British Army? What would you do? The starving have no time for moral high horses. Are you one of those unfortunates, who, knowing nothing of History, but wanting to be 'progressive' adopts every half-baked so-called 'egalitarian' cause whilst patronising the real descendants of the colonised people because you 'know things'? God save them and us all from you and your likes.

Edward Fido | 12 July 2021  

With permission, I would like to make a suggestion. Invite Gary Foley to make a contribution. Otherwise, “we STILL did not know what Aborigines [sic] thought about it all. We STILL would never have dreamed of asking them”. Prof. Foley can be contacted at Gary.Foley@vu.edu.au. Alternatively contact ASIO, they have a big file on him.

Fosco | 13 July 2021  

It's not for Gary Foley or any other of the inner city opinionati to speak for all ATSI people, Fosco. They can speak for themselves, and should. All of them. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was not one person speaking.

Edward Fido | 14 July 2021  

The missionaries don't often get a chance to reply. This is Bishop Gsell in 1940 answering Communist complaints that he'd destroyed native culture. He says yes, he did attack some traditions ... https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/106341758

James Franklin | 27 July 2021  

I think I may be a few years younger than you, David Field. The excellent Bishop Perry, the main founder of Melbourne Grammar School (1858), wanted Aboriginal students admitted. He was overruled by others on the Founding Committee. It took till 1951 before Grammar had its first Australian Headmaster, the late Sir Brian Hone. In 1966 - my last year at School - he admitted what I believe was the first Aboriginal student, Peter Kanoa, who I believe has since changed his name. I believe Peter came from Gippsland, which has a poor history of treatment of Aboriginal people. Peter has been involved in work to better his community. I have not lived in Melbourne since 1976 and am not as involved an Old Melburnian as others, though I do love the place. I believe there is now an Aboriginal Caucus connected with the School, which raises money to provide scholarships to it. I read an article recently in the general press about an Aboriginal student currently at MGS who was on holiday, fishing in his tribal land in North West WA. He was doing it the traditional way, with a spear. I guess the two worlds need to come together like that. We cannot erase the past but we can try to redeem it. I think Bishop Perry is smiling in Heaven.

Edward Fido | 28 July 2021  

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