Letter from Australia

The Changing Year

Many Australians are glad to have seen the end of 2002, for it was the year that startled us into realizing just how intricately we are bound up with the rest of the world. While 11th September 2001 had made an impact here (especially on the families whose relatives died) it was the smaller but closer act of terrorism – the bombing of Bali¹s Paddy’s Bar on Saturday 12th October 2002 that has shown Australians how vulnerable we really are. The football season had just come to an end, and a disproportionate number of young Australians were staying in this nearby inexpensive but beautiful holiday destination. Eighty-eight Australians were amongst those who lost their lives, and hundreds more were injured. The national newspaper, The Australian, called 12th October our ‘single blackest day since World War II’.

Indonesian threat

Speculation has been rife on the possible threat to Australia from extremists in Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world. In different parts of Indonesia over the last couple of years, those extremists have been responsible for a great deal of the violence and suffering inflicted on the Christian minority.

Australia¹s relationship with Indonesia is delicate at the best of times, but at present many Indonesian commentators are still highly critical of the part Australia played in helping East Timor become an independent nation. In addition to that, there is a fair bit of criticism in the region of the Australian Prime Minister’s unqualified support of George Bush’s approach to the ‘war on terror. The Indonesians have had to admit that there is an influential and well organized Al-Qaeda presence in their country. According to the Australian government¹s investigations, our country, too, is home to a disturbingly high number of people with Al-Qaeda connections.

It has been said openly by some extremists connected with Al-Qaeda that the bombing in Bali was, in fact, a ‘lesson for Australia’, a payback for both our support of the East Timorese, and our PM’s support of President Bush. Our security organizations refuse to rule out the possibility of acts of terror on the Australian mainland. Indeed, people are being told how to cope in such emergencies. A lot of money is being spent on tightening up security at airports and public places generally. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that the larrikin happy-go-lucky spirit of Australia has given way to a gloomy paranoia, especially when one considers how unprotectable so much of the Australian coastline is.

The trials of Dr Pell

For the Christian community the relentless 2002 media campaign against the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Dr George Pell was, itself, a premeditated exercise in terrorism. Dr Pell is a Gospel man. He described himself in a lecture he gave early last year as a ‘Bible Christian’. He believes in the divinity of Christ, the given-ness of the Christian Faith, and seeks to restore a Christ-centred classical Catholicism to those parts of the Roman Church that have been slowly dying as a result of their taking on board the liberal theology that has been so fashionable in Australian Catholicism over the last thirty years. (It is no accident that he is supportive of catholic Anglicans who contend for the Faith once delivered to the saints, or that, for all their differences, he is a friend of the robustly Evangelical Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen.)

Child sexual abuse has been a very public issue for all the Australian churches over the last few years. George Pell had (in his old Diocese of Melbourne) instituted the first organized procedure in Australia for dealing with victims and perpetrators, and ensuring that proper financial compensation was paid to victims. At the same time he sought to teach the biblical view of sexual morality that lies at the heart of The Catechism of the Catholic Church. This brought attacks from the noisier parts of the gay community. There was even a sustained but ultimately unsuccessful media attempt to destroy Pell by accusing him of paying, not compensation, but hush money, to victims.

In the middle of August last year, allegations of sexual abuse dating back to his time as a seminarian were brought against Pell. The complainant would not involve the police, but, with obvious support from people who resent the Archbishop¹s stand on a range of issues, the allegations were made public. Pell immediately stood aside and submitted himself to the kind of enquiry prescribed for other clergy in the same position. The complainant was permitted to retain his anonymity; but the media had a field day with Pell. It was real persecution. Many Australians including some who think little of Pell regarded this as a great injustice. The enquiry, presided over by retired Victorian Supreme Court Judge Alec Southwell QC (not a Catholic), released its finings on 14th October, totally exonerating Pell.

As it happens, Brisbane journalist and practising Catholic, Tess Livingstone, had written a detailed biography of George Pell. The last chapter was put in place immediately after Pell’s exoneration, with the result that the launch of the book was a well publicized bouncing back of the Archbishop who had suffered so much. Archbishop Peter Jensen was the speaker at the launch, and at one point he looked up at Pell and said, ‘It’s good to have him back!’

Third Act

In the eyes of many, a third act of terrorism brought 2002 to an end: the Federal Parliament¹s passing of legislation to allow embryonic stem cell research. The House of Representatives approved the legislation by 99 to 33 in a conscience vote on 23rd September, following a marathon 35-hour debate. This legislation allows stem cell research on 700,000 surplus embryos created for IVF schemes before 5 April this year, while banning research on embryos created after the deadline. Senate vote on 5th December was 45 to 26 in favour of the bill, paving the way for scientists to begin their work next year.

In both houses of Parliament the legislation was opposed by members of all the major political parties, and many were devastated by the result. ‘Human life for sale in Australia’ was the headline on one billboard. The Prime Minister was in favour, whereas his deputy was vigorously opposed. The Prime Minister even hailed the decision as a great advance for medical research.

Most Christian leaders regret the passing of the legislation. Archbishop Peter Carnley, however, thinks embryonic stem cell research to be a good thing. It was unfortunate that Archbishop George Pell had been in self-imposed exile from the media, for he would almost certainly have stood publicly with Archbishop Jensen in opposition and that may have had some impact on the vote.

Terrorism on every hand! The effects of the Bali bombing, the total absorption of the media in trying to bring down George Pell, and the decision that human life at the embryonic stage is expendable. 2002 changed Australia permanently. We will never be the same again.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’, Brisbane, a Forward in Faith Parish.

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