The sad saga of Saint Mary’s South Brisbane – an unholy row

It’s hard to think of another time when the goings on at a local Parish church has received so much media coverage.  Father Peter Kennedy, the about-to-be-ex Parish priest of St Mary’s Catholic Church at South Brisbane, featured in the glossy weekend magazines of both The Courier-Mail and The Australian.  This follows a myriad of previous stories in the local media, the ABC’s website and Catholic media in recent weeks covering the long running and now quite bitter dispute, with Fr Kennedy and his parish community on one side, and the local diocesan Archbishop John Bathersby.

The St Mary’s parish community also has a website, which contains a lot of the background to this dispute, including some of the letters from the Archbishop and responses from Fr Kennedy.  There’s also Facebook and MySpace pages in support of the parish and its priests. It’s gained coverage in the British Catholic periodical The Tablet (some coverage not online), featured in the local Gay press and Green Left Weekly, and been the subject of Marxist assessment on Online Opnion.

As I’ve mentioned a numbers of times before, I’m an atheist. I was raised as a Catholic and also know plenty of people within the local Catholic community and bureaucracy around Brisbane – not least because many of them are active in social justice issues and welfare services in the region.  So I understand a fair bit of the context and background of different disputes.  I’ve been to a few forums at St Mary’s – even spoken at a couple of them – but I’ve never been to a church service there. I know plenty of people who have, included more than one federal MP.

The term ‘broad church’ is used a lot to describe large political parties, but it is even more apt for large religions. As with many other creeds, there is a massive variance in local practices amongst Catholic parishes around the world.

Reading many of the media reports on this matter, and also the letters and responses on the St Mary’s website, it seems to me that some of the media coverage is a bit unclear on why Fr Kennedy and his parish have got into so much strife.  The majority of the media coverage suggests that the Archbishop’s concerns centre on the use of women as preachers and being involved in handing out communion, and the priest blessing homosexual couples and not using the right formula of words in Baptisms (i.e. saying “Creator, Sustainer and  Liberator instead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

These indications in the media seem quite odd to me, as I’ve known plenty of occasions where women have been involved in services and delivered the sermon during a mass. I recall my mother doing this at least a couple of decades ago and seen plenty of occasions of women being involved in handing out the Eucharist at communion time.  And whilst there’s no doubt the Catholic Church would be seriously unhappy with a priest performing a marriage service for a gay couple, I’ve certainly known occasions where openly gay couples have been involved in parish activities and had priests play a part in commitment ceremonies.

The letters from the Archbishop to St Mary’s and their responses don’t make it very clear to me what precisely needed to be done by the local Parish to avoid the action now taken by the Archbishop. There’s been a lot of talk about a Buddhist statue being present in the church at one time. Even though some have disputed the accuracy of this, even if true it hardly seems a sackable offence, unless it was used a central part of worship, which I’m sure wasn’t. The fact that the priest doesn’t wear the usual garments hardly seems to warrant a sacking either.

From the outside, it looks more like both sides have just dug themselves deeper and deeper into opposing trenches over the last few years. Certainly the last few exchanges of correspondence read to me like two people who are simply talking past each other and not really engaging with what the other is saying.  It does look rather like there’s a fair bit of pride (one of the so-called ‘deadly sins’) impacting on peoples’ actions on both sides here, although it’s not really for me to judge such things. In any case, the dispute is now so public and so entrenched that it’s hard to any resolution which will satisfy both sides. In such a circumstance, the one with the greater power usually wins, although in this instance it looks like a ‘win’ for the Archbishop will be a Pyrrhic one.

Even if I did believe in a God, the church’s open attacks on gay people and repeated failures to tackle many cases of serious sexual assault by their clergy, not to mention their ban on women being clergy, would make it impossible for me to sign up to this particular brand of faith – despite the considerable amount of good done by many church members and organisations at local level in assisting poorer people and speaking out on issues of justice. Of course, the Catholic church is far from the only religion which is intrinscially patriachal, treats gay people as second-class or protects its institutional interest rather than those of their followers when allegations of sexual abuse and breach of trust arise. But it has the most adherents of any religion in Australia, which does create some wider relevance in the local context.

One of the potential problems from the St Mary’s dispute which may well have a big effect on the wider community is what might happen to their very effective social services arm – Micah Services. This is a sizeable and important body which generates a lot of good supports to many of the poorer and disadvantaged people of the area, which developed out of the strong and active social justice principles that St Mary’s has focused on.  Some of the key people involved in Micah are also involved in the local parish, and while I’m sure they won’t pull out of helping Micah to continue to deliver vital support services, there is a risk in the long run that some of the passion and support for Micah might be diminished if the attendance and energy put into the local parish declines.

Whilst disputes within religions can raise some interesting issues on an intellectual level, I feel that if they solely concern internal matters then it’s a matter for people who ascribe to that religion to work out.  If you choose to be part of a group then, while you can still push for change from within, you sign up to their rules, processes and beliefs. I’m not part of it, so I don’t see it as something for me to get involved.  I stay out of such things, unless they involve statements or activities that impact on the wider community, such as when the Pope attacks all homosexual people as being ‘disordered’.

A person who considers themself to be a Catholic is not forced to adopt 100 per cent of every single view ever expressed by the Pope or other senior church leaders. A good example of this is the prohibition on the use of contraceptives. Every survey I’ve ever seen shows that a clear majority of Catholics – at least in the developed world – do not agree with or follow this teaching.  There is still room within Catholicism for a person to use an informed conscience to come to a view on various matters – although the precise meaning and effect of that teaching is often disputed.  In a case from the early 1980s which has a few echoes of the current dispute, a local Brisbane priest, Father Bill O’Shea, got into some serious strife with the powers-that-be when some local people reported him to the Vatican for the views he expressed in the local paper about the role of an informed conscience in coming to decisions about matters such as contraception.

As many other outsiders have pointed out, it is hard to reconcile the image of a Church hierarchy so doggedly determined to dismiss a priest because he doesn’t wear the right garments or use the required formula of words in some of his liturgies and ceremonies, with the recent willingness of the Church to allow a clergyman to remain in the church despite denying the Jewish Holocaust of the 1940s and openly anti-semitic groups to retain church recognition or the many instances where priests who have sexual assaulted children have been protected by the Church or have been allowed to keep practicing as priests even after having been found guilty of such offences.

The local dispute here all seems rather unnecessary and destructive. However, even though it may have some flow impacts on the wider community, disputes like these are matters for members of the relevant church to sort out.


CROSS-POSTED at Crikey’s blogsite.

UPDATE: Further reasoned and in-depth assessments by Michael Carden.

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  1. No one could ever say that Father Peter Kennedy didn’t participate in numerous excellent endeavours which benefitted the local community very greatly.

    But I think the bottom line of the issue regarding the Roman Catholic Church lies in the fact that he is seriously departing from its doctrines and practices. Some of his ideas are recidivist.

    He can’t just do whatever he likes in someone else’s church. I think he should resign his position and if he so chooses, commence his own separate religious group.

    But I would agree that there are other priests who should be ousted from the Roman Catholic Church for behaviour just as non-conformist, and very often much worse.

    Peter Kennedy could call his new church the Branch Kennedians, Inclusive Kennedians or any other name of his choosing. Then he can do whatever he wants, as long as he acts within Australian law.

  2. I dont know all the details of why this Priest is being attacked,but in the reference on anti-semitic groups Williamson is attacked.This man is under attack for invalid over sensitive matters that are not racist,but critical of the aspects of what is badly defined as Jews and the history of the Jews.I think Australia is asleep at the wheel on this matter,and needs a non-denialist attitude to what certain individuals have created from nothing racist at all.

  3. Conflicts arise from many sources, some of them personal and of long standing. Resolutions come from keeping the dreams of both parties in tact.
    If the Archbishop is to retain his authority (however fragile) in this matter, then Fr Peter has to step aside. If Fr Peter is to retain the social justice in action focus of St Mary’s than the new administrator must be equally committed to Micah and the parish community.
    Perhaps if the Archbishop were to appoint Fr Terry as administrator, we could all get back to going to mass when we can, and finding spiritual succour where we find it.

  4. Alternatively, could it be that St Mary’s and Micah provide far too loud a voice for some property developers? If St Mary’s goes, then the voice of the homeless and dispossessed becomes quieter and the CBD can more easily, and profitably, be extended over the river??
    It’s not the first time that big business and the church have worked well together.

  5. This is typical of the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. As one wag commented in the SMH, to the effect, ‘if he’d been abusing kids he’d be protected and encouraged to stay’! Sadly, there’s a lot of truth in that. As a person, particularly a female raised in this hypocritical, misognyst environment, I learned very early, that the only way is their way! When it’s all boiled down, the church is more interested in protecting its dogma than caring about humanity. The disgraceful carry on during World Youth Week only reaffirmed my view.

    There was a priest in my local area over 20 years ago, who was in strife because he also welcomed gays into the brethren. He ended up leaving, which was an admirable thing to do. A quietly spoken caring human being, who I believe was really ‘living the scriptures’ as is Fr Kennedy. I’m not a practicing catholic, haven’t been for years, for just this hypocritical attitude to people, and the criminal attitude to contraception and abortion. I hope the people remain supportive, and force these cruel and vindictive people to go away and leave them in peace. Perhaps they could learn something from this community – there’s standing room only each Sunday it appears!

    As for Williamson – he is a Holocaust denier – a position that is causing much stress to those who survived and their descendants. While I have only revulsion for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the fact is that 6 million people were murdered by Hitler,because they were Jews; which was an atrocity, and I believe has been proven as a fact. Apparently, Williamson is studying history as we speak. Perhaps he will be enlightened as to the real truth! No comparison with Fr Kennedy at all!

  6. I cannot assume,because there is no comment about Williamson here,that the wheels of denying other holocausts before the patented one,and others after as in Iraq and soon to be Afghanistan are not well and truly being turned.Belief is a wonderful thing,but historical matters are not on the side of a peoples who seem to claim some sort of patent on the word semitic,and persist even when DNA would prove the people they seem to like to kill,after forming a country, are no different to them. And Palestinians have more right to claim relationships with Jesus,than the patented Holocaust sellers..I am therefore a bit disappointed that Andrew here,hasn’t embarked on a real analysis of what Williamson is suffering for questioning some matters generated as a patented be all and end all of all holocausts.What about Black slavery,and the transportation of Irish potato famine victims to America!? I guess with all the emphasis on Australian history we can swap the destruction of the emu population for an ostrich about what has occured to other nations. India, Sri Lanka ,Burma that was once Muslim ,and on it goes ,whilst the patented holocaust sellers simply get away with it. I may have relatives that have directly killed,maybe even this Century without even following any type of rule at war,I am not over sensitive about it to disengage the thinking process about historical matters,where I haven’t had anything to do with it as an individual,or decision makers and those who influence them.So why have some people of particular backgrounds tried to rope everyone into being part of the patented holocaust sellers Association!?They are pathetic,in their insistences,and, Williamson put under the pressure he has been put under shows the patented sellers Association has much much more to hide,than maybe the already revised numbers of people Holocausted being reduced.Including in that hiding is stuff now in Israel against other Israelis,and a real effort to patent all moments of racism.

  7. Tadao:

    I think you make a good point about the business community having an interest in possibly getting rid of St Mary’s Church, or at least minimising the size of the flock.

    A bank officer who organises loans told me that West End has both the richest and poorest residents of Brisbane. It’s not uncommon for people to pay $1,000,000+ for an apartment there, and the rate of robbery is very high. The bank officer also cited theft of documents from mailboxes (identity theft) as a common problem.

    Washington DC has one of the highest murder rates in the world. The only answer they’ve found is to “build out” the poor with expensive apartments.


    Father Kennedy isn’t “living the scriptures” when he is supporting and participating in recidivist practices.

  8. I agree with you Andrew that this conflict seems to be a little confusing with both sides rather vague on its genesis. As a Catholic I am well aware of the Byzantine nature of the Roman Church’s politics and secrecy (if you pardon the oxymoron). I hazard a guess that this stoush has more to it than meets eye. Perhaps a more diligent journalist may uncover the underlying causes, but with the current state of journalism in Queensland this is highly unlikely.
    What is more of a concern to me is while the clergy fight their hidden battles the laity are asked to blindly follow.

  9. I think that there is a bit of a misunderstanding here about the nature of service in the Church. Kennedy has been preaching and acting contrary to current orthodox Church policy and teachings. He is a paid representative of the church, and presumably early in his career he swore an oath (to his God and his bishop) of obedience. That is the nature of service as a Catholic priest. His disobediance is casue for dissmisal. Seems reasonable to me.

    The fact that he is a popular Priest in the community, and that he appently does excellent work for Micah is irrelevent and misunderstands his role within the organisation. His role is to provide orthodox religious instruction to the faithful.

    The wider issue is the fact that religious orders fundamentaly cannot support heterodox beliefs. To do so undemines the organisations authority and its members confidence in their belief. I am amazed that this is so controversial.

    Also, I agree with Andrew that there does seem to be some differing standards being applied to the ‘Universal Church’ though which I find rather amusing.

    Phillip, holocaust denial is not the same as genuine critcism of Israel. Holocaust denial is blatent racism. It involves fraudulent manipulation of historical sources to deny that Jews were systematically murdered. Williamson’s statements to the effect that only several hundred thousand Jews were killed by the Nazis can only be made by this type of fraud.

  10. I am sure that everyone that has found some problem with what I left here,is Absolutely Right in everyone of their factual accounts,and of course my obvious racism.It was only last night,I lit a bonfire,and threw all the Jews I know into it,including all those actual and real holocaust survivors.When I think about my racism previous to the bonfire, I am totally and utterly ashamed, that I dare both criticise Israel and was so unfortunately mistaken in the numbers of the round figures of Holocaust figures as human beings.May I say to myself..I shouldn’t be influenced in anyway by Professor Norman Finkelstein,for to do so ,would mean that I am not accepting the Right of the enlarged Diaspora to sell itself as the only ones who can standardise a holocaust before during and after. As Catholic Prayer and Ratlines Amen.

  11. Well I still believe that multiple lethal acts of racism were not part of Hitler’s primary agenda. They were largely an intoxicating smokescreen for the fact he wanted to get rid of the Jews because they had too much power and money to wield.

    We all need to pick up the sheet and look beneath it for the multiple interactive agendas which may very well lie below.

    I think MC gives an excellent account of the fairly simple, but excellent reasons Father Peter Kennedy is OUT!!!

  12. Another day another unpaid dollar to me.If interested in David Irving and his writings then go to his website.It is tame,and even though I haven’t finished off his pdf, at this stage,I am wondering why that man has been persecuted.That’s it he is a New Zealander,and they started the Second World War because of their sheep going on strike in people’s stomachs.

  13. David Irving’s work is discredited because he denies the holocaust. It has been demonstrated that he repeatedly misrepresented historical sources and distorted historical fact in support of his revisionist view of history.

    At his 2000 libel case (Case No: A2/2000/2-95), Mr Justice Grey’s conclusion was that “Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist and that he associated with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism”.

  14. LORIKEET – “Naomi: Father Kennedy isn’t “living the scriptures” when he is supporting and participating in recidivist practices.”
    Well, that’s where we disagree. He’s not casting out women or gays or lesbians, and he’s actively supporting aboriginal peoples’ rights. There’s nothing in that I can find fault with. The rules of the Catholic Church frequently have little to do with christianity. eg. The rule that men who are priests can’t marry or have an intimate relationship was instigated because married priests when they died weren’t leaving their monies to the church. The same about eating meat on Fridays; contraception; Pergatory and Limbo etc. All dreamed up by the church for its own ends. Bad laws etc should be fought against!

    The Catholic Church is so popular, that it has a real problem with a lack of people interested in either being a priest or nun. I think it would be in their interests to have another look at what is happening at St Mary’s. The nonsense has been dispensed with, and the needs and involvement of the parishoners is of a superior value. I bet there’s more people in Fr Kennedy’s services than the neighbouring parish. Are all those people showing poor judgement?

    Perhaps Fr Kennedy would’ve been better off if he’d been accused of child sexual abuse. He’s be taken into the bosom of the hierarchy, protected and cossetted from both the law and the victims. They’re still behaving in this way as exhibited by the behaviour during World Youth Week. Still arrogantly ignoring the peoples’ misery in order to protect their ‘good name’ that many of us realized was a farce decades ago!
    Another priest in Redfern, NSW, who supported the large numbers of aboriginal people living in poverty etc, was treated with the same disgraceful high handnesses of the hierarchy – even after he died. Nothing in that despicable behaviour resembled any form of christianity – there’s a big difference in this church’s persona – has been for too long! I don’t know whethe

  15. Naomi:

    I think the fact remains that Father Kennedy cannot run a Roman Catholic Church in whatever way he thinks fit – making up his own rules and practices as he goes along.

    If he wants to do that, he must leave that particular denomination and start his own church. Maybe then he can also get himself a wife.

  16. I find it somewhat amusing that a Judge has suggested he is ideologically bent.If Irving is just that,there is ample evidence, that surrounded by Jews,in his history of writing that they have not suffered personally at all.Given that a very large section of the British peoples are Jews, then he must have supreme acting abilities.So is the ideology one of racism,or denying those that would judge him because of their own interests.The person using the Judge above, doesn’t indicate in anyway any great depth of reading him ,to that I also admit.Such references to Judges are easily got today on the Internet. There is no excuse,in supporting a argument by a Judge like this when others have commended his historical and authorship as fine displays of being just that.

  17. The fact is, that as far back as WW2 there were many priests who took it upon themselves to go against the official line of the church by using the church premises to save Jews from the Nazis. The Catholic Church was not ‘unsympathetic’ to Hitler, due in part to his anti-communist attitude. Many Jews were saved, and many priests were allegedly ‘turned in’ by other Hitler sympathizers(priests) and executed.

    In Latin America, South Korea and other places, many priests were sympathetic to the impoverished peoples, and earned the wrath of the beaurecracy by publicly defending the poor and oppressed. History is full of brave priests who suffered the ultimate price by behaving in the truest sense, their commitment to their god – regardless of the personal cost. In El Salvador, Archbishop Romero was executed by the right wing militia, who were financially and militarily supported by the United States. Prior to their last national election, (3-4 years ago) they were warned by George W Bush what would happen if they voted for a left wing government. The monies, that ex-patriots, living in the US, that are sent to El Salvador each week would be cancelled – El Salvador is an impoverished country – they rely on these monies from relatives to survive – the country depends on this influx of money into their economy (a regular “economic stimulus”)they didn’t elect a left wing government. Their national election will be held again soon. We’ll see what happens this time!
    A priest(bishop?) in Peru was in strife a couple of yrs ago for supporting the people. He stood for President and won! He’s no longer a priest! Things aren’t always cut and dried, Lorikeet. When you know the history of these countries and their struggles, life takes on a different hue!

    Some priests believe(like Father Kennedy) that they are compelled to serve a ‘higher authority’ than Rome, or Cardinal Pell or whoever? Abuse of power is obscene, no matter who commits it! I admire his courage!

  18. Naomi:

    Yes, of course there have always been marvellous people (including priests) who have tried to make the world a better place. But I bet they weren’t all recidivists.

    I’m thinking that the “higher authority” you are referring to is God. God and the Christian bible do not support the recidivist activities of Father Kennedy. It is he who is abusing the power afforded to him – doing whatever he likes in “God’s house” – thus empowering not God, but himself.


    Fr Kennedy is not just doing what “he” likes. The Church is packed to the rafters every Sunday. ‘Bums’ on seats are a pretty good indicator of support, or in this instance, due to the huge numbers, feet in the aisles also. As I described, many priests have gone against the official line, believing it to be just and decent to do so – sometimes to their peril. I can’ t see why the Church can’t just butt out and leave them to it. It’s stupid!

    In times past, “the Christain bible” supported killing people who worked on the Sabbath; thought having sex with kids OK and many other horrors that thankfully have been dispensed with. The Uniting Church leads the way in its acceptance (not tolerance – I tolerate the flu, but accept other human beings’ colour and sexual orientation etc)of gays and lesbians. A wonderful Uniting Church Minister spoke at a rally recently in support of the Palestinian people in Gaza, and against the barbaric acts of Israel. He’s well respected by the community at large, and frequently involves himself in rallies against Worst Choices, International Women’s Day, Peace rallies to name but a few. He’s a powerful and passionate speaker. I admire and respect him greatly, while I’m not a member of any organised religion.
    Incidently, I’m still waiting for the other religions (in my city)to speak out in support of this recent atrocity in Gaza, including the local bishop! I guess their christianity doesn’t include those who are subjected to injustices by the US and its allies – us!

  20. Is the church the people, or the building? If the latter, the Vatican has the last say. If the former, then a lot of traditions and laws in this country are up for re-evaluation. It’s happening everywhere, eg in a country town where I come from the priest forbade Powerpoint presentations at funerals. He said “Not in my church!” The children of the deceased pointed out that the deceased’s family had actually donated some land for the church and the school to be built, and in the succeeding generations they had willingly supported the church in that town in every way – with children, money, bales of hay and of wool to raise funds, etc. They threatened to vote with their feet and start all over again … and I gather the Bishop is holding peace talks. In the meantime a different priest has officiated at a couple of funerals where Powerpoint presentations featured.

    We live in interesting times … possibly they’ll get me to start attending again if they dispense with celibate and male only priests. I do not expect to see the day, however.

  21. If you ladies really want to see some poetic justice, might I suggest you go and see a movie entitled, “Gran Torino” with Clint Eastwood.

  22. I read this article because i’m a big believer in the catholic church trying to shed some of it’s old fashion policies and embrace christian ideals and the true meaning of the religion. I think Fr Kennedy is a great representative for the church and it’s sad to see them not support him. I went on to read the comments and was shocked to read Philip Travers saying the holocaust was some sort of scam made up by the jews. I don’t know the history very well but i know many lives were affected and i think these comments are highly offensive. We should take a leaf out of Fr Kennedy’s book and worry less about arguing over history and technicalities and spend our energy caring for one another.

  23. I fully support Naomi’s comments. I am not a Catholic, but the way the church is behaving towards Peter Kennedy would be sufficient to put me off ever supporting the Catholic church. He seems a good man who emulates the teachings and actions of Jesus – also a good man.

    It seems that there is no connection at all between ‘The Church’ and Christianity. The Church is all about money, power, control and being completely self-serving. I thought Christianity was about Jesus’ teachings – tolerance, forgiveness, caring for the poor and oppressed and love of your fellow man. Methinks Peter Kennedy is a fine Christian.

    I also find Philip Travers’ comments appalling and a complete denial of history. And the Catholic Church through Pope Pius supported the elimination of the Jews. Many brave Christian priests stood by their beliefs, helped the Jews and often died for their beliefs.

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