Above image from www.wagga.catholic.org.au
On Sunday, 22 September I, along with my 14 year-old-daughter and dozens of others, took part in a a prayer vigil at a Catholic Church in Wagga Wagga, located in regional New South Wales. Despite the vigil being promoted as a ‘respectful and peaceful community gathering’ – which indeed, it was – we were still kicked out. Yes, you read that correctly. Kicked out of a church. For praying.
The vigil wasn’t a belated reaction to Greta Thunberg’s climate change strike, but prompted by an issue much closer to home – and one that centres around the transparency and accountability for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
The scheduled prayer vigil had been organised via social media by a local group called Concerned Catholics, and was prompted by a recent turn of events in the diocese: The much-beloved local high school principal of Kildare Catholic College, Rod Whelan – who was achieving unparalleled educational results for the college, making it the top ranking high school in the postcode – was suddenly and without explanation dismissed from his position.
Parents of the school community were notified on 30 August, via an email attachment, that Rod ‘no longer works for the college’. No further details were offered, with the Catholic Education Diocese Wagga Wagga (CEDWW) citing ‘legal and privacy reasons’ as their justification for being unable to provide any further comment or explanation. The letter was signed by the Director of CEDWW, Mark Maclean.
The following Monday 2 September, Rod Whelan (presumably forcibly) resigned from his position as principal of the college, and has likely been issued with a gag order. In a meeting to inform teaching staff of the situation, no further details for the dismissal were provided. However, it has been confirmed that Whelan has not committed any felonies, and has done nothing illegal. No police are involved, and no criminal investigation has been prompted.
Speculation by those close to the situation believe that the reasons for the dismissal stem from those related to governance, and the 30 August letter states that the ‘CEDWW is committed to ensuring all of our schools provide quality Catholic education through effective Governance [sic] and management’. Clearly, there was no grand-scale embezzlement, inappropriate behaviour with minors, or a trove of pornography found on school computers.
While the community was left both shocked and saddened in equal measure, this resulted almost immediately in a grassroots campaign via social media to support Whelan, through both a Change.org petition and a Facebook page. The petition amassed over 800 signatures within the first 24 hours, and as of last Tuesday, the Facebook page had over 2200 followers and over 72,000 engagements.
The community’s shock and sadness soon turned to anger, as fee-paying parents – many of whom chose the college due to Whelan’s educational philosophy and leadership – demanded answers that just didn’t come. And still haven’t, some three weeks later.
The director of CEDWW who instigated this chain of events, had at one stage informed the community via the local newspaper, The Daily Advertiser, that he was willing to meet with concerned members of the community. But he has since disappeared into the ether (my, my, how very Catholic), and is currently on leave; I don’t know if he made good on this offer to meet with any parents or community members.
Whelan’s dismissal for infractions around governance issues, by an organisation that has proven itself to be one that has historically sheltered and actively engaged in concealing paedophiles – crimes not just in the legal and punitive sense, but also catastrophically-life-altering moral ones – is indeed thickly laden with irony.
It also should be noted that in an era that has seen regular mass attendance at an all-time low, combined with the bad PR in the wake of Cardinal Pell’s duck-and-weave (which even resulted in a pointed and acerbic Tim Minchin ditty) and the sexual abuse scandals generally, protecting the integrity and leadership within the Catholic education system could be something of a saving grace (pardon the pun) for the Catholic Church in Australia.
If that is the case nationally, it is certainly not happening here in Wagga: Barely moments into Sunday’s 5:15pm vigil, we were unceremoniously told by the parish priest that we were part of an unauthorised gathering and directed to leave the premises immediately. (This, despite the church being open in preparation for the mass scheduled for 5:30pm that evening.)
We were informed aggressively, through barely concealed, self-righteous anger, that we were trespassing. Those attending the vigil continued with their collective praying undeterred, reciting from a prepared prayer sheet.
Two things struck me during these moments. One was that this is not a man just following the orders of his superiors. For him, this had become personal, as evidenced by his anger and complete overreaction to a group of people peacefully reciting prayers. In their community church.
The second thing that struck me is that the priest did nothing to diffuse the situation; he did not acknowledge that the people were there because they were suffering in some way (an integral part of any priest’s job description) and because they felt their concerns were not being heard, acknowledged or dealt with. He chose not to acknowledge that their presence was prompted by genuine concern: for their children, their community, their Church and its leadership. This is something he could have easily done, even if he did not agree with the action being taken. The Church, both physically and metaphorically, should always be a safe haven.
Instead, the priest chose to follow the prescribed path, and do what the Catholic Church, along with the mafia, has nearly elevated to art form: deny, bluster, close ranks and, of course, intimidate. Another missed opportunity for the Church to rewrite the public’s perception of their reputation and their hierarchy. How strongly this flies in the face of the Gospel message and clashes with the values of Christianity, where the focus is on community, justice, love, support and inclusion.
Despite the vigil coming to its natural conclusion to coincide with the beginning of mass, two police officers arrived in response to a call made about ‘protestors’. However, by this time the ‘protestors’ had already dispersed of their own accord from within the church, and we had congregated outside. One of the parish nuns began to cry discreetly in response to the priest’s behaviour and the situation generally, while two more police officers arrived on the scene – to say nothing of the laughable drain this caused on our public services with unnecessary police presence. All because we as members of a faith community are demanding answers about decisions made behind closed doors by a select few.
The lack of transparency and the wielding of secrecy as a weapon is patronising at best, but completely destructive at worst. The Catholic Church, at least in Western countries, is on the brink of imploding. And yet, they are still clinging to the moral high ground and trying to silence and intimidate the masses like it’s still 1950 and the church still has unchallenged power. Those of us who assembled for the vigil were made to feel like naughty recalcitrant children – we were not respected as adults, as Catholics or as concerned community members.
This issue is no longer just about demanding answers regarding a principal’s dismissal: This cuts to the very heart of everything that is wrong with the 21st century Catholic Church and the continued efforts to hide behind their weaponised shroud of secrecy. All in an effort to maintain the charade of control.
To say that people were shocked by the unfolding of these events is an understatement. But really, when I think about it, why should we be? This is an organisation adept at dealing with crisis this way, and they have had hundreds of years of practice at it. Of intimidating people. Of gas-lighting. Of reminding individuals to get back in their box. First deny, then hide. Batten down the hatches and win the war of attrition. Throw money at ‘solutions’. This sort of behaviour is akin to the cruelty an abuser wields in a toxic relationship – it should not be representative of a religious organisation and their clergy. Yet sadly, this has become the default mode of the Catholic Church in times of crisis. While the hierarchy may believe that this will protect them, it will ultimately cause their undoing – it has already begun.
I don’t know what the future holds for Rod Whelan, the Kildare Catholic College Community or even for myself in terms of my own relationship with the Catholic Church. While my faith has not been diminished, my faith in the system certainly has been. I do know that this is not good enough, and that this community needs answers to so, so many questions.
Let’s hope the school’s motto begins to dictate some of the future decision making for CEDWW around this matter: Live the Truth.