by Michael Otto
As Bishop Christopher Saunders looked out across the warm, blue expanse of Roebuck Bay, from the comfortable Mangrove Hotel in Broome, he wondered out loud what he would do if he had his time again.
His answer on September 10 made delegates to the Australasian Catholic Press Association sit up and take notice.
He wondered “how much more could be done to combat what I consider to be the greatest scourge in the soul of this
nation, and that is, namely, racism”.
Tension in the room seemed to ratchet up a notch or two.
Bishop Saunders, who for 12 of the past 14 years chaired the Australian Bishop hits out at Australia’s racism
Bishop Christopher Saunders of Broome.
Catholic Social Justice Council, cited the controversy surrounding aboriginal Australian Rules footballer Adam Goodes as showing racism is alive and well in the Lucky Country.
During a game in 2013, Goodes objected to a girl in the crowd calling him an “ape”. The footballer had security eject the teenager.
Despite soothing noises from officialdom, Goodes was booed at subsequent games, especially after he performed a
spear-throwing gesture in one match. The abuse became so great that he took leave from the game in August this year.
Bishop Saunders said a religious sister had told him that the Goodes affair “summed up all the sadness and
disappointment of this country — that someone could be so vilified over their race, publicly and without due shame”.
“Where am I in this debate that surrounds Adam Goodes, and where is my diocese and where is my country?” the
He said racism has “dealt the moral worth of this commonwealth of ours some savage and reprehensible blows”.
“From our very beginnings as a colonised entity, our treatment of Australia’s Aboriginal and [Torres Strait] Islander peoples has been atrocious and unspeakable.
“I would contend that our race relations have been so fundamentally tainted by the evil of racism, that it has scarred the psyches of this country’s peoples and continues to hinder, even today, our pathway to maturation as a nation.”
Such attitudes have historic roots.
“The scramble for possession of land was a focus for Australia’s first settlers,” the bishop said.
“It was a necessary part of the process of occupation by settlers to believe that there was no prior ownership of land and that the crown had the right to grant land and sell land irrespective of the existence of indigenous people who hunted and gathered in every property.
“This approach was devoid of any sense of moral obligation to the native peoples.”
But Bishop Saunders noted that, at times and in places, “the Church has a remarkable record in correcting the
abuses spurred on by racism and greed, so evident in our written history”.
This is especially so in the remote Kimberley region and in Broome diocese, of which he is bishop, he said.
Starting with Bishop Matthew Gibney of Perth, Fr Duncan McNab, who was the first priest in the district, and missionary orders like the Cistercians, Trappists, Pallottines and especially the Sisters of St John of God, the Church in the Kimberley can look on its history with some pride.
Even during the sad episode of the Stolen Generations, the local Church did its best, he said.
“It needs to be recognised that the enactment of the stolen generation policy had far greater effects upon the Aboriginal world in Australia than ever we might imagine,” Bishop Saunders said.
“In the Kimberley there were accidental benefits experienced by those living in Catholic institutions, notwithstanding the wanton cruelty of taking children forcibly from their parents in the first place.
“Many of those placed by Government authorities in Church orphanages and hostels remember the warmth of the
sisters’ care for them with great fondness.
“Looking back in history, we can see a fascinating synergy that existed between the missionaries and the Aboriginal
people. The latter recognised the genuine desire of the missionaries to do good.
“During the war the German missionaries [Pallottines] were at times as despised as the Aboriginal people by the
“Gangs of nationalistically minded whites in Broome attempted to organise lynching parties to go to Beagle Bay to
punish German missionaries for allegedly refuelling U-boats off the coast, an impossible task as it was preposterous.
“And along with the local people, the missionaries went hungry at times, and suffered great deprivations, all in the cause of goodness and the Gospel.
“The service of the Church in the Kimberley has so often been a countersign to those forces that have exploited local indigenous peoples,” Bishop Saunders added.
“It has stood openly in opposition to the power of racism, which, along with greed, has been the engine room that drives the exploitation of peoples and excludes them from just participation in the commonwealth of the region.”
The bishop said he knew of six historic massacres of Aboriginal people in the Kimberley, and many other killings
of indigenous people.
He said the tales of Jewish survivors of Auschwitz are heartrending, “but for each one of those, there is one
up here that matches it”.
Nonetheless, there are signs of hope.
“Through the ongoing efforts of our schools and communities, there are leaders emerging who can more easily stand their ground against the forces of tyranny,” Bishop Saunders said.
“The Church is called to stand in solidarity alongside these leaders, to be with the marginalised and the oppressed
while proclaiming the mantle of Christ.”
Bishop Saunders said the Church in the Kimberley “has been a Church of the people and with the people, one I am
happy to say that is unashamedly poor in material goods, but rich in the wealth of its generosity towards others and its affinity with Gospel values”.
“In all honesty I must say we struggle with our imperfections daily. Much of what must happen, in desperation we
leave to God, as we pray for the courage to be clay in the Potter’s hands.”
He is proud of the way the Australian Catholic bishops, “with all the problems that they carry on their shoulders at the moment, whenever the issues of racism or race relations come up, they stand squarely in solidarity with
the Aboriginal people”.
Bishop Saunders said the Church in Australia is having to learn humility, “which we know is the foundation of Christian endeavour”.
“During these days of the Royal Commission [into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse], our Church is being scrubbed clean of the soot and the grime that comes of arrogance and power and a twisted sense of vocation.”
In response to questions, Bishop Saunders admitted that the issue of racism in Australia is “complex, maybe deeper
than I have alluded to”.
“But … we need to take back what we have lost. We are who we are because of the way we treated people. The resources that we enjoy today were Aboriginal resources. It was their land.”
The bishop said: “The Aboriginal people are the Anawim of this country, the ones Jesus reached out for.
“They are the ones who are so poor, so much on the margin, they have no alternative but to look for the Lord and
the recompense of the Lord in their lives.
“After 40 years in this place, I would say that I have learned more about how to love our fellow human beings … that is not to say they are perfect … but I have learned so much more about how to love, understand and tolerate my fellow human beings from them than I have from anybody else.
by Michael Otto