Fr Peter Maher’s response to Fisher’s letter

St Joseph’s Catholic Church Newtown

Dear Bishop Fisher

Having received no return call to my messages left with two of your secretaries on Tuesday I assume I will not get one now – thus this letter.

I have worked in this archdiocese for 35 years since going to the seminary and 20 years before that as a parishioner, catechist, member of the Legion of Mary and active Catholic on the school campuses and places of work I have attended.

I have been visiting Redfern parish for 18 years on a weekly basis to attend the gospel discussion group that Fr. Ted Kennedy began over 30 years ago. This small group of dedicated religious women and laypeople and a couple of diocesan priests has been very important to me spiritually and formatively. So I know they have been begging a bishop or representative to speak to them about the escalating hostility they feel from their priests. I actually advised them to write to you because Redfern is in your region and I felt confident from my dealings with you (although limited) that you would talk with them.

How wrong I was. I know the terror that the present priests of Redfern have visited on them because they tell me. Some parishioners that found the going just too painful now regularly attend Newtown. Not only has there never been any response to the many letters begging for a meeting that might objectively mediate but the first letter they get accuses them of things they have not done, sets the police on them and calls on them to leave the parish they have worshipped in for 30 years. These are broken people who have weathered the storm against frightful and fearsome violence. This violence has for a long time been to their spirits but is now a physical threat.

They have always responded to the violent behaviour of Fr. Sudla with extreme restraint. And I have every confidence they will continue to do so although your letter would give anyone less versed in the spirituality of non-violence an excuse for untoward behaviour. This is credit to Fr. Ted Kennedy’s teaching and done to honour his memory. I must say you are lucky Redfern parishioners are so gentle.

But they are determined to follow Cardinal Pell’s promise at the retirement of Fr. Ted Kennedy – his ministry was to continue and his legacy was to be carried on. In that line they have continued the sharing the meal with poor even when the diocese withdrew funding when they had to pay for it themselves. The gospel discussion group has continued even when the priests, nuns and laypeople were locked out because according to the parish priest – “you can’t be trusted”. They have continued to honour the Indigenous people at least by a symbolic presence. Most Aborigines are no longer attending because they are unwilling to be insulted by priests who refuse to bury their dead or to give their children communion because they are black (or that’s how they see it since white children are not quizzed when they approach the altar); they are told to leave because they are not Catholic, or they are accused of being a nuisance. They no longer feel comfortable in the church that Fr. Ted Kennedy made their home just as Jesus had offered his succour firstly to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Aborigines now know that the priests of the parish and the new-comers so deeply offended by the presence of the poor and anything that might remind them of the Redfern legacy and context want them out of what they now call “their” church; while the religious and lay parishioners and the Aborigines who have been attending for 30 years are questioned over their Catholicity and offered the door or a fist fight with the priest or the seminarians on their arrival.

Is there any wonder your letter came as deep shock. It might be helpful to do what we all need to do in pastorally sensitive situations – not judge till we have heard all sides; listen carefully; apologise if people are offended even when it is not intended and make some real inroads into the shocking exclusion felt by the long term parishioners to maintain that which Cardinal Pell promised – Fr. Ted’s ministry would be maintained.

I have seen some amazing things in the diocese – both good and bad; both supportive and unsupportive; but they are mostly understandable and, even when biased, try to be reasonable. Your letter was neither unbiased nor reasonable. I write because I can’t stand by any longer while Christ’s people, especially the Aborigines, suffer humiliation, insult, lies and now physical assault. I am writing only to assist you to offer pastoral care to all the people of Redfern parish and especially those that have been there many years.

I would appreciate a reply on this important matter that I might continue to support those who are hurting – Aborigines, long-term parishioners and others. I hope my confidence in your listening ear, as I promised a year ago, may not be found to be unwarranted after all.

Fr Peter Maher

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