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Social Justice Report 1998 : Chapter 3: Church Responses

Social Justice Report 1998

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  • Chapter 3: Church Responses

    We must all
    face the truth of the past. It lives on in us. We must learn from
    it and deal with it, so that there may be justice, reconciliation,
    healing and hope for the future. We therefore recognise this crucial
    moment in the history of the Canberra Baptist Church as a God given
    opportunity for us:

    to approach
    the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and publicly
    express our sorrow for the hurt that has occurred;

    to acknowledge
    that by silent acquiescence, by moral insensitivity or ignorance we
    are partly responsible for that hurt;

    and to commit
    ourselves to do all we can to make sure that such things will not
    occur again.

    Apology offered
    by Canberra Baptist Church to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
    People, December 14, 1997.


    There is a long-standing
    relationship between the churches and Indigenous people. Any responsible
    account of that relationship must acknowledge both its positive and
    negative aspects. The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal
    and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families came at a time
    when churches had already begun to grapple with issues arising from
    the effects of missions on the lives and cultures of Indigenous people.
    The release of Bringing Them Home accelerated this process by
    vividly confronting many church members with the details of the instrumental
    role played by the churches in the separation of Indigenous children
    from their families.

    This chapter outlines
    various church responses to the Inquiry and the recommendations of Bringing
    Them Home
    . Resource constraints governed our research and extensive
    consultation was not possible. It is important to point out that the
    church responses identified here are Christian. This is not to say non-Christian
    churches or religious groups have not also made responses. Our focus
    on Christian churches was determined by the role they played in the
    removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities.
    The substance of the chapter is drawn from a selection of public materials,
    media releases, statements and apologies made by churches and church-based
    organisations. It is not exhaustive but rather indicates the character
    of responses formulated by institutions that played such a central role
    in implementing the laws, practices and policies of assimilation.

    Diversity of opinion

    One clear theme
    that has emerged in assessing the churches' responses is the diversity
    of opinions, particularly at the local level. The churches' responses
    must be viewed in the context of debate within their congregations.

    While some groups
    may find their church's response minimal, others would argue that some
    action has been too radical. The public responses certainly reflect
    the overall engagement of a great number of people constituting the
    membership of the various churches.

    There are those
    who do not recognise the significance or relevance of the Inquiry and
    Report. There are also those who are aware but who refuse to be drawn
    into a 'cause' for Indigenous people. There are perceptions that responses,
    particularly apologies, reflect too adversely on the character of the
    churches of previous times. There are members who refuse to have anything
    to do with 'symbolic acts of reconciliation'.

    There are also
    those who express a deep concern for the plight and ongoing struggle
    of Indigenous Australians. Within the churches there are non-Indigenous
    people working for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
    people, as well as Indigenous groups engaged in the struggle for recognition,
    reconciliation and social justice.

    As Christians,
    we apologise that this happened in our country and communities and
    offer those affected our moral, emotional and spiritual support.

    Adventist Church statement on 'The Stolen Generation', November 20,

    This diversity
    of opinion and perspective within individual churches, as well as distinctive
    denominational positions, has contributed to the debate surrounding
    the responses of religious institutions to Bringing Them Home.

    Factors affecting church

    From one perspective,
    churches can be seen as microcosms of society, constituted by lay and
    non-lay members within structures extending throughout Australia. They
    also possess an international dimension with values and organisational
    structures that transcend national boundaries. However, their responses
    to the Inquiry are influenced to some degree by their membership of
    institutions that were intimately involved in the processes of separation
    and removal.

    The Australian
    Catholic Social Justice Council feels great sorrow for the pain and
    anguish of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families affected
    by the former government policy of forcibly removing indigenous children
    from their families. Many Catholics didn't know much about this practice
    until the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission conducted
    its National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres
    Strait Islander Children from Their Families. We now understand that
    many indigenous Australians have been deeply hurt by this experience.
    The brave telling of personal stories at the Inquiry's hearings tore
    at the hearts of mothers and fathers. We are all someone's children.

    Today the
    Australian Catholic Social Justice Council acknowledges our Church's
    part in these events and offers the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
    people, and especially the 'stolen generation', our sincere regret.
    We hope through this acknowledgement of the truth of the past to take
    another step together on the path to healing.

    The Australian
    Catholic Social Justice Council of the Catholic Church in Australia,
    statement on National Sorry Day, May 26, 1998.

    The churches are
    institutions with a large majority of non-Indigenous members and their
    responses to Bringing Them Home reflect this composition, evidenced
    by the overwhelming tendency toward apology. In this respect their responses
    can be seen as intertwined with, or forming a subset of, the broader
    non-Indigenous community response. However, the churches are not only
    comprised of non-Indigenous people, and any representation of their
    responses must incorporate the reactions of their Indigenous members.

    Indigenous people's
    position within the churches is distinctive for a number of reasons.
    First, it was Indigenous people who were so devastated by the policies
    of forcible removal. In many cases Indigenous members of churches were
    themselves the subjects of removal. Second, Indigenous people are parishioners
    and members of church communities that are endeavouring, as institutions,
    to come to terms with the history of involvement in these practices.
    Third, Indigenous people have reported that within the churches they
    are often seen, somewhat unrealistically, as representing all Indigenous
    Australians and are therefore expected to be experts on drafting apologies
    and developing policies regarding the recommendations of Bringing
    Them Home
    . In combination these factors result in a complex and
    sometimes difficult dynamic of personal responses by Indigenous people
    within the churches.

    The churches hold
    a unique position as contemporary social institutions and custodians
    of ethical values. As such, their responses hold a particular significance
    and carry a special influence. Regarded from an institutional framework,
    the position of the churches in some ways parallels the position of
    governments. The instrumental role of the churches in carrying assimilation
    policies into effect on behalf of governments creates an interesting
    point of comparison between church and some government attitudes towards
    acknowledging institutional responsibility for past practices. It throws
    light on different understandings of the issue of accepting contemporary
    corporate responsibility, and the appropriateness of making a formal

    ...We regret
    that the government has not found room in its heart to apologise,
    or to pay any specific compensation to groups and individuals for
    the damages caused by the past policies. We appeal to the government
    to reconsider. No sum of money has the power to heal the wounds caused
    to individuals and to the Indigenous peoples as a whole, if not accompanied
    by an apology. While the government refuses to apologise this issue
    will continue as a cancer in the nation, and the whole nation - Indigenous
    and non-Indigenous - will continue to suffer. What was done cannot
    be undone, but we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads

    Open letter
    to the Prime Minister from leaders of the Uniting Church in Australia,
    December 19, 1997.


    Since 1988, the
    bi-centenary of first settlement, or Governor Philip's arrival in Australia,
    churches have been dealing seriously with the dispossession and marginalisation
    of Indigenous peoples. In some ways, the churches were better prepared
    than the rest of society to respond to the issues raised by the Inquiry
    regarding the effects of past policies and the treatment of Indigenous
    Australians. The negative impacts of native missions on Indigenous people
    had already been recognised, as were the complexities of reconciling
    good intentions and genuine concern for the welfare of Aboriginal and
    Torres Strait Islander people with actions which resulted in the denial
    of their human rights. Dealing with the past, while continuing to play
    a major influence in the lives of many Indigenous people, seems to have
    sharpened the conscience of many church leaders and members of church

    In dealing with
    issues of the past, present and the future, placed in the context of
    a broad societal discussion of the rights of Indigenous people, the
    churches have become major participants in the process of reconciliation.
    There is an awareness that active engagement with Indigenous people
    as partners is essential to the process. For many non-Indigenous church
    members there is a merging of broad themes. The specific matters reported
    on in Bringing Them Home are seen as connected with the historical
    dispossession and general marginalisation of Indigenous people which
    transcend the particular recommendations of the Inquiry. The issues
    of dispossession, marginalisation, disadvantage and the recognition
    of contemporary rights can only be met by a wider response.

    We are ashamed
    that we have failed to recognise the extent of dispossession, deprivation
    and trauma over the past 200 years. We have been and are part of the
    culture that has dominated, dehumanised and devalued Aboriginal religious,
    cultural and family life. For this we are deeply sorry and express
    our heartfelt apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
    Australians. We commit ourselves to working towards a reconciled Australia.

    Quaker Sorry
    Statement to the Indigenous People of Australia. January, 1998.

    Churches are involved
    in the education of the broader community as well as educating their
    parishioners. A great deal of church action occurs through local groups.
    Such groups may be made up of different denominations gathering to show
    ecumenical, or at least trans-denominational support for Indigenous
    people. A significant leadership role may be taken at a higher level
    or through special interest groups within a denomination.

    ...We, the
    Catholic Bishops of Australia, wish to take the opportunity offered
    by this occasion of remembrance to ask the victims of the policy of
    breaking up indigenous families their forgiveness for any part the
    Church may have played in causing them harm and suffering. We note
    with regret that lamentable chapter of Australian history which saw
    the unjustifiable separation of Indigenous children from their families.
    We express our deepest sorrow for the suffering and hurt inflicted
    on Indigenous Australians which have consequences still in evidence
    today - social dislocation, loss of culture and identity, and a continuing
    sense of hopelessness in the lives of many of the First Peoples of
    our nation...In the spirit of sorrow and forgiveness, we, the Catholic
    Bishops of Australia, wish to record our commitment to continue the
    healing process for the benefit of the victims of the unjust policies
    of the past, to support the needs of indigenous peoples today, and
    to contribute to the quest for national reconciliation.

    Catholic Bishops Conference Statement on National Sorry Day, May 26,

    Recommendations with particular
    relevance to the Churches:

    Acknowledgement and apology;
    8a. School education;
    10. Genocide convention;
    23. Joint records taskforces;
    38. Private collections;
    39. Application of minimum standards and common guidelines;
    40. Counselling services;
    41. Land holdings;
    42. Social Justice.

    The recommendations
    particularly relevant to the churches cannot be exhaustively stated.
    In one sense they may all be supported by the churches. None lie within
    their exclusive providence. There have been specific responses made
    at many levels with varying degrees of involvement and commitment to
    specific action.

    We will continue
    to be in solidarity with the Australian Aboriginal peoples as they
    seek a 'fair go'. We stand also with the churches in Australia as
    they play their part in addressing these issues where basic human
    values are at stake.

    Rev. Dr Konrad
    Raiser, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC),
    March 4, 1998.

    Churches have responded
    at a national level with apologies from all major denominations.

    On behalf
    of the Anglican Church of Australia the General Synod apologises unreservedly
    and seeks forgiveness for any part played, knowingly or unwittingly,
    by the Anglican Church that has ever contributed in any way to that
    hurt or trauma by the unjustified removal of Aboriginal or Torres
    Strait Islander children from their families, and for our past silence
    on this issue.

    Anglican Church
    of Australia, passed at General Synod meeting, Adelaide, February

    Churches have expressed
    apology at state and regional levels.

    We confess
    that our failure to see what we were doing denied our common humanity,
    degraded us all, and was not Christian. For all this we are truly
    sorry and apologise unreservedly.

    Apology from
    the Victorian Baptist Union, presented March 13, 1998.

    Local congregations,
    particular communities and specific interest groups have responded directly.

    Today the
    Australian Catholic Social Justice Council acknowledges our Church's
    part in these events and offers the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
    people, and especially the 'stolen generation', our sincere regret.
    We hope through this acknowledgement of the truth of the past to take
    another step together on the path to healing.

    The Australian
    Catholic Social Justice Council of the Catholic Church in Australia,
    statement on National Sorry Day, May 26, 1998.

    In many local congregations
    there was a desire to express a broader message of sorrow and regret
    for the historical position of Indigenous people. Apologies addressing
    the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children acted
    as a catalyst for wider apologies as the contemporary representatives
    of a people who dispossessed another people. There is an interest in
    a broad re-evaluation of the past and a desire to set a new framework
    for the future. This sincere grassroots community response recognises
    the deeper significance of Bringing Them Home.

    We, the people
    of the Rosanna Baptist Church, acknowledge the pain and suffering
    of Indigenous Australians that occurred as a result of European settlement.
    We further confess our ignorance of Indigenous cultures, and our lack
    of compassion for Indigenous people in their plight. By our silence
    we have allowed this suffering to occur and continue, through the
    removal of children from their natural parents and environment, and
    by taking over the land without recognition of the nature of the relationship
    of Indigenous people to the land, or proper consideration of the impact
    on Indigenous people and their culture. We confess also the attitude
    of cultural superiority which has undergirded all these actions and

    For these
    things, we unreservedly apologise.

    Apology from
    the Rosanna Baptist Church presented to representatives of the local
    Indigenous community and from the Baptist Church

    Apologies aside,
    there have been other initiatives that represent movement towards restorative
    justice. The Uniting Church in Australia has taken steps towards the
    restitution of land, and other churches are engaged in discussions to
    this end, consistent with recommendation 41. Various statements of apology,
    moreover, contain commitments to other forms of specific action. These
    statements have emerged from a process of sharing, learning and confronting
    the reality of the churches' involvement in the separation and removal
    of Indigenous children. They are based on an insight into the experience
    of loss and its full human implications. This entry into the perspective
    of Indigenous Australians and the recognition of responsibility to redress
    the aftermath, speaks of a genuine resolve common to the responses of
    Australian churches.

    I wish to
    offer a heartfelt and unreserved apology to the Aboriginal and Torres
    Strait Islander peoples on behalf of the Religious Orders of sisters,
    brothers and priests of Australia. We are sorry for the pain you have
    suffered because of the forced separation of your children which took
    place over many decades. We are deeply sorry for any pain that you
    and your children have felt by being placed in our Catholic institutions.
    In the light of the National Inquiry Report, we are beginning to understand
    some of the devastating effects that government policy had on your
    lives and the part we played in implementing these policies. Children
    suffered the shocking experience of losing their present and their
    past - they lost their parents, families, their language, spirituality,
    land and identity. In having their children taken from them, Indigenous
    communities were deprived of their future and their hope.

    We undertake
    to offer help where possible for people to trace their records, so
    that they may recover their identity and hopefully find their way
    home again.

    We commit
    ourselves to be part of the national process of reconciliation in
    dialogue with you. We know an apology cannot undo past sufferings.
    We want to be part of healing the deep wound which affected Australia
    because of past practices. We pray that, walking together, we can
    find a new way forward in this land we call home.

    Apology to
    Indigenous People from the Religious Orders of Australia, June 11,

    Nonetheless church
    action so far, with few exceptions, has been primarily in the area of
    awareness and apology. While this is a positive first step, there is
    still much for the churches as institutions, communities of faith, and
    as distinct sections of society, to initiate. The apologies are a response
    to one of the recommendations of the Inquiry report. There are several
    others that remain to be addressed.

    April 2003.