Stephen Crittenden speaks with Father Ted Kennedy
- Catholic Priest at St Vincents Redfern, longtime
agitator for aboriginal justice and author of
'Who is Worthy?'
Details or Transcript
John Cleary: In the week when the Council for
Aboriginal Reconciliation is due to hand down
it's historic document and thousands are preparing
to march across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to mark
Corroboree 2000, we're going to spend some time
with Father Ted Kennedy.
A priest who for 30 years has worked at the coalface
of practical reconciliation from St Vincents Church
in Redfern. Just a few weeks ago the church's
normally casual atmosphere was overtaken by a
crowd that jammed the place to the rafters, in
acknowledgment of the work of Father Ted Kennedy,
and to celebrate the launch of his book, "Who
Well in a few moments we shall join Stephen Crittenden
for an extended conversation with Father Ted.
But before we hear from the man, let's hear something
of what others felt about it.
"Good morning sisters and brothers. Welcome to
St Vincents in Redfern on this beautiful Palm
Sunday. But before we begin - to settle us all
down after that very inspiring mass we had - more
music. Year of God's favour by Peter Carney."
"I call upon an Aboriginal leader who has been
a good friend to Father Ted in this church for
many years, Judge Blair to extend the traditional
Judge Blair: "Thank you and the best to you Ted.
I would like to acknowledge the Aboriginal people
who have lived in this area since time began.
This church, built on Aboriginal land is still
owned by the Aboriginal community. Maybe not owned
under the freehold title system of this State,
but for the last 25 years the Aboriginal community
of Redfern have felt a strong moral ownership
of this church and its grounds. This feeling of
ownership and the use of land, has been made possible
because of the courage and compassion of Ted Kennedy.
When the Aboriginal Medical Service was looking
for new premises to accommodate it's expanding
service, Ted quickly offered to house the service
in the old school.
I have been asked by the Service to express their
total appreciation to Ted for the long and enduring
support he has given them.
And I welcome you all to the launch of Ted's book."
"There can be no more appropriate person than
Sister Veronica Brady to launch Father Ted's book."
Veronica Brady: I remember Hamlet said' I could
be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a King
of Infinite Space'.
That's the core of this book. Nobody can say who
we are before God. Nobody can say that God is
not one who loves and forgives. This is a solid
theological book I say, not being a theologian.
But it's also profoundly political. Because if
we reflect, well what's going on at the moment
in Australia; as I say it's a battle for the soul,
and it's deeply theological.
Those people who believe that justice is nothing
more than revenge. Those people who punish those
who are poor. Those people who believe we can
write the so-called losers out of history, and
only focus on the winners. Those people do not
stand before their conscience, those people are
arrogant, those people are worshipping a god that
made to their own image."
John Cleary: Sister Veronica Brady, and something
of the flavour of the book launch for Father Ted
Kennedy in Sydney.
Well Father Ted is one of those Priests who trained
at St Patricks College in Manly and was inspired
by the spirit of Vatican II, the great reforming
Council of Pope John 23rd held in the early 1960's.
That reformist spirit led him, in the early 1970's,
when many of his colleagues were leaving the church
in frustration to the poor and marginalised Aboriginal
community of Redfern.
It was also a spirit which often put Father Ted
at odds with the institutional hierarchy of the
church. A few days after the launch of his book,
Stephen Crittenden spent some time with Ted Kennedy,
now in his early 70's and suffering the after-effects
of a stroke at his home in the Southern Highlands
Stephen Crittenden: Ted you begin your book with
a rather extraordinary sentence, "some time ago
I suffered a stroke which triggered in me a decision
to live the rest of my life as if I were already
dead." And you say that you've decided to speak
out without fear or compromise.
But I think it's true to say isn't it that you've
been at war with above all I guess clerical bureaucrats
- right from the very beginning of your priesthood?
Ted Kennedy: Yes I think I may have, yes.
Stephen Crittenden: And I mean why is that? Why
have you kind of set out on your own and chartered
your own. And in fact how have you been able to
set out and chart your own course?
Ted Kennedy: I think it's mainly to do with the
Vatican Council that I was a young Priest, at
the time of the Vatican Council. And I think with
a lot of my friends, we had a vision of what the
church might look like after the council. And
I think I did find that many of them were persecuted.
And that the power people had missed out completely
on what the council was all about. And that I
think made me firm up quite a lot of my decisions.
I did find I think that I wasn't helped by the
company of the men that shared the same vision
with me, because many of them had left the priesthood.
In that sense therefore I was left alone and fighting
causes that I think I would have expected to have
friends around me to help me.
Stephen Crittenden: Has that been a disappointment?
Ted Kennedy: Well it was a great disappointment
I think. Yeah. I mentioned in that book you know
those years straight after the council were years
of great sorrow for me. In a sense I think I was
relying on friends to work out another vision.
And then of course I think they were forced out
of the church. In a way that they would not have
been had the church taken on completely what the
vision of the council was. We seem to have been
at that point caught between two worlds - one
dead, the other waiting to be born. But of course
I think that part of my anger, that the promise
written in to the council documents gave us every
opportunity of hope for a world waiting to be
born. But I had never realised there would be
so many stalwart reactionaries who would hold
back any sort of sign of progress.
Stephen Crittenden: You're very critical of the
teaching that went on at Manly. And you actually
say it produced a generation of theologically
bankrupt priests in Sydney.
Ted Kennedy: Yes. That's right. I think that some
of the blame of the, of a runaway church, I'm
talking about vast numbers of people who've actually
withdrawn from the church. I think that's partly
due to the fact that in the Australian scene the
priests were reduced to an extraordinary sort
of monolithic concept of Christianity. And what
they preached was such standard boring stuff that
you can't keep preaching such boring material
and expect your congregation to stay.
Stephen Crittenden: You conjure up a marvellous
image in your book that took me right back to
my childhood at school. Of whole classes of very
young school children being taken to weekly confession
almost like sheep being sheep dipped. That is
absolutely resonant for me of what it was like.
Ted Kennedy: Right. Yes. Something had happened
didn't it. It couldn't continue. Yeah.
Stephen Crittenden: Look another interesting thing
about that time it seems to me Ted, was that the
very time that the church in Australia seemed
to run out of steam was the very time that Catholics
were beginning to make it socially and politically.
Do you think that's true?
Ted Kennedy: Oh yes. I'm sure that's very true.
I think it's very important to look hard at that
whole question of affluence. It took the edge
off spirituality I think. It was never true of
course I think that Catholics were very interested
in the poor. I think there were all sorts of pretences.
But in fact I think Catholics by and large in
Australia have been a group of people who have
been on the ascendancy right from the start, you
know. The think burgeoned out extremely later
I think. But I do make a point in the book that
the Bishops of Australia were very negligent regarding
Aborigines. And I think they always have been,
and only with the arrival in Australia of the
Popes has there been any active sense of concern
Stephen Crittenden: You mentioned the visit of
Pope Paul VI then in 1970 as being almost like
Ted Kennedy: Yes. But even prior to that, there
were these attempts on the part of the Roman congregation
for Propaganda Fide to energise the Australian
Stephen Crittenden: To do more for Aborigines?
Ted Kennedy: Exactly, yes.
Stephen Crittenden: As I was driving down here
to the southern highlands to do this interview
with you today, I was listening to Paul Keating
being interviewed on the ABC by Margaret Throsby.
And he was talking briefly about his Catholic
childhood. And he said an interesting thing -
he said, the Catholic church has got a lot of
problems but racism isn't one of them. Now it
seems to me that in fact the whole tenure of your
book is that that's not correct.
Ted Kennedy: Yes. I agree with that. I believe
that racism is a real problem among Catholics
in Australia. And even though we've attempted
in some ways to pretend it's not true, the facts
are it is true. And so we've got deep elements
of racism in the school system. It happens in
all sorts of deep ways in the St Vincent de Paul
Society for instance. I don't know one St Vincent
de Paul man or woman who is known to accept Aborigines
into their own home as friends. They seem to be
trained against that, just by the event of throwing
themselves in to a system and evading the basic
requirements of Christianity That along with a
lack of education in the theology of justice.
See the St Vincent de Paul Society by and large
I think is just filled with old men from a different
age, and so both in terms of theory which is the
theory of justice, but also in practise you find
there's a long distance away from that personal
accepting of Aboriginal people as people, human
beings. That seems to be the style I suppose that's
set in the practise of Catholics in Australia.
That they like to keep the poor at a distance.
Of course they're pretty famous for providing
cash and secondhand clothes, and dispatching these
to the poor by way of a group of people who act
as runners, you know. There's no personal interaction.
SINGING "There's a sparkle in your eyes yet that
never has gone out. You've a wise imagination
though there's little room for doubt. There's
a madness in your laughter, and a wildness in
your dance. If we can but share your passion,
we're in with half a chance."
John Cleary: Singer Peter Carney at the launch
of Father Ted Kennedy's book "Who is Worthy".
And Ted Kennedy is speaking with Stephen Crittenden.
Stephen Crittenden: How did you find it in Redfern?
I mean you're coming to up, what 30 years in Redfern,
working with the Aboriginal community there. I
gather there have been times when you've had Aborigines
from the community there, living in the church
virtually. And that that's always caused a great
deal of upset from more upstanding members of
Ted Kennedy: That's right, yes. Yes right from
the start we've had Aboriginal people coming in
and staying, and that also causes problems with
institutions. The South Sydney Council as it was
then, found great difficulty in allowing Aborigines
to come and make use of the resources that were
designed for schooling. We invited Aborigines
in to first of all the old hall at the back of
the church, which is now the medical centre. But
you know the South Sydney Council were really
very angry with us and sent letters to the Cardinal
who was then Cardinal Freeman, requesting that
the Aborigines be removed.
And when I explained that they had no place to
go; most of these had come down from horrible
places like Queensland in the Bjelke Petersen
time, and they had nowhere to go. And so right
from the start I suppose, in the first few months,
we had built up numbers like 80, 90, 100 people
coming to stay the night.
There was this great conflict I think between
bureaucracy both church bureaucracy but also the
council bureaucracy, and I suppose there has never
ever been any resolution of that problem. But
in those days, 30 years ago I mean, the whole
thing was so deeply entrenched in practices and
in customs that just kept Aborigines right out
Now Aborigines are much more I suppose more socially
Stephen Crittenden: Because that's a problem for
Australians too. I mean anyone who makes radio
and television in Australia knows that the minute
an Aboriginal story comes on it's instant switch-off.
I saw a comment logged on the ABC switchboard
this week: 'it wouldn't be a typical day at the
ABC if there wasn't a bloody boring story about
Aborigines.' That's a problem that politicians
have too, isn't it. I mean when they feel that
Aboriginal issues have to be out of the news in
order for people to feel comfortable.
Ted Kennedy: That's very true. And the depth of
the animus that is shown I think, is yet to be
discovered I think. The depth is so great, it's
unending really. It just, for instance I have
only now been in hospitals for the last few weeks,
and I've come across several racists just because
I'm in the same ward. Racists who have clearly
thought out their position and decided that they
don't want to have anything with Aborigines. You
know people who tell me that they don't want to
have anything to do with Billy Dean the Governor
General - because of his fondness for Aborigines.
This is an extraordinary thing that sometimes
it seems to pour out of them with deep invective.
Stephen Crittenden: Is it fear?
Ted Kennedy: Oh it's fear alright, but there's
this need that whites have to keep back what they
fear is a sort of overwhelming swell that's going
to come about unless the rights for Aborigines
are kept down in some way or another you know.
It's a fear but it's a fear of loss, without any
concept of what that loss might look like.
Stephen Crittenden: And you say there's no end
Ted Kennedy: I feel there's no end to it, yes.
It's a very very deep thing.
Stephen Crittenden: There's so much sloganising
happens about Aboriginal issues. You know we constantly
hear people talking about how Australian's sense
of spirituality can be renewed by Aboriginal spirituality.
Or we hear constant sloganising now of course
about saying sorry, and about reconciliation.
Do you have any hopes for any of that?
I mean I notice you don't talk in your book about
some idea about renewal through Aboriginal spirituality.
Ted Kennedy: No I don't. Because I'm a bit afraid
I think of a language being adopted that hurts
no-one. Reconciliation I think is a very wonderful
concept, but there's always a danger of whites
particularly of just using it. To a point where
they can get rid of the very concept. You know
as if something can be patched up in a short while,
and in a once-only event, and then they can forget
all about it. That may be the reason why I don't
talk about it, reconciliation. I mean if you saw
Aborigines being invited to white people's homes
that would be to me, a sign of real hope in the
interests of white society as such. But unfortunately
there is by an large a failure on the part of
white people to give total friendship - with very
Stephen Crittenden: Your book is very concerned
with I suppose a theology built around Jesus sharing
at the table with undesirables. And that that
is absolutely at the centre of what it's all about.
Ted Kennedy: Exactly. That's right.
Stephen Crittenden: And they don't have to be
Ted Kennedy: That's right. Yes that's very central
to what I believe. But it's not the central practise
of Christians - practising Christians. To practise
Christianity is deemed to be another thing altogether.
SINGING "Now the year of God's favour has begun."
John Cleary: This is The Religion Report and well
known Catholic Priest and longtime worker with
inner urban Aboriginal communities Father Ted
Kennedy is speaking with Stephen Crittenden.
Stephen Crittenden: Of course your arrival in
Redfern in the early 1970's coincided with the
beginnings of that urban Aboriginal activism that
developed - centred on Redfern. People like Foley,
people like Mum Shirl. Were those people influential
on you, or were you being influential - I mean
how did that work?
Ted Kennedy: They were very influential on me.
Not I on them. They'd already established their
own pattern of behaviour and they'd gained some
ground I think, well before I arrived.
Stephen Crittenden: Mum Shirl of course is a great
hero of yours.
Ted Kennedy: Well she was, yes. But she'd been
active for many years before I ever met her. But
she was very grateful because I did, I think I
just provided some sort of house room for her
to move. She would say that until we arrived in
Redfern, I mean I with two other priests. Until
we arrived she was relying on various people but
not necessarily Catholics at all. She was very
relieved I think because she herself believed
deeply in Catholicism. And so we gave her some
kind of room to exercise her apostolate.
Stephen Crittenden: And that's how you saw it
- as an apostolate?
Ted Kennedy: Yes. Well I saw it as that, but she
saw it as that too. There was something profoundly
spiritual about Shirley that I don't know if we
are ever going to see the likes again. A most
extraordinary woman who's compassion just never
seemed to run out. She had this extraordinary
sensitivity to basic needs. I used to see her
talking to Aboriginal women particularly. They
didn't even have to tell her what had happened
in their life, because she knew. I mean she'd
known exactly what Aboriginal women had been through.
There's no need to talk about what they all knew
together. You know, whether it was to do with
the fact that they'd all known what it means just
to starve for days on end. Or what it was to try
to set up a household. You know, without any resources
Whether it was to do with they knowing how to
try to move from one spot to another without any
transport. You know without any resources at all.
And how much they depended on each other. You
see hospitality that blacks give to each other
is something which we should be as whites able
to support. That's ideally what we should be doing
I think, just helping blacks help each other.
You know if a black family arrives in Sydney tonight
and is cold; what they would most appreciate is
a black family providing them with accommodation.
Now often those black families that are willing
to do that, can't because they haven't got space.
So it would be better for us I think to try to
help black families get into a position where
they can give hospitality to other blacks.
Stephen Crittenden: What about though Ted, the
story that's looked, the commonest story you ever
hear from white Australians who say "a group of
Aborigines on the edge of such and such a country
town got given housing and they destroyed it in
Ted Kennedy: Yeah. Well I usually say you kick
a car if it doesn't move. If a car won't move
we tend to get very angry with it and we don't
realise that often that's just how blacks think
about the accommodation that they're provided.
They need much more space. And yet we offer them
very small amount of space. So many people are
needed in their life so that the numbers swell
very quickly. And what they need therefore is
a house with several bathrooms or several toilets.
They never seem to get that you know.
Stephen Crittenden: Your book's full of poetry.
Ted Kennedy: Yes.
Stephen Crittenden: You're obviously very keen
on poetry in general.
Ted Kennedy: Yes I am. Yes.
Stephen Crittenden: I might get you to read one
of the poems you've included in your book by the
Aboriginal poet Jack Davis.
Ted Kennedy: Who died only very recently.
I mourned again for the Murray Tribe.
Gone too without a trace,
I thought of the soldiers' diatribe,
The smile on the Governor's face.
You murdered me with rope, with gun
The massacre my enclave,
You buried me deep on McClarty's run
Flung into a common grave
You propped me up with Christ, red tape
Tobacco, grog and fears.
Then disease and lordly rape
Through the brutish years;
Now you primly say you're justified,
And sing of a nation's glory
But I think of a people crucified -
- The real Australian story.
John Cleary: Father Ted Kennedy, talking with
Stephen Crittenden and his book "Who is Worthy"
is published by Pluto Press Australia.
John Cleary: Well that's it folks, but news before
we go that it's Bob Dylan's birthday, and in the
United States the singer is to take action against
the Jehovah's Witnesses regarding the use of his
lyrics to the song "All Along the Watchtower".
That's it from us for today, thanks to Michael
Dwyer and John Diamond. Now here's Geraldine with
what's on Life Matters.
The Religion Report is broadcast Wednesday
at 8.30am, repeated at 8.30pm, on Radio National,
the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's national
radio network of ideas.
©1999 Australian Broadcasting Corporation