Federal Politics



Retiring Catholic bishop Pat Power has been one of Canberra's much-loved clerics not least because he has been prepared to take a stand on social issues, GRAHAM DOWNIE writes

Often seen as out of step with his church, Auxiliary Catholic Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn Pat Power retires today unrepentant, still willing to speak his mind across a range of issues and reaching out to those of other denominations and faiths.

He was at it again this week, taking on Cardinal George Pell no less, on the question of climate change. ''I think it's important that another bishop shows that mainstream Australian Catholicism, and in fact the Pope himself, has been very strong in speaking in support of measures to take into account issues affecting the environment.''

But it is questionable whether the Pope would support his views on some of the big issues - including sexual abuse, married priests, the ordination of women and homosexuality - facing the church, which he sees as having missed opportunities for reform.

On whether he is disappointed or disillusioned with his church, he says he is a bit saddened. The second Vatican Council gave so many beautiful opportunities for the church to be more critical of itself - to see the areas in which it needed to be more in line with what Jesus was asking.

He says sexual abuse perpetrated by priests is the gravest crisis faced by the church since the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, needing not just a focus on abusers but a total systemic reform of church structures. Calling it a terrible stain on the church, he blames Vatican secrecy for providing conditions for sexual and many other forms of abuse to thrive.

In the early 1990s he first became aware of sexual abuse by priests though then not the extent of it. In 1993 he was approached by a woman saying she had been abused by a well-respected parish priest, Patrick Cusack, who died in 1977 aged 49.


''I was talking to her for only 10 minutes when I was convinced of the truth of what she was saying. But at another level it was almost impossible to believe because Pat was someone we all had the highest admiration for … He had been a role model for people like me - a beautifully pastoral man. I still can't get my head around all of that. But what it did teach me was that when someone makes a complaint, it has to be taken very seriously.''

Ultimately it was revealed many girls had been sexually abused by Cusack. Similar matters were being revealed throughout Australia and in 1996, largely under the leadership of Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, of Sydney, Towards Healing was established to help victims and Integrity in Ministry as a protocol for priests.

Sexual abuse touched Bishop Power in other ways. ''Two of my classmates have gone to prison and I regularly visited them in prison,'' he says. Some people have criticised him for this. While in no way approving of what they had done, he felt it right to visit them.

''I think their time in prison enabled them to see the horror of what they had done. I hoped in the support I was giving them that would help them to find some rehabilitation in their lives.''

He says it is inevitable the church will eventually accept married male priests. The parlous state of the Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes, which prompted him to write last year to the Pope, (to which he has received no reply) is progressively happening around Australia and in other parts of the world. He would like bridges built with the 100,000 men around the world who have left the priesthood.

Bishop Power says with married clergy the church would also benefit from the gifts of their wives. He has long argued that men who have left the priesthood to be married should, determined case by case, be able to resume their ministry. ''Not only are they prevented as acting as priests but there are some roles even as lay people they are excluded from.''

Meanwhile the church has accepted as priests married men disaffected with other churches.

Half of his seminary class mates have left the priesthood and married. ''They have been very dear friends to me and I have never had any superior attitude to them.'' But he had never been tempted to follow them.

''While I could see what they were doing … I have always felt God wanted me to be where I was and doing what I am doing. … There has never been a day that I haven't thanked God for the gift of the priesthood and for all that has meant to me.''

For 12 years he has shared a house with a woman which has also raised eyebrows. ''I have been pleased to acknowledge the part Geraldine has had in my life for the 12 years she has looked after me. She is not there all the time. She knows of my commitment to celibacy and she supports me in that. … Having that feminine influence on my life has been quite positive.'' Bishop Power has long said he would have no difficulty if female priests were in his church if the Pope approved that. Now, he says, even leaving aside having female priests, the contribution of women in the church needs to be more in keeping with the realities of today's world. ''I think all that is possible without the ordination of women. But I would hope too there would be that openness to look at the possibility of the ordination of women.''

He is ambivalent about same-sex marriage. ''I think it is really important to honour homosexual people and to understand that if that is their orientation, that is the way God has made them. If they are expressing their sexuality in a particular way, I don't know I would want to be too judgmental about that. I think God is often kinder in any judgments that would be made than sometimes other Christians are.''

Despite this, he says to put homosexual relationships on the level of marriage is another issue.

Bishop Power feels a closer relationship to some people from non-Catholic churches than with some Catholics who are less ecumenically minded. ''I still think there is a clericalism in the church I wish we could just leave behind.''

Influenced by the aims of Vatican II for Christian unity, Bishop Power says it was almost natural for him to have good relationships with other Christians. though as a child he would not enter the Baptist Church at Kingston, firstly for fear of being excommunicated from his church and secondly for fear of what was in there. Having once said this publicly, he was invited by the then minister Neil Adcock to preach in the church, which he did.

Bishop Power was born in Cooma in 1942. His mother's parents came to Australia from Lebanon in the 1890s and settled in Cooma. His mother was also born there in 1908.

His father, whose Irish forebears came to Australia in 1797 and 1803, met Bishop Power's mother during a visit to Cooma. They married in 1939. ''I was only seven months old when we left.''

The family lived in Sydney for about three years before moving to Queanbeyan in 1945. ''I have always seen Queanbeyan as my home town but I have always retained an affection with Cooma.''

His ancestry is important to him. In 2008, As part of his long-service leave, Bishop Power undertook a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, said to be the burial place of the Apostle James, brother of John. Before walking that 700 kilometre journey, he visited relatives in Lebanon. ''It was really lovely just to go back to my roots there.''

Though the Power family lived in Queanbeyan, Bishop Power's father worked in shops in Kingston. ''So I would get the bus out with dad. He would get off at Kingston and I would go across to Manuka on the bus and get off at the Capitol Theatre.''

All of his primary school education was at the then St Christopher's Primary School on the site of today's Catholic Education Office. In 1954 he began high school in the foundation year of St Edmund's Canberra. ''It has always been a source of pride for me to have been a foundation student of St Edmund's.''

The final three years of his high school education was at Chevalier College, Bowral. ''The main reason I went - with four younger sisters - dad didn't think I was doing enough study at home and felt if I went to Chevalier I would get a better education. As it turned out, I probably would have been academically better off staying at St Edmund's.''

Nevertheless Chevalier helped him to become more independent. ''I think I learned some good leadership qualities there.''

It was a homely college with only 20 students completing the Leaving Certificate. There was also a close relationship with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart priests and brothers.

His first memories of considering becoming a priest are of his first Holy Communion at St Christopher's Canberra when aged seven. ''I must say I never lost it.''

But when priests and religious came to school to promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life, ''I never put up my hand for that because I didn't want to be in the situation where people might start to put a bit of pressure on me about it.''

But the option of the priesthood was always on his mind. In his final year of high school he planned to study science at university.

''I wasn't sure I was cut out for the priesthood. I had the desire but I wasn't sure that was what God ultimately wanted for me.''

During that final year he was seen by the local priest regularly at Mass, ''mainly praying I would do all right during the Leaving Certificate''.

The priest asked if the young Power had considered the priesthood. ''He pointed out to me it was a seven-year course of study and discernment for the priesthood.''

It made sense to him he could leave the course if things did not work out so he went to the seminary in 1959. ''I was five years into the course before I started to gain some confidence I would eventually be ordained. … I have to say the seminary days weren't the happiest days of my life. It was a very closed sort of environment. I often say the three things that got me through the seminary were the desire to be a priest, the friendship of my classmates and the holidays. Namely the time to come back to the real world and be reconnected with family and friends.''

He was ordained on July 17, 1965 in Queanbeyan. ''It snowed the day I was ordained. That was probably the happiest day of my life - the day when all of my dreams were fulfilled, but in a way it was only the beginning.''

After completing studies at the seminary he had a brief appointment to Braidwood. He was then appointed to St Christopher's as a junior curate where he spent five years. During that time he was also chaplain to St Edmund's, Catholic Girls High School (Now St Clare's College) and to the hostels which catered largely for young, single public servants. He was also chaplain to the Young Christian Workers. It was where he met now Minister for Veterans Affairs Warren Snowdon, also a St Edmund's student.

After two years in Goulburn he was invited, though it was more of an instruction, by the then Archbishop Thomas Cahill, to study canon law in Rome. Bishop Power says people were often intimidated by Archbishop Cahill.

''I think he admired the way I put a robust point of view to him. … I would have to say he had a genuine fatherly affection for me. I think he saw me as someone with a bit of ability.''

He was in Rome from 1972 to 1975 at Propaganda Fide College. ''That was a wonderful experience in itself.''

About half the 180 students were African. Others were from Vietnam and some from former communist countries and South America. There were only about five from Australia and New Zealand. He says living in a minority helped him to understand some of the difficulties faced by migrants to Australia.

On his return to Australia in mid-1975 he became secretary to Archbishop Cahill and was to serve as secretary to his two successors, Edward Clancy and Francis Carroll. Bishop Power says of the three, he was probably personally closest to Cahill, though he was the hardest one to work for. ''Everything had to be done yesterday.'' Cahill died in 1978 with Power at his bedside.

While archbishop's secretary, Power also served on the marriage tribunal, dealing with people seeking annulments of their marriages.''That was a really formative time for me. Here were people talking not just of the pain of a broken marriage but often quite significant issues in their lives which might have played a part in the marriage break-up.''

Listening to the stories of heroic people and seeing them harshly judged by others who had no conception of what it meant to be under pressure in that way had quite a profound effect on him.

He returned to parish ministry in Queanbeyan in 1985 but remained for only 15 months before being made auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese. It was not a position he sought. Indeed, knowing he was being considered for the position he lost a lot of sleep wondering how he would respond if asked to become a bishop. Two other priests were being considered for the position.

''I wrote very strong letters of support for them in the hope it would be one of them.''

His reluctance was that being a bishop would again take him out of parish work. ''But the way things did unfold it gave me opportunities in other ways to be close to people and to represent their views further up the line.''

He hopes his retirement means being able to ''retire from meetings and bureaucracy and in doing that to be free to do more pastoral work. The sort of thing that drew me into the priesthood in the first place.

''I am conscious of our priests. I feel a little guilty retiring when I am comparatively young and in good health but where I see some of my brothers who are older and more feeble than I am soldiering on. My hope is to be able to help them.''

He also wants to reach out to people on the margins, whether in the church or the wider community. He hopes to do that in communion with the church and the next archbishop. And he wants to continue to do confirmations. ''I see that as a lovely opportunity not just to relate to the young people but also to their parents and families. Often you are in touch with people there you might not otherwise be.''

He might also have more opportunity to watch his beloved South Sydney Rabbitohs. He says being a South Sydney supporter is a bit like being a Catholic. ''We have had some great years. We have had some lean times. We are having some lean times at the moment but loyalty is part of the whole scheme of things.''

Graham Downie is Religion Reporter