Former religion writer Graham Downie writes on fallible religious leaders
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Former religion writer Graham Downie writes on fallible religious leaders

A long-time religion writer does not have far to look for enough sex scandals to fill a book.

Retired Canberra Times journalist Graham Downie was not after scandal in his latest book, Servants and Leaders - Eminent Christians in their Own Words, but could hardly miss the extraordinary public utterances of people like Cardinal George Pell and former governor-general and previously Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth.

Graham Downie was appointed the Canberra Times religious writer in 1974.

Graham Downie was appointed the Canberra Times religious writer in 1974.Credit:Karleen Minney

Hollingworth's fall from grace began while commenting on ABC television on an affair between a priest and woman that began when she was about 14 at an Anglican hostel in Forbes. As more scandal emerged, his position as the Governor-General became more untenable.

"What I wrote for the Canberra Times, and have put it in the book, when Hollingworth went to Brisbane there was a time-bombing ticking which he could not defuse, and that was all this nasty sexual abuse at the schools in Brisbane which the [royal] commission was hearing just last week," Downie says.

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Author Graham Downie's latest book, Servants and Leaders - Eminent Christians in their Own Words.

Author Graham Downie's latest book, Servants and Leaders - Eminent Christians in their Own Words.

"If he had his time again I'm not sure what he could have done about all the abuse, it had already happened, but I'm sure he would be far more cautious about what he said publicly," Downie says.

Hollingworth had worked for the welfare group Brotherhood of Saint Laurence and so was well aware of human difficulties, which was why what he said publicly was so surprising, Downie says.

On the other hand, even when trying to sound sympathetic, Cardinal Pell didn't, according to the author. "He was so bound up with the strictures of his church, and some would support that, but I don't, that he couldn't understand human frailty, fallibility, those sort of things which Pope Francis does seem to understand, and wonderful people like [retired auxiliary bishop] Pat Power, who has a chapter in the book.

"With Pell, I don't think it was in his DNA to do anything different to what he has done. Remember he is one of the ones who just recently signed the letter opposed to the Pope's liberalism, even though [Pell] is now at the Vatican."

Downie says he met many interesting people since 1974 when he was appointed the Canberra Times religious writer. "As I started to read some of the old interviews to background myself on something and thought, gee that's interesting, he said that then, what's he saying now? I realised there was a mini church history, a social study of how the church has been changing over the last 35 years."

Servants and Leaders [Halstead Press] features 27 people of all persuasions and prominent lay Christians who opened up to Downie on issues and feelings that mattered to them most, including Desmond Tutu, Anglican hardliner Peter Jensen, cabinet minister Fred Chaney, and pioneering Presbyterian minister Joy Bartholomew. Over the decades, they've shared their thoughts on church and society, morality and sex, world affairs, women, homosexuality and child abuse.

Former Canberra Times editor Ian Mathews will launch Servants and Leaders on Thursday at 6pm at the Australian Centre.

A former Canberra citizen of the year [1990] Downie retired from the Canberra Times three years ago. He has an interest in oral history and completed major projects for the National Library of Australia. Though blind since birth, Downey continues to contribute to community organisations, particularly scouting. and wants to write more books.

John Thistleton is a reporter for The Canberra Times.

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