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Winners and losers from St Mary’s

By Alan Austin - posted Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The fiasco at St Mary’s Catholic Church, South Brisbane, is a disaster for Catholics worldwide.

This is not just an Australian story. The Catholic Church is a global institution and the saga has made the news in many countries. No one can recall a case like it.

The sacked priest at the centre of the conflict, Father Peter Kennedy, returned the keys to the historic St Mary’s church to Archbishop of Brisbane John Bathersby on Monday, April 20. The day before, after his last mass there, Kennedy led an emotional walk to a union building nearby where his congregation will continue to meet.


In most coverage, the Catholic Church is depicted as harsh and outdated. Kennedy, in contrast, is a decent, humble, quiet servant of the poor.

A French news agency condemns not only the dismissal process - de façon injuste - but the whole Catholic Church. It quotes Kennedy’s claim that it is le plus grand club masculin de la planète - the world’s biggest private men’s club. Die Kirche versinkt immer mehr in Anarchie, wrote a German commentator. The church sinks ever more in anarchy.

How did it come to this? Catholic conservatives have railed against St Mary’s for years. Their complaints include that the church has blessed same sex unions, had women preach and has altered liturgies. Specifically, St Mary’s uses the words Creator, Sustainer and Liberator instead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in baptisms.

Finally the complainants went direct to Rome. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled in February that only the traditional names could be used. Then Bathersby was obliged to do what he never wanted to do and dismiss the errant priest.

The four reasons the archbishop has given for removing Kennedy and his flock are using unorthodox liturgies, changing the way mass is celebrated, having once had a Buddhist statue in the church and disrespecting the church’s authority.

Nowhere else in the world would these be grounds for expelling a well-attended church effectively ministering to marginalised groups and troubled individuals. While not formally approved they are not uncommon. In fact the conservatives now rejoicing at Kennedy's banishment claim there are many more liberals out there to be hunted down.


John Bathersby is by all accounts a good bloke. But his handling of this situation has been inept. His failure to visit St Mary's has been a bad look. His absence from mediation meetings was worse. In much of his personal correspondence with Kennedy he sounds inflexible and tetchy. Replies from the priest in contrast seem reasoned and patient. To the dismay of the hierarchy St Mary’s placed all this on the internet.

So who wins and who loses - besides the St Mary’s congregation losing their premises?

The obvious winners at this point are the conservatives - ungraciously labelled by some as the Catholic Taliban - who have wanted Kennedy punished for his sins.

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About the Author

Alan Austin is an Australian freelance journalist currently based in Nîmes in the South of France. His special interests are overseas development, Indigenous affairs and the interface between the religious communities and secular government. As a freelance writer, Alan has worked for many media outlets over the years and been published in most Australian newspapers. He worked for eight years with ABC Radio and Television’s religious broadcasts unit and seven years with World Vision. His most recent part-time appointment was with the Uniting Church magazine Crosslight.

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