The question of toppling statues

One of the readers of my last Tiny Letter emailed with a question she thought I might answer in my next. She gave me a reason to write another Tiny Letter. Perhaps others will do the same.
Before I answer the question, I will say that the idea of a question for the blogger reminds me of how the musician Nick Cave writes his blog The Red Hand Files. 
Each of his blogs is an answer to a reader question. In the most recent, a New Zealander asks: 'Do you ever look back at your anthology and wish you had been more overtly politically outspoken?’ In the previous one, there is this from the UK: 'Would you consider compiling a list of 40 books you love?’
The question about books had me thinking about the bookshelves in the front room of my house, in a way that answers my friend's question. 
As I get older, I am becoming aware that each book on my shelves is in some way a memorial to a person or moment in my life. I think this was always the case, but now it's a thing I dwell on.
I sometimes reposition a book to give it greater or less prominence. Authors or subjects I feel warmly about get pride of place. Those at the other end of the spectrum are relegated to a less desirable spot. 
There is one particular book that also has its spine reversed, to hide the title and author's name from view. Its author is my former brother in law, whose actions caused significant suffering to members of my family.
Why didn't I just toss the book in the bin?
My answer to that is also the answer to my friend's question, which incidentally was: 'I would be interested in your views re statue-toppling’.
It is that I want to avoid erasing all knowledge of people's misdeeds from my consciousness, because it amounts to a denial of history. 
In other words, it's best to preserve some memory of the anti-hero. Future generations need to know about bad deeds as well as good deeds.
Two years ago I visited the town of Stalin's birth in the Republic of Georgia. I was impressed that the locals refrained from toppling his statue when he fell from grace, or when they were celebrating Georgia's regaining independence from the Soviet Union. They simply moved it to a less prominent position.
My opposition to erasing the memory of anti-heroes also applies to place names. I have been following calls to rename Faithfull Street in Nick Cave's north-east Victorian home town of Wangaratta. It was named after a pastoralist who was involved in Aboriginal massacres in the 19th century.
Rather than removing Faithfull's name completely, I would prefer to see some kind of creative reversal of his honouring, such as renaming it Faithless Street.
What to do about Faithfull Street could be a question to put to Nick Cave.

The only kid in the class without a TV

These days I enjoy reconnecting with my media rich childhood in Albury-Wodonga, by reading the Border Mail newspaper online and watching the Prime7 local TV news. 

Yesterday’s paper included an obituary for Olgamary Savage (née Whelan), who was the first on air presenter at the TV station then known as AMV4. 

AMV4 commenced in 1964, when I was four years old. However my family did not purchase a TV set until 1966, I think because our mother wanted us to become devoted to reading rather than television. In my first year at school (1965), I was the only kid in my class whose family did not have a TV. It was clear to me that my mother was quite proud of that particular instance of child neglect. 
I never saw Olgamary on AMV4 because she got married and ended her mainstream career in 1965, before my family had TV. But I did know her as a colleague in the mid 1980s, when she was an interviewer and I was the production assistant on the Catholic Church’s niche current affairs program Sunday Magazine. We were given facilities and airtime on Channel 7 in Melbourne as part of their licensing agreement with the Federal Government.

Olgamary's life resonates with mine to the extent that it embraced both popular media culture and a keen sense of social justice and - importantly - an ongoing attempt to connect the two. This was the focus of Sunday Magazine, and also her political involvement on the NSW South Coast later in life.

Reconciling popular culture with social justice was also on my mind yesterday after reading a Q&A in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum supplement. It featured the perspective of 23 year old Greek-Australian popular culture archivist Michael Alexandratos, who has just released an audio compilation titled Before the Boomerang Came Back - Musical Aboriginalia (1949-1962). The collection contains mostly kitsch appropriations of Aboriginal culture by white artists. I was listening to it on Spotify, and reading his fascinating academic paper on cultural appropriation, at the end of a week that saw continuing Black Lives Matter protests and streaming services banning content that includes blackface and other representations deemed to be offensive.

The paper, which is published on his blog Amnesiac Archive, refers to ABC Radio's 2015 banning of My Boomerang Won’t Come Back, a 1961 recording by English comedian Charlie Drake. Alexandratos argues: 'Although it may be an embarrassing legacy for some, it is also an important resource that Indigenous creatives and musicians can use to resist, re-purpose and de-colonise – on their own terms.’

He cites La Trobe University academic Liz Conor’s 2018 article in The Conversation - ‘The politics of Aboriginal kitsch’ - which savages cultural appropriation. He then quotes Wiradjuri elder Kerry Reed-Gilbert’s reaction to Conor: ‘She [Conor] attempts to convince Aboriginal people and others to think the same way that she does that we shouldn’t like Aboriginalia or have anything to do with it. How dare she!'

Obviously Conor was following the instincts of her own academic culture. She later updated her original article to say that she was ‘mortified’ that her attempt at respect turned out to be insulting.

That is a trap I’m sure I’ve fallen into more than once, and it is unwitting prejudice. I’m moved by the approach of former colleague Catherine Marshall, a travel writer whose adventures have schooled her in relating to cultures other than her own. A few days ago she published an article titled ‘How travel has changed me’ in the women’s travel magazine Travel Play Live.

Describing ‘[her own] face glow[ing] like a ghostly lightbulb amidst this communal flow of brown-skinned people’, Marshall sees herself as 'an obvious interloper … forced to adjust the viewfinder, to refocus as the telescope’s prisms invert the known world and subvert [her] place in it’.

Perhaps that’s how I felt as the only kid in a class of five year olds whose family didn’t own a TV.

Blind obedience and the Pell trial jury

While I was training to be a Jesuit in the late 70s, I learned about, and practised, ‘blind obedience’. I recall being told that if something appeared black but the superior said it was white, we were to put aside our own perceptions and reasoning and believe that it was white.

Rightly or wrongly, what I learned about blind obedience has informed my understanding of how juries work in the court system. Once a jury is properly constituted and successfully reaches its verdict according to the rules of the judiciary, we are to put aside our own opinion about the guilt or innocence of the accused, in order to accept that the jury verdict represents the truth.

There will always be arguments to counter the jury’s conclusion, but we must either accept the truth of its verdict or keep our contrary reasoning and opinions to ourselves and our inner circles, out of respect for the rule of law that underpins the social order.

That is why I was dismayed last year when several prominent church related legal experts, and one archbishop, went public with their opinions contradicting the jury verdict. They all had the added authority of being respected community leaders, so I felt that their undermining of the credibility of the jury was especially threatening to the social order.

I thought that the right place for them to air their views was behind closed doors or within legal circles. I imagined that their opinions about the evidence of the witness might find their way into the minds of appeal judges in a manner that was not public, and I felt there was no harm in that.

I could appreciate the logic in their assertions, but to my mind it was not their place to raise doubts that would undermine public confidence in the rule of law.

In line with the principle of blind obedience, we all try to align our thinking with jury’s conclusion, again for the sake of the order of society. I remember writing the following while processing and reaching a positive assessment of the Pell jury verdict in my own mind:

The more I read about the fragmentary and therefore ‘unreliable’ nature of human memory, the more I’m convinced that the form or demeanour of a testifying witness can be more telling than the verbal content of his or her testimony.

Convinced as I was of my own opinion, and that jury verdicts are sacred, I’m now struggling to bring my mind around to conform with the judgment of the High Court, in the spirit of blind obedience.

Self-isolation to avoid the coronavirus

The coronavirus has changed the plans of many. I was to depart for Paris tomorrow, but now I’m staying put here in Sydney.

The decision was taken out of my hands by the the airline, which cancelled my flight. But in any case, I’d all but decided to abandon the trip after seeking personal advice from four doctors. Three of them said I should be OK to go but the one who said don’t go was the most persuasive.

I have a friend who travels to Paris several times a year who told me about his own fatalistic approach. If I hadn’t been somewhat fatalistic in the past, I would have missed a lot of the interesting travel I’ve done. But now I’m older and wiser and the circumstances are different to anything I’ve experienced before.

In recent weeks I’ve been consumed by opinion and media coverage relating to the coronavirus. I’ve noticed quite a divergence between views influenced by politics and those of medical experts able to speak freely.

One morning last week I heard the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan listing the deficiencies of the American response. He argued that Australia should be requiring quarantine from incoming US travellers ahead of those from any other country. Hours later, our PM followed Trump’s lead and did the opposite, restricting travellers from Europe.

In reaching my own position, I was most persuaded by the fearless passion and well-argued stance of Sydney immunologist Dr Dan Suan, whose Facebook post I read this morning. He said: ‘It is possible I will get into trouble for saying all of this. But now I do not care’.

Advocating strict social isolation, he contrasts the successful approach of a handful of jurisdictions including Hong Kong and Singapore - which isolated their populations early - with the costly delayed response of most other countries. He said Australia made a good start in efforts to ‘flatten the curve’, but urgently needs to take significant further steps before it is too late.

He said: ‘Hospitals are completely overrun in Northern Italy like they were in Wuhan... so many deaths. Spain is soon to follow, as are cities in America. I am deeply sad for what we are about to see unfold.’

I can now see the wisdom of rejecting the temptation to be fatalistic about my trip to Paris. It is lucky that I like being in my house in Sydney because I will be spending nearly all my time here, most likely for several months. My diary is 100 per cent clear for the next two months, the time I’d envisaged being overseas. Now, with very few exceptions, it will stay that way.

Jean Vanier and the abuse of celebrity power

Like many, I was saddened and disillusioned to hear reports last weekend that Jean Vanier had psychologically manipulated and sexually abused six women in France between 1970 and 2005.

Vanier was a French Canadian philosopher who founded the worldwide network of l’Arche communities for people with intellectual disabilities. He died last May at the age of 90.

I remember visiting the L’Arche Genesaret community in Canberra in 1985. I returned in 1990 to record interviews for an ABC radio documentary that won a Human Rights Commission media award later that year.

Vanier’s teaching, which was lived out in the communities, seemed to have particular resonance for me. It was that difference and diversity was to be celebrated and not shunned.

Vanier’s fall from grace does not change anything about my appreciation of his message. Instead it has me reflecting on the very human practice of idolising people whose values we like, and how our idolisation can set them on a path towards the destruction of themselves and others, in addition to bringing discredit to their message.

The US Jesuit writer James Martin said after Vanier’s death that ‘[Vanier] and Mother Teresa were the avatars for Catholics’. In using the word avatar, Martin was referring not to the icons used to identify us in social media but rather the incarnation of gods in Hindu mythology.

Treating people like gods tends to have unintended consequences. In Vanier’s case, it seems to have made him a cult leader, complete with an adoring and unquestioning constituency and loyal deputies.

In his case, I think we have to ask why the loyal deputies did not see and report the signs that he was abusing the six women.

But we can’t lay all the blame on the deputies. I suspect we would act in the same way if we were in the shoes of the deputies because our religious and celebrity cultures ordain certain people and treat them with deference.

‘Ordain’ in this sense does not necessarily refer to religious priesthood, and sexually-abusing celebrities such as Michael Jackson are every bit as ‘ordained’ as Catholic priests who abuse their power and sexually exploit their subjects.

I think that we have to admit we are party to abuse of the power that comes with ordination if we don’t call it out when we suspect it. We are doing both the perpetrator and victim a profound disservice, not to mention the message that has drawn us in the first place.

Pushing the boundaries of sex education in 1973

Over the holidays I was saddened to hear of the sudden death of a former priest who was responsible for the boarders when I first went away to school in 1973 at the age of 13.

I understand he left the order in the early 1990s after his superiors upheld complaints from school parents relating to allegations of him pushing the boundaries on professional standards matters. Rightly or wrongly, that would have dogged him for the rest of his life.

I remember the young, not yet ordained Jesuit pushing boundaries in the boarding house one evening. This was when he gave us a spontaneous hour-long briefing about human sexual relationships.

We’d just watched a television program that included a reference which he thought required explanation. I think it might have related to syphilis.

In any case, he gave us exactly the sexual education that many today would argue we should have received from our parents and the school curriculum. At the time, if we asked our elders about syphilis, we’d usually be told that we ‘don't need to know about these things’.

In hindsight, I suspect there was an element of prurience in the young Jesuit's delivery of the information, and it's arguable that he robbed us of our innocence to some degree.

But I’d prefer to think that it was our ignorance that he took away, and that any child exploitation that might have occurred was outweighed by the benefit.

Looking back, he was prescient in that serious teaching about human sexual relationships in schools was to be one of the key recommendations of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships that was initiated by the Whitlam Government in that same year, 1973.

The final report (1977) called for programs ‘giving sex information and an integrated program covering related social and psychological matters’. The object was 'a community more open and tolerant in outlook, and better able to form meaningful relationships’.

Leaving Google

Last month an Amnesty International report took Google and Facebook to task for their 'surveillance-based business model' that is 'predicated on human rights abuse’.

Back in 2004, Google’s founders expressed their corporate philosophy in their prospectus with the declaration: 'Don't be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served - as shareholders and in all other ways - by a company that does good things for the world.’

I recall a colleague telling me about the company’s ‘do no evil’ manifesto. I wanted to believe it and used many of its free and paid services over the years. Until last week.

That was when I finally pulled the plug on Google by cancelling the G Suite subscription that I’d been paying for since 2007. I was attracted to this professional version of Gmail because it allowed me to have an email address with my own domain name, rather than one containing Google’s company name.

I had long thought that giving users an email address containing the name of an internet service provider was a sneaky anti-competitive way for the company to discourage users from moving on to get a better deal elsewhere. For nobody wants to change their email address or telephone number.

This applied to email addresses ending in, or similar, that were supplied by the telcos. It was then possible to get around this with a or address that unleashed you from the telco at the expense of chaining you to Hotmail or Gmail.

I opted for the paid Google service so that I could use an address with my own domain. These domains were launched by the Australian Domain Registry in 1995 but sadly never took off.

As I understand it, ‘’ domains were intended to allow Australians to retain their digital identity and not cede it to the service provider. I was sold, and came to think of this as maintaining my digital ‘sovereignty', avoiding being 'colonised' by the service provider.

As time went on, I learned that Google had other ways to trap me. But, more insidiously, tracking and surveillance was the basis of the ‘do no evil’ company's business model.

I was alerted to this most acutely about ten years ago when a respected church official asked me why he was getting so many ads for porn on his screen. He was shocked when I told him that it was likely somebody was looking at porn on his computer.

As an apparent gesture to users who value their privacy, Google now offers ‘incognito’ windows in its Chrome browser that are supposed to avoid tracking. But who is naive enough to trust them?

About three years ago I discovered Fastmail, a reputable Australian alternative to G Suite. I wanted to switch from Google but was dismayed to discover how difficult they would make it for me.

For example I’d lose all the Android phone apps I’d paid for over the years, as Google policy does not allow them to be transferred to another account. It would be costly in the short term, so I stayed with Google.

I finally decided to act a month ago when Google bought Fitbit. I realised that Google would own my health and fitness data from the past four years and they would integrate that with everything else they know about me.

So now I have eliminated Google from many aspects of my digital life. I have started to use Fastmail and other services that I trust to do the right thing with my data. These include the non-profit Firefox browser, the DuckDuckGo search engine, and HERE WeGo maps. I have asserted my digital dignity.

Moving beyond the need to be self-critical

Three years ago today I signed up for the free newsletter emailer at and started a blog. Like most bloggers, I was very faithful to my writing for the first year or two but then mostly overlooked it. This year I’ve averaged less than one Tiny Letter a month.

I’m always humbled to receive replies from friends who appreciate my thoughts when I do express them. They don’t always agree with my opinions but invariably seem grateful when I articulate them. They appear delighted when I write but don’t judge me when I don’t.

Significantly I don’t judge myself when I don’t write. I regard it as one of my greatest achievements in life that I have moved beyond the need to be self-critical in this way.

Self-criticism is common in young people. With particular generations including my own, it might be a product of religious teaching. Or it could be a matter of poor self-esteem that is the result of bullying or other psychological or sexual abuse.

A turning point for me occurred on this day three years ago, when I had a private session with the Commissioner at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

I’d always regarded my experience of sexual abuse as insignificant. The meeting with the Commissioner did not change that. But it helped me appreciate the context of the abuse, which was the psychological power plays in institutions that prevented many children from growing into confident adults.

This often occurred at the hands of authority figures in the institutions who themselves were damaged human beings. Their behaviour tended to go hand in hand with distortions of religious doctrine that fostered guilt and diminished young people’s self-image.

Like many of my contemporaries, I was affected by this right up until the moment of my retirement, also three years ago. It was not coincidental that I’d spent a large part of my working life working for religious institutions, for the most part adopting a subservient demeanour.

But I feel I was able to draw a line under this self-critical pattern of behaviour in 2015, around the time of my retirement and my meeting with the Commissioner.

On the day of that meeting I had a sense that I was shedding the yoke of my past and entering a new life in which nobody including myself would judge me. That has proven to be the case.

That day was in fact my my birthday, as is today. I’ve just turned 60 and officially become a Senior in the eyes of the NSW Government. I have my Seniors and Gold Opal transport concession cards as a badge of this particular honour.

For me, being a senior means that I am affirmed and not judged. There can be many challenges for people at this stage of life, including health, loneliness, finance and often greater suffering when natural disasters strike.

But if other seniors have learned the lessons I have, our often newfound psychological resilience can allow us to face adversity in a way we couldn’t when we were robbed of self-confidence in our younger days.

The purification of Holy Innocents Cemetery

At the centre of the square next to my Paris street - Rue de la Ferronnerie - is the Fountain of the Innocents. It is the oldest monumental fountain in Paris and a focal point for the groups of young people that gather there.

The other day I saw a very old map of the city. I noticed that the square was marked as a cemetery, and it included a church named after the Holy Innocents. Innocents refers to the male infants King Herod ordered massacred, according to the biblical narrative.

I did some research and discovered that the space had indeed been a burial ground from the Middle Ages until the late 18th century. It was then condemned as a health hazard.


The corpses and bones were subsequently exhumed and transported to underground storage near Montparnasse, on the other side of the city. This site is now known as the Catacombs and open to the public as a tourist attraction. The Innocents church was demolished and the fountain moved to the centre, where it still stands.

I’m now half way through a 2011 novel on the exhumation, by Booker Prize nominated British writer Andrew Miller. Titled Pure, it recreates the story of the removal of the corpses, which it depicts as a purification.


This took place on the eve of the French Revolution, which could crudely be described as the forces of reason replacing the cloud of religious superstition. A purification of sorts, though the term refers more directly to the foul smell that permeated the area. It would turn fresh produce rotten and taint the breath of the residents.

The main character is a young engineer named Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a fervent believer in rationality. The family he boards with are given to superstition and are hostile to his work once they discover what it is.


My interest is heightened by the coincidence concerning the historic Camperdown cemetery at the top of my street in Sydney. In the late 1940s, ghost stories and a murder led to demands for the ‘purification’ of a large section of the site.

This took the form of the transfer of headstones to the area next to adjacent church, and use of the space for the creation of the Camperdown Memorial Rest Park. Today it’s a well frequented meeting place for young people and dog owners.

The role of ordinary Catholics in clerical sex abuse

In recent days I've had an email conversation with a friend in New Zealand about the forced resignation of Palmerston North Bishop Charles Drennan.

A young woman had come forward to complain that she'd been the victim of inappropriate sexual behaviour on Drennan's part. The resignation came after the Church's investigative body contracted an outside investigator to evaluate her claim.

Details of the claim were not revealed at her request. But the country's most senior Catholic Cardinal John Dew said: 'In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Bishop Drennan’s behaviour was completely unacceptable.'

The US publication CruxNow pointed out that the Church has long considered sexual relationships between clerics and adult women to be sinful and inappropriate, but not criminal or necessarily worthy of permanent sanction.

'However, the #MeToo movement and the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, an American defrocked by Francis for sexual misconduct, have forced a reckoning about the imbalance of power in relationships between clerics and lay adults, nuns and seminarians, and whether such relationships can ever be consensual.'

I experienced this imbalance when I was a trainee Jesuit teaching in one of the order's schools 30 years ago. While I wasn't technically a cleric, I sensed that I was being accorded much more respect than I was due. At parent-teacher events, and when invited to parents' homes for a meal, I was treated like royalty.

I felt that I could get to enjoy this. Many clerics did, and turned it to their advantage. Then when their sex drive kicked in, some would not hold back.

I remember witnessing the rector of another college touching women inappropriately at a garden party. It was 40 years before #metoo and women would put up with such behaviour. At most they'd whisper behind the cleric's back that he was a 'sleaze'.

We now know that the power imbalance is the cause not only of perhaps inconsequential touching, but serious sexual abuse of minors. It often leads to lifelong mental illness and sometimes drug abuse and suicide.

My NZ friend commented on clericalism in the context of sexual abuse: 'Most people don’t understand it. I worked hard to get my head around it.'

But she ended with an anecdote that suggests the clerical state does not have to affect priests in this way.

'Our cardinal [John Dew] wrote recently "Call me John" about how it was important to call priests and religious by their names rather than using the epithet.'

While I find that very uplifting, I was troubled by her next sentence, in which she said that most people in her parish 'dismissed it'.

Such dismissal suggests the real source of the problem could actually be ordinary Catholics playing into the clergy's hands with a self-deprecating 'Yes Father' attitude.

When I was a school student, I remember one of the priests asking to be called by his first name. When I referred to 'Geoff' in front of my father, he berated me, insisting that it was customary for us to show special respect for priests by not using their first name.

The kind of respect we show towards clerics is our choice. Clergy are able to behave as if they're a race apart - and take sexual liberties - because ordinary Catholics give them licence to do it. The pope and other senior leaders appoint them but we decide how to respect them and live with the consequences.