Tuesday, September 06, 2005

In Bob We Trust

(Reprinted with permission from the Emerald Hill Weekly)

Even at 71 years of age, South Melbourne priest Father Bob Maguire can still be counted on to stir up some controversy. But it’s all for a good cause, writes Andrew Fenton

The first time we meet, Bob Maguire is jovial and charming, making jokes and hamming it up for the camera. “Oh, so you must have heard about the woman running away from the church?” he says, chuckling. “Or about the time I spent in prison?”

Maguire also says “Jesus Christ!” a number of times, yet never in a religious context. First impression: top bloke. But Maguire is as volatile as he is excitable, and the second time we meet he has transformed into a grumpy old fellow who yells a lot.

Despite agreeing to give a tour of his church and presbytery in South Melbourne, he’s changed his mind, and excitedly yammers at a couple of volunteers to do itfor him. They agree rather wearily, but it’s clear they’d rather be elsewhere.

Maguire is at best cantankerous; at worst, the world’s biggest pain in the rectory. He barks replies, refuses to answer questions, and generally behaves badly because he’s old and can get away with it. Despite this, he manages to be extremely likeable. His bluster is like a summer storm – quickly forgotten.

Maguire is a 71-year-old Catholic priest who believes Australia would be better off if drugs were decriminalised, and who is receptive to the argument that private schools should be abolished.

He contradicts the Pope by saying the church should butt out of the contraception debate. He created controversy after taking confessions live on radio; he once blessed Crown Casino and angered Reverend Tim Costello; and he’s the oldest personality ever to appear weekly on Triple J.

After working as an army chaplain in Melbourne during the Vietnam war, Maguire became the parish priest of South Melbourne in 1973, where he’s been based ever since. He set up Open Family Australia in 1978 to assist the kids he saw living on streets every day. “We thought we might be able to turn the tide rather than just hold it back,” he explains.

The organisation has had a precarious existence. Funded almost entirely by cash donations from the public, and with some support from the corporate sector, it has narrowly staved off closure a number of times.

However, Open Family has performed some vital work, and now has braches in Sydney, Canberra, Albury/Wodonga, Shepparton, Benalla, Seymour and Wangaratta.

The Emerald Hill Mission opened in 1996 to provide food, counselling and assistance to the homeless and the poor.The free dinners it hands out from the back patio of Maguire’s presbytery attract up to 100 disadvantaged people a night.

Initially people come for the food, but it’s the opportunity to socialise that keeps them coming back.

Les, 56, began frequenting the mission about six years ago. Now he’s part of the team of volunteers.

“It’s somewhere to go that people haven’t got around this area,” he explains. “It’s a social thing – somewhere to eat, have general chit-chat and coffee. It’s basically the friendship.”
Les says he’s never met a religious person like Maguire before. “I don’t like them in the normal run of the mill,” he says. “Bob’s different; he’s very outspoken. I like him in that way.”

Les recalls one time Maguire stopped in the middle of conducting a Mass to help him by having a quick private chat about his personal problems.

“He’s that kind of person,” he laughs. “If it wasn’t for Bob we wouldn’t be here. He doesn’t preach to you about what you are and what you do.”

Despite all his work with the poor – which he pronounces ‘poo-err’ – Maguire feels guilty for not doing enough. He is Catholic, after all.

“We’re still paying for the slow response we all made to the drug invasion,” he says. “We, as parishioners, as alleged disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, fell asleep in the 1960s and ’70s so that 40 of the locals died duringthe ’80s (who were) under the age of 20. I still feel we’re responsible for that.”

Maguire says organisations who help drug-addicted people in society come up against a brick wall. “And that brick wall is: can you stand the truth?”

It’s unclear whether he’s talking about the ‘truth’ in relation to who is behind the drug trade, or the ‘truth’ about how the problem can be solved.

Maguire references Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men: “You can’t stand the truth – the community can’t stand the truth,” he says. “If I told the truth in your article, they’d set fire to Emerald Hill Weekly.”

The ensuing conversation is bizarre:
“I can’t tell you the truth,” he says.
“Why not?”
“You can’t handle the truth.”
“I can.”
“No, you can’t”
“I reckon I could.”
“No, journalists muck around with telling the truth. The whole truth has got to be told and you can’t stand it!”
“So, what is the whole truth?”
“You’re not going to get it out of me! It’s a can of worms!”

It transpires that at least part of the ‘truth’ involves the decriminalisation of drugs to reduce demand, and thereby break the cycle of addiction, theft and corruption. He’s careful with his language, though.

“Decriminalisation, it is alleged, makes it possible for a lot of people not to become absorbed by the illicit drug trade, and the prison system becomes less dominated by drug-related crimes,” he says. “Yeah, decriminalise it.

“The lazy way out is to say we are hereby going to declare a war on drugs, say no to drugs, zero tolerance, no harm minimisation, three strikes and you’re out. That’s what you’ve got on one side, and that’s failing. On the other side lurks an equally fraught strategy or tactic, rather, which is decriminalisation.“What do you want to do? Do you want to stay where we are now?”

Maguire thinks the army, navy and air force should be used instead of the police to prevent drugs from reaching Australia.

“You can’t use police forces to cut off the supply,” he says. “If you’re fair dinkum, you have to pay as much attention to cutting off the drug supply as you would to cutting off the supply of toxic materials.”

While Maguire has his views, he’s much more focused on the good he can do through his own organisations. “It’s too big for me,” he says. “That’s why I started practical units.”
Needless to say, Maguire is a progressive with a fundamentally different conception of the nature of the Catholic faith to his boss Cardinal George Pell.

“We’re on different sides,” Maguire explains. “George started this divisiveness. We’re now split down the middle between traditionalists and modernists.“We don’t have much to do with one another, really, because you don’t know who is who – which is sad.”

Maguire uses the analogy that the traditionalists prefer to stay inside the church building rather than outside with the rest of society, like the progressives.

“They’re comfortable inside,” he says. “So comfortable they almost decide anyone who comes in after them has to conform.“Once you leave the church building like the progressives, err, modernists, I’d say they learn they should conform to secular society. But traditionalists would say no, secular society is our enemy.”

Although Maguire has a tough exterior, he clearly feels empathy for the people he helps, and has little time for those who blame the poor for being poor.

“I’ve decided that (traumatic) early childhood experiences may in fact pull the wiring out of you as a child, to an extent where you can’t aspire to do good things,” he says, citing people who’ve been abused, lived in state care or had drug-addicted parents or siblings.
“I’ve seen it over 30 years,” he says. “This should be a social experiment that Australia can conduct ... to try and create equal opportunities for everybody.”

Playing the role of devil’s advocate to the hilt, I enquire whether this means he believes all private schools should be abolished because they give an unfair early advantage to privileged children.

“Don’t ask me, it’s too hard!” he says. “You can’t do it now, they’re set in concrete! All schools should be treated equally.“In this village, we have three state schools and one Catholic school. I look on them as being four community schools, where each of them is entitled to the best we can provide in the education system.”

He says he approves of a plan to create non-denominational schools in Ireland toalleviate the inter-faith confl ict, and then says: “In a perfect world there would be no Catholic schools. There would be local schools, which in fact allows for Catholic influences ... but equally open to influences from whomever else.”

Although Maguire has received many awards for his charitable work – including an Order of Australia in 1989 – and has made headlines for his controversial stances on various issues, it took a segment on SBS TV’s John Safran versus God to bring him fully into the spotlight.

Safran sums up Maguire’s personality beautifully: “He kind of simultaneously complains about everything, and then when you back off he’s complaining, like, ‘no, no, I don’t want you to back off’.

Maguire’s appearance was a series highlight, so when Safran was given his own Sunday-night religion show on Triple J, Maguire was the obvious person to call.

Obvious for someone like Safran, that is. “Here’s this 70-year-old guy and he’s the opposite of what you should have on a youth network,” Safran says. “So to me that’s kind of appealing.”

Maguire wasn’t sure at first. “I’m too old for the role,” he explains, “but I said I’d do it because it was obvious from early reactions there were a lot of young people around Australia who reacted favourably to havingan old man on the same show as Safran to discuss religion in a satirical way.

“It’s not the way my generation was brought up, but I understand the satirical way of dealing with these vexed questions of life and death.”

Safran rubbed his hands with glee when Maguire caused a storm of controversy in February for taking ‘confessions’ live on air. One Herald Sun story quoted the Vicar General of Melbourne, Les Tomlinson, threatening repercussions such as defrocking or excommunication for breaking the secrecy seal of the confessional.

“The penitent may choose to reveal the contents of their confession, but the priest can never break the seal of the confessional, and that includes broadcasting it on radio,” Tomlinson was quoted as saying.

Safran laughs. “It was a bit of a beat-up but we loved it,” he says, adding that the radio ‘confessions’ are not really confessions at all, “because the person who rings up knows it’s being broadcast everywhere, so although we’re labelling it confession it’s not confession in its purest sense”.

For his part, Tomlinson says he was misquoted. “When it was presented in the Herald Sun it seemed to imply that I was criticising Father Bob for not carrying out what confession was, but my intention was to clarify it wasn’t confession.”
He says he never threatened to defrock Maguire. “There’s no likelihood of that happening to Father Maguire,” he says.

This is reassuring, particularly in light of Maguire’s views on condoms: “It’s none of our business any way,” he says. “I don’t mind if the bosses feel the need to put out an advisory ... I don’t mind that in principle. In practice, I think we should shut our mouths and leave it to a lot of the practitioners, the health people, thepsychologists and all that.”

I ask Tomlinson whether Maguire’s stance on condoms is a cause for concern, but after the ‘confession’ beat-up he’s reluctant to trust the word of a journalist about what Father Bob has to say.

Tomlinson knows he tends to shoot his mouth off while exploring ideas, and that he often talks in riddles. Bearing these points in mind, Tomlinson says: a) he hasn’t heard Maguire make such a statement; and b) even if he did, it was probably part of a private conversation. However, such qualifi ers aside: “There would be a question there on some conflict with the church’s teachings.”

Quick, does anyone have the number for the Herald Sun’s news desk?