The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - JANE FRASER

JOHN Howard’s de­ci­sion to stop the rot in Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties fills most of us with re­lief. Know­ing what is hap­pen­ing to in­dige­nous chil­dren, and the hope­less­ness of adult lives, is like a small can­cer gnaw­ing at our con­science.

Kalum­buru in the Kim­ber­ley is near a place called Hon­ey­moon Bay, so we ex­pected to be in for a bit of a treat when we vis­ited a few years ago with a friend known as the queen of the Kim­ber­ley. A well- known artist was sit­ting in her back yard, on the springs of an aban­doned bed, her hus­band lurch­ing about, his eyes rheumy and red. Her toes were rot­ting from gan­grene. A cat that had been dead for sev­eral days lay in the street. Chil­dren roamed, shabby and un­washed, mouths open, ears and noses run­ning.

We spent the night in a place that re­minded me of a meat safe. My hus­band slept on the floor, his fin­gers in his ears to keep out small cock­roaches. The head­mas­ter of the school had had enough and was leav­ing, and Fa­ther An­scar the priest and his co­hort Brother John, who have been there for decades, were at their wits’ end.

An­scar had gone to Kalum­buru as a young priest when it was a mis­sion sta­tion run by the Catholic Church, which han­dled the money. There were fresh- bread shops, dis­ci­plined chil­dren, clean­li­ness, em­ploy­ment. In the in­ter­ests of non- pa­ter­nal­ism, the church was sent pack­ing, re­main­ing only to care for the spir­i­tual side of things.

You must won­der some­times what older priests think and how frus­trat­ing is their job, hav­ing to cope with in­sur­rec­tion among those who call them­selves Catholics but be­lieve it is their right to de­cide for them­selves which laws of the church to obey and which to ig­nore.

My hus­band calls them cherry- pick­ing Catholics, and he’s nei­ther a cherry picker nor a Catholic. Yes, I’m talk­ing about cloning, which is a sin in the eyes of the Pope, yet there are politi­cians who vote for cloning but still claim they are prac­tis­ing Catholics, and to hell with those who would deny them ac­cess to which­ever sacra­ments they choose.

Is this ar­ro­gance or what? It seems a pretty sim­ple as­sump­tion that if you wish to be­long any­where, you have to abide by the rules or get out. You don’t have to be a rocket sci­en­tist to work it out, duh.

The pretty, well- main­tained cor­ru­gated- iron roof of the church at Kalum­buru is a re­minder of how things have turned so bad, when it once was a thriv­ing lit­tle place, al­beit run­ning on the wheels of pa­ter­nal­ism.

Fa­ther An­scar still says mass, Brother John plays the honky- tonk pi­ano, with the words to the hymns re­flected on the ceil­ing, some­times up­side down. We can only hope that — thanks to Howard — An­scar, John and all those other re­li­gious peo­ple who have de­voted their lives to oth­ers live long enough to see their ef­forts haven’t been in vain.

fraserj@ theaus­tralian. com. au

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