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