George Pell and Patrick Dodson: the functionary and the visionary

By Martin Flanagan
March 05, 2016

Patrick Dodson: "the Sydney Harbour Bridge of Australian race relations".
Photo by Jon Reid

George Pell: "he could have been discussing the internal workings of a department store".
Photo by Joe Armao

[with video]

Two faces of Australian Catholicism were on display this week. One was Cardinal George Pell's testimony before the royal commission on child sexual abuse.

Pell could have been discussing the internal workings of a department store. He had his job, others had theirs, he didn't "indulge rumours" and had "no interest" in tracking those rumours down even though they concerned the welfare of the youngest and most vulnerable members of what once would have been called his flock. What his testimony lacked was moral imagination.

Patrick Dodson has moral imagination and courage to match. 

Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us". The same is true of institutions and, once again, Pell emerged as a functionary of the institution.

I do not equate religion with spirituality, but it is genuinely spiritual people who make religion meaningful by investing it with humility and compassion. Without those qualities, religion is no more than a series of empty rituals encased, in the case of the Catholic Church, in a medieval pomp which is supposed to embody a Jewish rebel who sided with social outcasts and was openly contemptuous of the religious authorities of his day for their double standards.

Also this week, Patrick Dodson was named as Bill Shorten's pick to replace WA Labor senator Joe Bullock. If there's a person whose vision contrasts with Pell's, it is Dodson.

Dodson was sent to Monivae College in Hamilton as an Aboriginal kid from the Northern Territory at a time when Aboriginal people were still not counted in the census. Within three years, he was school captain. That achievement alone marks him as an extraordinary person.

As a kid, Dodson had wanted to be a stockman. He is a big, tough, physically capable man. He once told me with a trademark grin that there was some bullying going on at Monivae when he arrived. "We got rid of that," he said. I'll bet he did.

I once went fishing with Dodson and one of his nephews on Roebuck Bay when they hooked a three-metre hammerhead shark. After an hour or more, they reeled it in; Dodson was matter-of-factly leaning over the side of the boat about to slap a headlock on the writhing beast when it snapped the line. Later, for my benefit, he displayed the technique he was going to employ, adding (unforgettably), "Elbows in when wrestling sharks".

Dodson became a Catholic priest, returned to the Northern Territory and began working in Aboriginal communities where he told the people that Jesus was the good spirit and that the local people's traditional ceremonies were what whitefellas called sacraments. The Bishop of Darwin panicked, claiming Dodson was reintroducing paganism, and the resulting furore led to Dodson leaving the church. But he continued his mission.

Dodson has moral imagination and courage to match. He envisaged and embodied the Australian reconciliation movement, copping abuse for doing so from all sides, including plenty from Aboriginal Australia, but he established a foothold. The reconciliation movement may not be able to boast climactic political victories, but it's here and it's not going away.

Dodson is one of the great Australians of my generation. I have always feared we will never see his like again. He has a thorough understanding of the Western intellectual tradition; he is also an initiated tribal man with all the knowledge which that implies. I once described him as the Sydney Harbour Bridge of Australian race relations.

Dodson's treatment by the Howard government, which did its best to sideline him, was utterly shameful. History will record that he was a giant beset by little men. Labor has never known quite what to do with him. I am one of many who will applaud his return to the centre of our national life.



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