30 August 2013
Fr Melvin Llabanes
PO. Box 1067
Strawberry Hills NSW 2012
I am writing this letter because my position as a long-term community representative on the St Vincent’s Parish Advisory Committee has become untenable, and wish to advise that I am resigning as of today. The community will advise you when my replacement has been selected.
The following is an attempt to contextualise my decision. I can’t apologise for its length – you have given me so much to reflect upon.
When you started as parish priest in September 2011, most of the people that I represent were pleasantly surprised by your friendly demeanour and apparent willingness to engage. This was a dramatic change of heart, when they were prepared for more of the now well-documented previous 8 years of verbal, psychological and indeed occasional physical abuse from priests and/or supporters of the Neocatechumenal Way (Neocats).
You created such a strong impression that as early as October 2011 I reported on the community’s Church Mouse website that you were “the first of the post-Kennedy parish priests to bring some hope of sanity, humanity and Christianity back to the role”. At about the same time, in recognition of the need to give you and the community space to develop a meaningful relationship, I made a conscious decision to effectively place the website into hibernation. Since then it has remained silent on anything to do with St Vincent’s. The following year, in response to your request to remove Church Mouse articles critical of your activities in the Perth parish of Kelmscott, a disclaimer was appended to each offending posting; it reads:
After a little over a year, members of the St Vincent’s community have not found Fr Melvin to be their ideal priest, but he is making a consistent and concerted effort to bring harmony to a fractured parish.
The Parish Advisory Committee (PAC)
Shortly after Bishop Brady’s visit in February 2012, you set up a Parish Advisory Committee with representatives from various interest groups within the parish. You selected a majority of members who have had only recent contact with the parish, no apparent interest in its history, are theologically conservative and more comfortable with pre-Vatican II practices. Indeed, one member has no real contact with the parish. Put simply, it is stacked with people upon whom you can rely to support your decisions.
Nevertheless, because for the first time in almost a decade there seemed to be a glimmer of hope for a better future, I set aside my concerns, and joined the committee along with Anne H. In accepting the post we identified two key responsibilities for each PAC member: at a functional level to become informed of and fulfil the archdiocesan prerequisites of the role; and at a deeper level to demonstrate to our wider long-term and Neocat communities the possibility of respectful dialogue.
The first has proved difficult. Our PAC Meetings are not held on a regular basis – often with 2 or 3 days’ notice – and no agenda is distributed. Until your reluctant announcement at the July meeting, there has been no opportunity to contribute to meeting agendas. No minutes have been distributed since the committee’s inception. The parish has no Financial Committee, and the PAC has never been shown any financial statements. No effort seems to have been made to follow recommended Archdiocesan PAC procedures despite requests that assistance be sought from Polding Centre.
Not only do you enjoy the considerable power of one, you neither call on the education, experience nor faith of PAC members: your PAC majority typically only says “yes, Father” at your beck and call.
The second responsibility requires sufficient flexibility to be able to compromise without losing one’s own sense of identity – a basic pre-condition for entering any reconciliation process. Anne and I were willing to play our role in achieving a new and constructive outcome. We worked hard persuading the more vocal members of the long-term community that it was worth trying a little patience to see if things might improve. One of the few concessions that I can recall your making in all this time that might have sown a seed of trust was re-introducing distribution of the Eucharist in both forms. Sadly this did not extend to allowing Aboriginal Eucharistic Minister Ralph T to be involved.
In retrospect it is as though the PAC was established to pay lip service to what could and should have functioned as a new paradigm for constructive community building. For example, in March 2012, recognising a pattern of poor communication between parties, I set up a Yahoo! email group for the PAC to facilitate communication, and invited all members to join. Only Anne and I accepted. In fact neither you nor most committee members have demonstrated any skills or genuine interest in the consultative process. I should also mention here that you have never given me (nor any other long-term parishioner) your mobile phone number.
Another example: with your approval I prepared a discussion paper for the parish in June 2012. Its purpose was to facilitate informed discussion within the parish of your plans for a rearranged church interior. It was inevitable that ideas such as repositioning the altar and pews, extending the choir loft, and partitioning off the back of the church would be highly controversial, and a certain amount of feedback was generated; but the entire exercise was a waste of time and effort. You knew what you wanted from the outset and went ahead with your preferred option of placing the sanctuary/altar in front of the Aboriginal Mural, pretending that it was all temporary while the church was being redecorated.
I put my trust in your ability to lead a committee that had to attempt to heal a divided community because you came across as more of a man than a cleric when compared to your Neocat predecessors at St Vincent’s. In writing this letter I see how deluded I was, but this awareness dawned slowly on me. It is clear to me that the core of the problem is the division that has infected St Vincent’s since the archdiocese’s imposition of the Neocatechumenal Way on the parish. I was aware of The Way’s notorious practice of divide and conquer, but I’d judged you to be more Christian. From the beginning of this year while I was still championing the merits of being active on the PAC, others in the community, with the benefit of distance, had begun to discern your disingenuous behaviour. You have a way of using delaying tactics, of seeming to listen and be affable, and then sneak in changes not one of which reflects conciliation.
Refurbishment of the Church’s interior
In the middle of last year the archdiocese made funding available for urgently needed maintenance (damaged floorboards, falling ceiling boards, leaking gutters and water damage to walls) and the addition of some basic facilities (running water) to the late 19th century church building. However, this appeared to set you on a renovation spree that went well beyond the addressing of essential logistical issues relating to building utilisation and usability.
In addition to archdiocese funding, I was made aware of a leaflet being circulated in a number of Sydney parishes calling for donations and advertising a concert to raise funds for “Pews and kneeler repair, Stations of the cross, Stone Altar, Statues – Sacred Heart of Jesus and our Lady” in our church. The leaflet distributed at St Vincent’s much later had been altered to read “Funds needed for general repairs”. All mention of specific items had been removed. Neither the concert nor proposed items were discussed at the PAC meetings or with the community.
You have made significant changes to the appearance and organisation of the Church interior, much of which had been informed by:
- Aboriginal social justice and their Catholic faith across many decades
- A deep theological dialogue between black and white parishioners
- An openness to art giving expression to profound insights and journeys.
It is fair to say the changes detailed below demonstrate a white-washing of this sacred history.
Disregard for the Tom Bass altar and the Aboriginal Mural.
For forty years a feature within the church was a wooden altar sculpted by Tom Bass and depicting the wounds of Christ. During the refurbishment, apparently because it was “too heavy” to move around, you had it dumped at the back of the church with building materials and replaced by a makeshift table. Not surprisingly the valuable altar sustained some damage.
Rumours also began to spread that the Mural, painted by local Aboriginal artists to honour the words that Pope John Paul II used to give expression to the profound spirituality at the heart of our national quest for reconciliation, was under threat of being removed. The Mural is not very stable and has also suffered damage – not all of it accidental – over recent years.
A few weeks ago you installed a crucifix above the Mural – your “gift to the parish”. It is so large that it overlaps the top of the mural below and extends into the stained-glass window area above. It might have been more appropriate, and seen as a powerful gesture of reconciliation within the parish, to simply have used the much loved smaller crucifix brought into the church by the late Fr Ted Kennedy.
Several concerned parishioners have had both altar and Mural inspected by experts and obtained quotes for their repair and restoration. When presented with the quotations and an assurance that pledges had been secured to cover the cost of this work, you chose to postpone any action indefinitely, stating that such matters had to be decided by the PAC.
Changes to the Church’s appearance
Without reference to community or PAC, the appearance of the church has been changed through costly, poorly executed, and ill-conceived refurbishments. Original woodwork has been refinished in a very dark and shiny varnish, many pews were similarly “redecorated” and others are missing, and the floor was sanded and painted with gloss. Money has been seemingly squandered on items such as excessive new lighting and audio-visual equipment that fails to deliver (the celebrant cannot be heard by people sitting halfway down the church). And of course, there was the fiasco surrounding the supply and installation of a kitchen that had to be removed because City of Sydney approvals had not been sought (despite the advice of several parishioners).
I found these changes to be inappropriate – and indeed offensive – on numerous counts. Firstly, most were implemented despite advice to the contrary and your repeated assurances that the work would be discontinued. For example, you went back on your word that the floor would be treated with tung oil to retain its character. There was a complete lack of genuine consultation. Secondly, the overall effect is of a gaudy, aspiring middle-class interior that shows ignorance or contempt for the building’s heritage and a total disregard for the Aboriginals, the poor and the marginalised, who were once always welcome, but who no longer feel comfortable within its walls. Thirdly, it appears that much of the refurbishment reflects poor judgment. The quality of the workmanship – sanding and painting – is absolutely appalling. Moreover, the focus on superficial trimmings has meant that necessary health and safety repairs have been ignored. For example, the central supports on many of the pews are still in desperate need of repair. Finally, there appears to be no accountability as to how the archdiocese’s money is being spent.
But you were not alone. To justify your refurbishment plans you invited the Liturgy Office of the Sydney Archdiocese to report on St Vincent’s church. Fr Don Richardson read the report that he prepared with architect Harry Stephens to a PAC meeting on May 16. For 2 months you refused to allow any copies to be distributed, so a summary based on my (and Anne’s) recollections and notes of that meeting was prepared and distributed to the community.
The report would seem to be informed by a 19th Century vision of the Church triumphant without any consideration of the unique history of this distinctive parish and its significance to Aboriginal people. Needless to say, its recommendations to effectively obliterate any evidence of the past 40 years deeply upset the long-term black and white community.
The report states that its recommendations are in no way binding, it is up to the parish to resolve. But we all know that the PAC is merely a rubber stamp for your will, with at best token consultation with Aboriginal people or long-term members of the Redfern Community.
Elders of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Committee have been advised of this situation; they too are very concerned.
Sharing the Meal
From 2003 to 2011 members of the parish ran Sharing the Meal on Tuesdays and Fridays in the rear of the church. The poor and homeless, black, white and brindle (as Mum Shirl would say), were provided with a meal, and, more importantly, friendship along with emotional and practical support. It was hard work for the organisers, a labour of love made all the more difficult by the constant opposition of the Neocat clergy who regularly expressed their distaste at having the Meal with the poor in the church.
When personal health issues forced the organisers to pull out, it was decided to hand running of the Meal over to JC, an outsider to the parish, on the recommendation of Fr. Ross Jones, SJ.
This decision quickly proved to be fraught and divisive. There was disagreement with JC over how the Meal should be run. The long serving volunteers were displaced by newcomers – mostly without any other connection to St Vincent’s – and made to feel decidedly unwelcome. They were deeply hurt by the antagonism, and inevitably conflicts arose, especially when your predecessor, Clesio Mendes, unconditionally supported the newcomers. The outsider’s meal quickly degenerated into a mere soup kitchen.
Last year, when it was announced that the soup kitchen would be suspended for many weeks while the church was being refurbished, a small group of parishioners, after speaking with you, decided to revive the spirit of the Meal with simple food and friendship outside the church on Fridays. The soup kitchen resumed almost immediately.
JC has avoided countless attempts by the parishioners to meet and seek a solution to the stand-off. The usual reason given, if any, is that the matter must be discussed with the parish priest. You, on the other hand, having clearly sided with the outsider, like your predecessor, offer repeated assurances that the matter is beyond your control. All of your many promises to set up meetings with JC have been broken, leaving those involved confused and angry that an outsider should take preference over the parish group.
Your lack of leadership in handling the tensions that still exist today has only added to the deep hurt of those involved.
Flagrant disregard for history
Heritage is not just about what happened 100 years ago but about the rich evolving story of a community, a church and its customs. Many of our practices developed over more than thirty years have been dismissed by your predecessors as ‘not Catholic’. The Easter ceremonies provide a couple of examples.
Firstly – for decades we would round off the Holy Thursday ceremonies with a simple meal to commemorate the Last Supper. It was held in the church and consisted mainly of lamb and unleavened bread served at the altar. Despite the lack of any obvious organisation, the community never had any difficulty catering for the crowds that attended.
When we were refused the use of the altar, we brought in demountable tables. When tables by the altar were refused, we moved to the back of the church. More recently, the meal has had to be delayed in deference to a somewhat chaotic Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament that you added to the agenda. And despite (or because of?) the involvement of your PAC the last couple of meals have been a shambles.
Secondly – for as long as I can remember, on Good Friday Ted Kennedy would read from a list of deceased Aboriginal brothers and sisters, many of whom he had buried from St Vincent’s. Every year the list grew alarmingly longer.
The community struggles to maintain this tradition in spite of opposition and ridicule. Other cultures show respect for the dead, and it should be no different for those whose land we occupy. Aboriginals rarely choose to bury their dead from this church any more, and the list hasn’t grown much in the last decade.
In May 2013, the Australian Catholic Bishops together with Catholic Religious Australia released this quote as part of their statement “We need to listen to the Aboriginal people. They are asking for their rights as human beings and citizens of this country to be respected … We call for an urgent shift … to measures that … show respect for Aboriginal language and culture.” The call is being ignored in the Redfern Parish.
It is quite clear from Pope Francis’s words and actions that he sees the Church of the future as being one in which the poor are valued. As he said recently “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, or how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked if I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoners.” St Vincent’s once was a parish that embraced the poor and the marginalised and had none of the bell-ringing, breast-beating exhibitionism that we see today.
My feelings today
Reflecting on the above examples has led me to conclude that your actions are marked by an inconsistent relationship between assurances given and actions taken. I have now reached the point where I see you as a chameleon, adapting conveniently to the moment without a trace of genuine sincerity.
You have often spoken of your vision of unity for St Vincent’s as a parish where disparate charisms might co-exist in harmony, with mutual trust and respect. Mindful of the difficulties of bringing together such a diverse collection of people, we hoped that we could help at least partially realise it with your support. Unfortunately, I now feel that your vision is actually one of uniformity and compliance with the will of Melvin.
You came to Redfern parish knowing its recent history of tension and conflict. Good communication often helps in such situations – openly sharing plans and ideas, and listening to a wide range of inputs. At the last PAC meeting, in response to our umpteenth plea for the need for greater transparency, you stated that what was needed was not communication, consultation or compromise, rather “conversion”.
I have tried to raise my mounting concerns with you on numerous occasions. Early in February I sent you an email that concluded:
There is a growing impatience in the community, and a general feeling that our attempts at peace-making are not being reciprocated. I keep hearing reports of some of our people being snubbed and/or insulted by members of other groups, as if nothing much has changed during your time at St Vincent’s.
The building of trust requires cooperation and an effort to be made by all parties. You need to show the way by demonstrating your trust in us – you must be more open and communicate more readily. There is far too much secrecy surrounding developments at St Vincent’s.
In the middle of February I started writing a letter to you that was never completed. It started as follows:
This week must go on record as being a low point for you as parish priest of Redfern. I refer not so much to the unsightly partition across the nave, nor the removal of the newly installed kitchen from within the body of the church, but the coming to a head of the more fundamental problem which, after much reflection, I feel can only be described as a betrayal of the goodwill that has been invested by the long standing community in re-building St Vincent’s parish.
Despite my efforts (and those by other community members) to reach out and address these tensions, the situation has deteriorated much further. The more you kept your plans secret, the more you complained about the spread of misinformation. Before the July PAC meeting Anne and I wrote you a letter that was copied to the Cardinal. It concluded with the following paragraph:
It seems that our attempts to be open and fair in our dealings with you are not being reciprocated. To help improve this situation you might like to consider breaking with (your) tradition by adopting standard protocols and ensuring that committee meeting minutes and agendas are circulated well in advance. It might also help if you were to provide the committee with comprehensive financial statements for the church repairs and renovations.
It is not in my nature to be obsequious to anyone, including priests; and I can genuinely say that I have always tried to be open, frank and constructive in my dealings with you. I have always given you the benefit of the doubt, that perhaps coming from another culture with different forms of expression, not having English as your first tongue, you fail to understand how and why we do things a particular way. Sadly, now I see it differently – you have shown little regard for honesty in your dealings with us, choosing rather to avoid, deny and misrepresent the truth.
In the Sydney Morning Herald on January 17, 2012 Leesha McKenny wrote:
Long-term indigenous parishioner Ralph T described the new Filipino-born parish priest, Father Melvin Llabanes, as ”a top bloke as a priest and a gentleman”.
”He’s fair to us and we’re fair to him, so there’s no drama no more,” he said.
Ralph told me that he intends to contact the Herald to retract this statement.
I too feel cheated, duped and betrayed; that all the last year and a half’s efforts at peace-making have been in vain. A sham. I can no longer in good conscience ask those I represent to be patient. You have lost my trust and respect.
A couple of lines from the Gospel reading a few Sundays ago resonated strongly for me:
What father among you, if his son asked for a fish, would hand him a snake?
Or if he asked for an egg, hand him a scorpion?
With deep regret,
cc Cardinal George Pell