Next time you read someone whining about the church being under attack from a heartless secular society, think of what’s happening in Bungwahl, New South Wales.
You’ve probably never heard of Bungwahl.
It’s one of those blink-and-you-miss-it hamlets on the mid-north coast. It’s not like one of those towns that had a hey-day but fell into ruin after the freeway detoured it. Bungwahl has never amounted to much. It was always just a dot along the road that hugs the edge of the Myall Lakes between Bulahdelah and Seal Rocks.
In 1870 or thereabouts, a canny Scotsman named Alexander Croll established a sawmill in the area to service the shipbuilding industry of Port Stephens. He owned Croll & Sons, sawmillers, until his death in 1917 at the ripe old age of 82.
Back in those days, wealthy Christian businessmen were inclined to build amenities for their community, especially when most of that community was in their employ. So Alexander Croll built a small church on the hill above the lake and in 1888 gifted it to the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle.
It’s called St James Anglican Church and it’s nothing to look at really. Just a neat little weatherboard chapel but with sweeping views of Myall Lakes through the trees.
In fact, none of us would ever have heard of St James church in Bungwahl unless the Newcastle diocese decided to sell the property recently. Although even that wouldn’t have been big news except for the reason for the sale.
The Anglican Diocese of Newcastle is going broke paying compensation to the victims of child sexual assault by their priests.
The recent Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse found widespread pedophilia within the diocese. Newcastle received the fifth highest number of complaints of any Anglican Diocese in Australia. It also ran the infamous St John’s seminary in Morpeth, the school that educated more pedophile priests than any other Anglican college in the country.
The commissioners damned the leaders of the diocese as being at times weak, ineffectual, and even complicit.
The bill to compensate their victims is currently estimated to be around $10 million.
So, little country churches like St James in Bungwahl are going under the hammer. And the locals are hopping mad.
Far from the church being an object of derision or suspicion, the community of Bungwahl have rallied to save their church. Even those locals who never attend St James are fighting to keep it from being sold. They claim it belongs to Bungwahl, not the Anglican Diocese, since Alexander Croll built it himself on his own land for the community. Some local people have tried to intimidate potential buyers. Signs like this one started going up around the town.
None of that washes with Bishop Peter Stuart. He has to raise $10 million so he got each of the 63 parishes that make up the diocese to agree to hand over 25 per cent of any moneys raised from selling real estate to the redress fund.
But that hardly made a dent.
Since 2010, 18 churches have closed and 11 of them were sold, pulling in around $5 million. But the percentage that went to the redress fund was less than $1 million, and the average compensation payment is $180,000 per person. That means the sale of 11 local churches compensated just five victims. At that rate, the whole diocese would have to be sold to support their victims.
Bishop Stuart had to take more drastic steps. He announced he would be “more courageous” about flogging small churches and that he was upping the chunk that would go to the redress fund to 40 per cent. He then listed St James, Bungwahl for sale.
But Newcastle isn’t the only diocese breaking parishioners’ hearts to compensate their victims. The Bishop of Bathurst, Ian Palmer plans to sell more than a dozen churches in his diocese to pay more than $2 million in redress to victims of child sex abuse. The small parish community of St Aidan’s Anglican Church at Black Springs in Oberon was shocked when Bishop Palmer wrote to them informing them their church would be one of those closed down and sold.
The same story is happening right across the country. Small, local churches are being forced to pay for the past sins of pedophile priests.
Too bad, some might say. The church is responsible for the behavior of the priests and ministry workers in their employ, especially when proper oversight wasn’t exercised or pedophiles were merely moved around parishes whenever a complaint was received. So what if the church goes broke paying compensation to its hundreds of victims!
I admit I can feel this way about the whole shameful saga of child sexual assault in our churches. Hold an ecclesial fire sale. Sell everything and give it to the people whose lives we’ve ruined.
But then I remember the saddened folks of little postage-stamp-sized towns like Bungwahl and Black Springs and I realise the implications of selling everything: the grief of a congregation; the disappearing face of the church; the severed connection between church and neighborhood; the removal of a community facility; the loss of history; the psychological and spiritual effect on struggling rural communities.
Of course, none of that compares to the unspeakable damage done by child sexual abuse.
I’m yet to be convinced that Australians are any more anti-church or irreligious than they’ve ever been. But before we complain about Christianity being under attack or religious speech being curtailed, can we just acknowledge we’ve brought so much of our own demise on ourselves.
If the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle goes broke and closes down it will be their own fault, not the prevailing headwinds of secularization and the “left-leaning mainstream media”. We are all now paying for the sins of our fathers, men who betrayed their calling to serve the church, who inflicted dreadful suffering on their victims and whose crimes will be paid for by congregations like those at St James, Bungwahl for years to come.