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Sorry Too Simplistic, Christian Leaders Warn

Calls For Reconciliation Continue As Sydney Olympics Close

1 October 2000 (Newsroom) -- Two weeks after Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic cauldron in Sydney and sparked the hope of Australia's Aborigines for reconciliation, a popular rock band performing in Sunday's closing ceremonies supplied the word that many Australians had longed to hear from their prime minister: Sorry.

While reconciliation is a word rapidly gaining popularity in Australia in the glow of a successful Summer Olympics, Christian leaders warn against simplistic views of what that process entails. Reconciliation is a spiritual matter that begins with the offer of forgiveness and the response of repentance, which requires the acknowledgement of wrongdoing, they contend.

"Healing can't really commence for these people and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians can't be realized until this recognition begins," said the Right Reverend Dr. Philip Freier, the Anglican bishop of the Northern Territory.

Australians rejoiced when Freeman became the first Aborigine to win a gold medal in track and field with her victory in the 400 meters. Australian opposition leader Kim Beasley described the race as "400 meters of reconciliation," a symbolic step toward national healing over what has become known as the "stolen generation" -- the removal of more than 100,000 Aboriginal Australians from their parents to be placed with white families and assimilated into mainstream Australian society. Freeman's grandmother was one of them.

Many Australians expected Prime Minister John Howard to retreat from earlier refusals to apologize for the policy. When he did not, the rock band Midnight Oil donned black T-shirts bearing the word "Sorry" for their performance during the closing ceremonies of the 27th Olympiad.

Howard's public position on the issue -- earlier this year he insisted that only 10 percent of Aborigines were affected and later apologized for denying the existence of a stolen generation -- has been criticized by Anglican Church leaders, who introduced a reconciliation process in the 1980s. "Their inability to say 'sorry' I just find incomprehensible, to be quite honest," the Right Reverend John Harrower, Anglican bishop of Tasmania, said of government officials earlier this year.

Archdeacon Geoff Huard, a member of the Sydney Anglican Indigenous Committee, noted that reconciliation has biblical connotations and requires putting right earlier wrongs.

A Federal Court decision in August to deny compensation to Aborigines Peter Gunner and Lorner Cubillo, who were taken from their families more than 40 years ago, might not have produced the verdict the two sought, but it gave national recognition to the issue, Freier said.

The lack of a government apology is a stumbling block to the reconciliation process, church leaders argue.

Anglican lay leader Bill Simon, who was taken from his family as a young child and placed in a boys home, said the government has much to answer for. "Mothers were crying and weeping for their children, knowing there was nothing they could do," he recalled in an Anglican Church submission to the government. "The fathers couldn't do anything. Aboriginal people want to hear the prime minister say 'sorry.' In our culture we take notice of our elders. In the white community the prime minister is the one who speaks for the nation."

A National Inquiry established in 1995 led to a 1997 report from the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission calling for a public apology from the government and a National Sorry Day, which was first held on May 26, 1998.

The report, "Bringing Them Home," revealed the extent of 160 years of forced removal that continued into the 1970s and gave the Aboriginal side of the story an official voice for the first time. Commissioners said the government policy amounted to genocide for Australia's indigenous people. The inquiry received more than 750 submissions, including 49 from church groups, and led to the government announcing a $63 million package for development and assistance for Aborigines in 1997.

"The government wants its actions to be seen as a generous response to an unfortunate situation rather than as they should be viewed, as a just restitution for wrongdoing," Sydney Anglican leaders noted in an inquiry submission.

Last year Australia's Parliament passed a historic declaration of "deep and sincere regret" for past injustices to Aborigines. Recently, Howard has spoken of "injustices of the past," using terms such as " tragedies, sadness, pain, hurt and cruelty," without actually apologizing.

In May, an estimated 300,000 people participated in the Walk for Reconciliation across the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Walks have been held elsewhere, too, including 20,000 in Tasmania in July.

Churches who played a role in the administration of forced removal policies, including Catholic, Anglican, and Uniting Church congregations, have repeatedly apologized and sought forgiveness for any part they have played in causing harm and suffering.

"The Lord weeps at the sinfulness of bitterness and prejudice between indigenous and all other Australians," said Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Denis Hart. "We confess that we have failed."

"If the church has played some role in the injustices of the past, we as a diocese must face this," the Sydney Anglican publication Southern Cross reported. "By and large, people are unsure of the issues and really struggle to see how we can do anything about it."

Churches could do better in addressing the needs of indigenous Australians, some leaders assert.

"The Anglican Church needs to be more proactive in doing something to help the cause of the Aboriginal people," Neville Naden, an Anglican indigenous leader, told the Southern Cross recently. "I don't know what that might be -- perhaps continuing to plant Aboriginal churches."


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