Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Churches accused of a ‘shattering silence’ on redress for past injustices at Victoria’s Indigenous truth-telling inquiry

A commissioner at Victoria’s Indigenous-led truth-telling inquiry has accused representatives from Australian churches of a “shattering silence” on steps towards redress for its past injustices.

Representatives from the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting churches appeared on Wednesday at the Yoorrook Justice Commission, which is holding public hearings on land injustice.

The leaders told the inquiry their churches had run missions that harmed First Nations people and were complicit and benefitted from the dispossession of Indigenous Victorians’ land, including through receiving grants of land from the state with no regards to Indigenous sovereignty.

The Rt Rev Dr Richard Treloar, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Gippsland, told the commission the diocese “laments that our colonial history includes atrocities committed against First Peoples”.

“Some of these involved in these heinous but no longer unspeakable acts are likely to have identified with the Church of England. Of this terrible legacy we repent,” he said.

But the Yoorrook commissioner, Anthony North KC, accused the churches of a “shattering silence about actions to redress” past injustices.

“I find that really saddening,” he said.

North said “treaty was one answer. It’s not the only answer.

Earlier in the hearing, Timothy Goodwin, counsel assisting the commission, said the Anglican Churches’ property trust held 260.5 hectares of land in Victoria – estimated to be worth $1.49bn.

Treloar told the commission that the diocese of Gippsland had a policy for 1.5% of the 20% it retains from land sales to be set aside for its Aboriginal ministry, but noted this was a “woefully inadequate figure”.

“This includes outreach to the community through rites of passage, times of grief and crisis, material support, referrals, pastoral care and school and agency governance,” he said.

Treloar said it was his “sincere hope” the 1.5% figure would increase. “I want to acknowledge that land injustice causes systemic disadvantage and legacy trauma,” he said.

The Uniting and Catholic Church representatives would not discuss their total land values.

The Rev David James Fotheringham, moderator of the Uniting Church synod of Victoria and Tasmania, said since the mid-1980s the church had a policy for “direct transfers of land.” He said since 2011 its policies ensured that a portion of sale proceeds went to its Indigenous congress. But he said it could also receive additional funds and was not limited to this.

Yoorrook has a mandate to investigate and create a public record of the systemic injustice experienced by First Nations people in Victoria since colonisation, including inequalities that persist today. It is due to deliver a final report by June next year that will make recommendations for reform and redress.

On Monday, the Victorian premier, Jacinta Allan, appeared at Yoorrook. In a submission to the inquiry, she said and she said would deliver a potential apology to First Nations Victorians for injustice committed by the state.

Allan said said any apology would take place after the inquiry handed down its final report next year and would be negotiated with the First Peoples’ Assembly - the state’s democratically elected Indigenous body – who would consult with the wider Indigenous community.