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,
"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
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
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,
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
"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."