Jul 27, 2021

These Australians were cast out by their religions. But they have no regrets

RN Religion & Ethics reporter Nick Baker
ABC Radio National
July 24, 2021

After taking on one the world's most powerful institutions, Peter Kennedy has spent more than a decade living "in exile".

But that's exactly where the 83-year-old wants to be.

Mr Kennedy was a well-known Brisbane Catholic priest, but after challenging church orthodoxy and practising his own controversial brand of Catholicism, was dismissed in 2009.

He says he has now moved far away from the Catholic Church.

"I don't believe in the Catholic Church or even the Christian faith. For me, I think it's really all about justice. It's all about the poor and the broken."

Mr Kennedy is part of a small group of Australians who have been cast out of their religions.

For some, it's a badge of honour after a long fight. For others, it can be a deeply traumatising event.

"It was not easy ... but I have no regrets at all," Mr Kennedy says.

"I'm very glad for this journey."
From Catholicism to 'finding your own truth'

For years, Mr Kennedy made headlines for deviating from Roman Catholic practices at St Mary's church in South Brisbane, including allowing women to preach and blessing LGBTQIA+ couples.

After repeated warnings and attempts at conciliation, church authorities removed Mr Kennedy from office, so he and his flock set up a separate faith entity called St Mary's in Exile.

Described as "a pop-up church", St Mary's in Exile meets every weekend in the Queensland Trades and Labour Council Building, and is far more progressive than its Catholic namesake.

"We said we won't go down that toxic, patriarchal path … We changed the sexist language, we've had women leading and co-leading liturgy," explains Mr Kennedy's co-agitator, Terry Fitzpatrick.

Mr Fitzpatrick was an associate priest at St Mary's who stood by Mr Kennedy, so was also removed by the Catholic Church and is now with St Mary's in Exile.

"[The Catholic Church] just doesn't seem to be looking towards the future," he says.

For these former Catholic priests, the scriptures were "never meant to be taken literally". Instead, it's all about exploring the metaphorical messages and "finding your own truth".

Mr Kennedy says in his later years, he's been drawn to "the mystics and mysticism" and its focus on individualism and contemplation.

The same goes for Mr Fitzpatrick, who says he follows "mysticism and the Gnostic Christians, the non-literalist Christians that were persecuted by the literalist Christians in the early church system".

But while Mr Kennedy and Mr Fitzpatrick had an entire community support them as they left their religion and started on a new path, other Australians go through this in a much lonelier way.

For some, the process can lead to years – or even a lifetime – of struggle.
Losing family and friends

When Paul Grundy was expelled from his church, he lost a lot more than just a place to worship.

Mr Grundy was brought up in a family of devout Jehovah's Witnesses, in what he describes as an extremely insular religious world.

But later in life, he came to the conclusion that the religion was "just not telling the truth", so he created an anonymous website that strongly criticised Jehovah's Witness teachings.

The church figured out that Mr Grundy was behind the website and expelled him – a process known in the religion as "disfellowshipping".

And in the Jehovah's Witness faith, a disfellowed member can be "shunned," or as Mr Grundy describes it, "people cut you off from their lives, virtually completely".

"I lost most of my family and my friends. I went into mourning over that, knowing that was the end of my relationship with my mother and father and sister. It was almost like they died … I fell into a real state of depression."

Mental health experts say that shunning and similar extreme practices can have a significant effect on people.

"You may see PTSD, or low self-worth, even a loss of identity and a loss of self," says Nicola Stevens, a registered counsellor who has researched religious trauma.

"You can almost compare it to a form of coercion or an attempt by the religious institution to maintain power and control over the individual by saying, 'we'll use isolation'," she says.

The Jehovah's Witnesses did not respond to questions from the ABC about the effects of disfellowshipping and shunning.

But Mr Grundy says in the long term, he "definitely made the right choice" and is "very happy" with where he is now.

"Today I'm 'ignostic' … I think the whole discussion of whether there's a God or not is completely meaningless, because God doesn't reveal himself, no one knows who he is."
An ancient practice

Methods of temporarily or permanently excluding followers who break the rules are as old as religions themselves, according to experts.

Andrew Singleton, a professor of sociology and social research at Deakin University, says "it goes all the way back to when humans invented religion".

"The second thing they invented was heresy. And the third thing they invented was being removed for heresy," he says.

"[The Catholic Church] allows flexibility, but at some point, if you're speaking out in a way that's clearly against the doctrine, they will at that point clamp down."

For the Catholics, these penalties range from being "removed from clerical office" — like in the case of Mr Kennedy and Mr Fitzpatrick — to excommunication.

Professor Singleton says religions with greater "hierarchy, authority and history" are more likely to eject people for standing up to them, but "charismatic religions" are far less likely to do so.

"Charismatic religions are ones where anyone has the authority to hear from the spirits or gods. So it's not clear cut what constitutes heresy."

Professor Michele Riondino is the director of the Canon Law Centre at the Australian Catholic University.

He says for the Catholic Church, the legal structure and penalties laid out in the Code of Canon Law are to ensure "order" and "the good of the community".

Professor Riondino says in recent years, most clerical dismissals in the Catholic Church were due to sex-abuse crimes, rather than individuals standing up to church authority.

"All the sanctions in the church's Code of Canon Law, they have three purposes … To restore justice, reform the offender and repair the scandal," he says.

Professor Riondino says some penalties are "expiatory" while others are "medicinal", which are meant "to help the person understand the grave and the deep break between them and the church and to help them to be part of it again".

"The imposition or declaration of each kind of penalty … is one of the most significant expressions of the church's power and for this reason, every kind of penalty is exercised with great care, and with pastoral attention."

But while being pushed away from a religion can bring an enormous emotional toll, some Australians are fortunate to have had a much more positive experience.
'Just enjoy the ride'

Sue-Ann Post talks about her excommunication from the Mormon church in an almost joyous way.

But that's to be expected from someone who has described herself as "Australia's favourite six-foot, lesbian, ex-Mormon, diabetic, comedian and writer".

In the late 1980s, Ms Post started drawing on her Mormon upbringing for comedy material. Fifteen years on, church authorities eventually had enough and officially excommunicated her.

Ms Post was born into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the official name of the Mormon church) but began drifting away from the faith in her teens.

"I probably would be a messed-up Mormon housewife if I hadn't gone to university and at age 18 realised that lesbians existed and went 'oh my God that explains everything'," she says.

"There were two years of battling that, praying and fasting and asking God not to make me gay until I finally accepted [my sexuality] … Then I thought, if they're wrong about that, what else are they wrong about? And I worked my way out with logic and a bit of anger."

Material from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says, "the experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is".

Ms Post says for her, life is "all just one big adventure".

"I do not fear death. I do not fear an afterlife. If there is a God, I'm prepared to argue toe-to-toe with him."

And the ex-Mormon comedian has a piece of advice for people who go through a similar experience to hers.

"It was an absolutely scary but wonderful liberation … If you get expelled from a faith, just enjoy the ride."
Post-traumatic growth

Counsellor Nicola Stevens also says there can be positives, no matter how traumatic the split is.

"People are pretty incredible and I think even when they have been through traumatic experiences, there is a thing that we call 'post-traumatic growth'," Ms Stevens says.

"People can experience growth and make some sense after what has happened, and find a way to accept that it's happened.

"With resilience and strength … people can find ways to create a life worthwhile and meaningful for them, even after an event like this."


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