Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Spying for the Holy Office: A Sydney Story

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Spying for the Holy Office: A Sydney Story

Article excerpt

Fellow students of history, want to tell you a story--which is what we historians do, isn't it, we tell stories? This is a story about a Sydney priest who got called into the Archbishop's office, at four o'clock one afternoon, on the fifteenth of September 1987, and when he got there, he said later, he found the Archbishop 'in a boiling rage'.

Some background: in March 1987, an older student, a graduate of the University of Sydney and of Oxford called Tony Abbott had left the Manly seminary and gone to work at The Bulletin, a weekly news magazine. A few months later, he published an article there about his seminary experience, which the editor called WHY I LEFT THE PRIESTHOOD and put on the cover of the magazine. (1) Tony Abbott mainly wrote about his disenchantment with seminary personality formation programmes; but he also commented on the academic side, saying that Dr David Coffey taught that 'the very fullness and perfection of Christ's humanity constitutes his divinity. Such ideas, Abbott wrote, had impelled him out of the seminary. In his book Battlelines, first published in 2009, he proffers a more generous view, naming Coffey as 'allegedly a "resurrection denier" but a captivating lecturer and, in my judgment, a conscientious seeker after truth'. Abbott's Bulletin article occasioned something of a firestorm in succeeding weeks. There were letters to the editor, including a joint letter from the academic staff at Manly supporting Coffey, and an article defending the seminary rector by his vice-rector, Bill Wright, now the Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle/and an article criticising the Manly theologians, especially David Coffey--an article that brought its author to the Archbishop's office, as mentioned.

This author was Father Terence Joseph Purcell, Parish Priest of St Benedict's Broadway since 1973. He found Archbishop Clancy, as I have said, 'in a boiling rage', extremely angered at what he took to be a direct attack on himself in Purcell's Bulletin article, although, as the priest pointed out, he had not mentioned the archbishop's name at all. Back and forth their contest went on that September afternoon, a dramatic piece of ecclesiastical theatre:

--You attacked the seminary, which I control, therefore you attacked Me. Good Catholic parents whose sons are at Manly will be disturbed/You are hindering vocations to the priesthood.

--What I did was reply to Fr Bill Wright's unsatisfactory reply to Tony Abbott ... It's common knowledge that both Sydney seminaries are infected with Newchurch policies. That's a public fact.

--God made me the Archbishop of Sydney, not you. Anyone can write to me, as you have done often; then it's my responsibility.

--Well, I rarely get a reply; and I can't think of one single case where positive action resulted... As for Dr Coffey on the Resurrection: thirty to forty priests have appealed to the Holy See on this. He took time off for a short while but then he was back at Manly. Now he is being investigated by the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith. The Coffey case has been in the public forum for some time: do you really think it was responsible to leave him on the staff at Manly. Anyway, I don't think, as a senior priest, that I'm doing my duty simply by writing to the Archbishop and leaving it at that...

So throughout the afternoon the argument went back and forth between the two of them with the Archbishop, Terry Purcell noticed, maintaining 'intense anger and hostility'.

When it was over, Terry went back to Broadway and wrote a four-page report of the interview, marking it CONFIDENTIAL. Then he put it together with twenty other pieces of evidence about David Coffey and sent the bundle off to the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. (2)

Ordained in 1954, Terry Purcell was now a senior Sydney priest. When the archdiocese had set up its Council of Priests, following Vatican II, he became the first secretary of the council; then, when councillors decided they needed a priest, rather than a bishop, as their chairman, they elevated him to this role. …

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