MELBOURNE, Australia — Call them the Crocodile Dundees of the Catholic Church in Australia. But Father Michael Shadbolt and Father Herman Hengel aren't wrestling with real-life reptiles — their opponents are the sharp-tongued purveyors of anti-Catholic sentiment in the Australian media.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that the media here have successfully created the impression in the public's mind that Catholic priests have a unique predisposition to serious sexual crime,” Father Michael Shadbolt, a priest of the Melbourne Archdiocese, told the Register.
Vitriolic anti-Catholic art, plays, movies and TV broadcasts — often utilizing material imported from Hollywood and other U.S. sources — have prompted the two Australian priests to found the Catholic Priests Anti-Defamation League to counter the flood of hostile propaganda.
Father Shadbolt explained that the theater is a particular locus of Catholic bashing. “Over the present [Australian] summer, two anti-Catholic plays were produced here in Melbourne. One was the infamous ‘Corpus Christi’ which depicts Christ as an active homosexual,” he said.
The other play was even worse. “It was an execrable local production called ‘Midnight Mass’ in which, among other thespian gems, Our Lady was portrayed as a foul-mouthed slut and Holy Communion was spat out on stage,” said Father Shadbolt.
Other major sources of anti-Catholicism are American TV productions. The two priests received a good deal of attention in December when they wrote letters to newspapers objecting to an episode of “South Park.” The show has also drawn the ire of Catholic and other Christian groups in the United States.
According to published reports in Australia, the episode in question featured Pope John Paul II “dribbling incoherently” and “a priest fornicating in a confessional box.” Said Father Hengel, “It was obnoxious in the way it treated Mass, confession and the Pope.”
Exporting Bad Culture
It is no surprise that an American television show elicited a hostile overseas reaction, said Robert Peters, president of Manhattan-based Morality in Media. He told the Register that around the world there is “a widespread concern about the influence of American pop culture on youth.”
Peters added that in some “more traditional cultures, American culture is for all practical purposes banned” because American TV and movies “celebrate and wallow in every form of depravity.”
So far, the two Australian priests have simply written letters to local newspapers, but they say that this is just the beginning. “This year we hope to set up a more formal structure and go national,” Father Shadbolt explained.
That's a necessary step, agrees William Donohue of the U.S. Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. “Such a group needs to be institutionalized,” Donohue told the Register.
Donohue said that he has known of the negative attitudes Down Under for some time. “The situation in Australia,” he said, “is very hostile to the Catholic Church.”
Added Donohue, “The two countries in the world right now where Catholic bashing is the greatest are Australia and Ireland.”
Dr. Michael Casey, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Melbourne, told the Register that the priests' league is “a private Catholic association.” But privately, Father Hengel said, he and Father Shadbolt have received written and verbal support from every level of the Church, from bishops and priests to lay people.
Picking Their Fights
Father Hengel said the group has been very careful in picking its battles in order to avoid being relegated by an already hostile media to “the fanatical fringe.” Still, it hasn't shied away from high-profile issues — the League took on a large portion of the Australian news media over their coverage of allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
One major newspaper , The Australian, ran a story titled “Prey For Priests” which presented allegations of sexual abuse by an anonymous woman against a priest she wouldn't name.
This sort of biased reporting has led to Catholic priests being “scapegoated for pedophilia,” Father Hengel said, while “the same problem in other organizations and professions has, in contrast, received little or no publicity.”
Said Father Hengel, “We do not wish to deny the reality of the problem in the Catholic priesthood, but we object to our being singled out.”
Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.