Peter Gardiner CP in Cambodia (concluded)

Peter Gardiner CP sent me the second part of his journal on the time he is spending volunteering in Cambodia. So to complete his story, please find as follows his account of the work and experiences he had while there.

As I write this, I sit in my hotel room in Bangkok, waiting for the next phase of this trip, and wonder where has the time gone.

Back at the school Monday, week four, and again, it was a lovely day. I keep saying it, but the kids are so great. This week I spent time with the older and more competent kids.

Firstly, I spent about an hour trying to teach Teachers Likik and Sam, how to pronounce “smile”. God, that was hard work. I’d break it up and bit by bit they could do it, but once they put it all together, it straight away became “smell.” The teachers and students are all very keen to learn, so they milk me for all they are worth which, of course, is why I am here. They are also incredibly polite, perhaps too polite sometimes, for their own good.

We have a little chat group where we share information about transport, pick ups, jobs, all that sort of stuff. Every time Rady, the volunteer coordinator, says something, he says “sorry for the inconvenience.” A minor thing happened on the work site last week, and he copped, I thought, some unfair criticism over it. Later, I took him aside, and had a quiet word to him, encouraging him, and just giving him a few tips on what to do in the future. He apologized to me for my being inconvenienced by the encounter!!! Every day, I say to someone, “you don’t have to apologize” usually many times.

Rady was telling me a story about his brother. His brother decided to go to work in Thailand, as the family were desperate for money. He worked for an illegal logger. He was earning great money, which was being sent back to the family. Anyway, after some time, the police caught up with them. The police then just rounded them up, tied them up, and burned them alive! Rady’s brother managed to escape, he spent a number of weeks hiding in the forest, and eventually made his way home. He was sick for a year.

Tuesday I spent at the office doing some work on the video, photos etc. we ate lunch at a local diner, lovely people. Being the generous guy I am, I picked up the bill. $7 for four of us! And we ended up with more than we could eat

Wednesday to Friday, back in the school. One of the things I find interesting is that because I don’t have a lot of conversation with them, the language barrier, being an issue, you spend a lot of time observing them. And it’s interesting to see the different personalities. The kind ones, the worried ones, the eager to learn ones. One lad in the oldest class, Seng, who I mentioned last week, he would be about 15. He is a very hard worker. And you can see that he wants to go places. He’s a very competent and kind young man. Unlike the other kids, he and his sister turn up in different and clean clothes each day. It turns out his parents have a business.

Most of the kids turn up for school each day wearing the same clothes. I was talking to Likik, and this little kid came and sat with us. His clothes were filthy. Of course, I say that without judgement. It reminds me a lot of PNG here. They are all incredibly friendly, old clothes or new.

I was in Likik’s class 
and they were
 learning food words: Ice cream, sugar, chocolate etc. So she had some flash cards, and she had cut up heaps of cardboard with different letters on it. So she would read out, say, “sugar” and they would have to find the letters in the pile, and make the word. And then on to the next word.

They were in two teams, and one team was winning all the time. Of course, with their new vocabulary, the boys in the group, when they won, would sing and dance, and go “champions” and flex their biceps!!!

I decided the other team needed some help, so I asked Likik if I could read out the words. So what I did was, let’s say it was “chocolate,” I would show the flash card to the kids who were losing, so they had about a ten second start on the other team. It all went pear shaped when the word was “jam” and when I read the word a nano second later. They had it right, and of course the other team smelt a rat. They did a bit of a dummy spit, which was fair enough. Anyway, they were then quite resourceful. They looked at the list of words (they had been written up on the white board) and started making them into what were possible combinations. Needless to say, order was soon re-established.

They are incredibly resourceful.
 Teacher Lida has the older kids. For 
the last few weeks they have been 
working on a garden. The soil here 
is like concrete. Anyway, he
 collected some left over wood from
 the workshop (the building 
warehouse is behind the school),
 and got the kids to make a fence.
 They sawed them all to the same
 length, then cut the ends into
 triangle shapes, for some simple
 decoration. The girls collected dirt
 and put them in old plastic bottles to mark out the paths. They
 collected cow poo and rice husks
 to make a sort of soil. All the plants came from cuttings at the kid’s houses. It’s a great little thing. Already some of the plants are starting to flower. Some look as though they will struggle, but most of them are on the way, even in this short time. It will look great when the plants get a bit older. But it is all something out of nothing. And the kids are not afraid of hard work. I feel embarrassed when I see how they get into things.

Friday night, Enola and I decided to see one of the local tourist attractions. It was a live show at the Angkor dynasty. The hotel owner’s wife, herself Khmer, had seen it and raved about it.

Well it was sensational. I’m going to make a big call: the best live show I have ever seen, and I doubt if I will see better. It was all dancing, acrobatics, a story line about Khmer history. It was spellbinding. An amazing experience

It was full of Chinese, not that I have anything against the Chinese, but the Chinese tour market here is huge. I’m sure most of them would never meet a Khmer person. They would stay at the Chinese hotel, be served by Chinese waiters, get on the Chinese bus etc. There is a duty free store near here, and when my camera died, I thought I might try there. I didn’t realise it was set up for the Chinese tourists. Well there were five Chinese buses waiting outside. It was full of Chinese. I wasn’t thrown out, good luck to them, but I was obviously not part of their target market

Unfortunately, with the softening of the Chinese economy, the number of tourists have declined this year by about 10 – 15%. I know it is the low season here now, but it is amazing how quiet the place is

There is a resort city down south called Sihanoukville. Apparently, it’s been taken over by the Chinese. They have built hotels, casinos. There is something like 80,000 Chinese workers and expats there. Apparently, the triads run the town, and there is a lot of violence there. Recently an under construction building collapsed, and 28 workers died. Of course, it was an illegal construction. But the local authorities have lost any control. The Chinese government have made it part of their one belt one road program.Here is a video that talks about it: influx

Enola went to Pnomh Penh for the weekend to catch up with some friends down there. So I spent the weekend doing tourist things.Angkor Wat was number one on my list. This is the reason why people come here. The old Hindu turned Buddhist temples are amazing. This is my third trip here, so I had seen the temples before. An all day temple tour is exhausting. After you have seen about three, you have seen the lot.

So I asked a tuk tuk driver in the morning, who parks near here, would he do a tour for me. Starting at 3 in the afternoon, then just three temples, then the sunset – that’s all. $10 was the agreed price. When 3 o’clock came we met up, and he mentioned that I wouldn’t see much in three hours. That was the idea, I said. We set off. It wasn’t a particularly nice afternoon – overcast, but no rain.

There are a couple of favorites of mine, and probably most other people. Ta Prohm has amazing trees growing out of it, with roots going everywhere. It is amazing.

I get quite frustrated by all the tourists!!! There are a couple of spots that are popular for snaps, and so there is a line of people who either use a selfie stick, or get someone to take their photo and stand for ever in front of something that is quite beautiful. They must go home with hundreds of photos of themselves blocking the view!!!!

The Bayon temple is my favourite. It has a large number of carved stone faces, which I find quite amazing. It is actually mis-named, it is named after the Banyan tree, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. There are over 200 carved stone faces, which are believed to be the resemblance of the King Jayavarman VII, who was the mastermind of much of the Angkor Wat complex. Not only did he build many of the Temples, he also built over a hundred rest houses and hospitals at set points along the way, for the purpose of assisting pilgrims making the trek. His inscription at one of the monuments reads: “He suffered the illnesses of his subjects more than his own; because it is the pain of the public that is the pain of kings rather than their own pain.”

He was actually a Buddhist. Most of the temples were originally built as Hindu temples, but he built the Buddhist side of things.

Sunset at Angkor Wat was underwhelming, so I made arrangements to come back for the sunrise – me and about 5000 other people! Fair dinkum, the traffic heading out at 4.30 was like Parramatta Road. I put my running shoes on when I got there, and managed to get a good spot. The pics are nothing spectacular, but it was a calm and peaceful moment, as most people just took in the awesome moment.

I did the Angkor Museum in the afternoon, which was quite beautiful. My experience was dulled when I found out that the national bird of Cambodia is the Giant Ibis!!! Maybe we should send some of our Marrickville Ibis back there?

Monday arrived and it was back to school. Monday and Tuesday, teacher Likik was away. Her sister was involved in a pretty serious motorbike accident, and so she was away looking after her. I think the sister’s leg copped the brunt of it, and she cant walk at the moment.

With Likik away, that meant most of my time was in the classroom. I quite like it. It is pretty chilled. Teacher Sam runs both classes, she runs between them both, and I help the students with their English. It’s mostly pronunciation, grammar etc. Its usually pretty easy, but sometimes a student will have made a minor mistake, or said something that is sort of right, but not the way we would say it. So it is a major drama as I try to explain to the kid what they need to put. Most times it works OK, but occasionally I have to get one of the kids to run next door to get Teacher Sam so I can explain to her, and she can explain to the student in Khmer.

The kids are so sweet, attitude is nonexistent as they choose to come to the school, so it is not too difficult. The explanations are the hard part. Sometimes I will have eight or more kids around me while I try to correct them, one at a time.

Tuesday, they decided to sit some of the students in their class, while I supervised the students who came to the computer room. The computer room has about 20 computers. I had forgotten, but I had donated some of these, with other people’s money, of course. I’m quite generous like that!

They are pretty simple computers, and they use the UBUNTU system, of which I am only very basically connected with. But it didn’t take long for me to become the tech guru. I managed to get most of them going, which mostly entailed me pulling out plugs and putting them in again! I think we’ve all done that. The interface wasn’t the best, so I managed to make a few minor changes. But it was fun. The class was typing practice, so if they didn’t get 100%, they couldn’t go onto the next screen. Of course, I could read where to re do the test while they, of course, could not. But it did make me something of a tech genius!!!

One good thing is that we are starting to get some rain. Not just the usual 4 pm thunderstorm, but the good solid downpours that they have been waiting for so long. We have had some great thunderstorms. The frogs are coming to life around the hotel and I am starting to see people working in the rice paddies. When I am in Vietnam, I notice all the workers out in the fields. That hasn’t happened here because with no rain, there has been little to tend. But with this great rain, now they are getting out to work

On Wednesday afternoon, I asked Daral, the tuk tuk driver, to take me around the village so I could see where and how these families live. We asked the village leader for permission, which was readily granted. I was surprised to find that there really is no village. You have a road, and maybe every hundred meters there’s a house, and the rice paddies belonging to that family are behind the house. Occasionally, there will be a roadside stall, but the sense of a village, per se, just doesn’t seem to happen, at least in the countryside.

Daral pointed out where there were now cashew farms, mango farms, you name it farms – it was once all pristine forest. The devastation continued on for kilometer after kilometer.

Occasionally you will come across a “town” where a few businesses gather. There is one such town a little bit out of here, which seems to house mostly industrial businesses. I’ve been through there a couple of times, and it’s quite filthy.

On the way home, Daral took me on the back roads. It was quite fun. We found one family sitting down having lunch and they were incredibly welcoming. We sat and “chatted” for some time. We then took another back road, but the rain was teeming down, so It was all slipping and sliding. I was sure we were gonna go over!

One day a week at least is in the library. So they have some set reading, and then they can pick out books to read. I think I know most of the books by now.

One set of books is of group of photos, with words, which may be counting or items and they have to say what they are. One example that is in nearly every book is “candle”. So it might be “four candles” (two Ronnies fans will be happy So we made a bit of a guessing game around it. Didn’t matter what it was, six or three, I’d say, “what do you think they are?” I had about six kids and they would all scream and laugh, “Candles!!!” It was just a heap of fun.

On Friday, I went back to film the family we had built the house for. This is one of my projects, to show things from start to finish, with the building process. It was a great experience. The dad could not help but keep smiling. I may have mentioned that in the old house, the two eldest girls slept with the grandmother, there was no room in the old house. I asked them what some of the benefits of the new house were. Basically the two oldest girls sleep in the room, and mum and dad and the youngest girl sleep on what we would call a verandah.

The oldest girl, who is probably about 16, spoke of the usual things like a place to study and do homework. But a big difference to her now was that she had friends at school. With the old house, there was so much shame that no one wanted to be her friend. But now she has some new friends. I might add that she is a very articulate and friendly young lady, so it wouldn’t be because of that that she has no friends. But now she has some worth because of the new house.

The dad spoke of how now he could protect his family. Mum spoke of how now they were close together they could talk about things in their life. Even the translator was amazed at how much benefit could come from even something like that. He himself as a kid lived in a shanty house, and spoke to me of how it affected him so negatively.It was a very moving experience.

Saturday awoke, and I decided to head to the local markets. Sela is where all the locals go. Again, it was just a feast of sights and sounds. It’s quite huge. There is absolutely everything there. You can pick your chicken and get it killed on the spot. One woman had a stall with all meat on it, except it was completely unidentifiable. The only thing I could work out were the eyes. These big huge eyes. God knows what the other parts were.

That afternoon I decided to at least see Apopo, the rat de-mining exhibition. After all the drama of last time, and not seeing it then, basically, I was disappointed. It was great seeing the rats in action. That took about 5 minutes. I learnt that the rats are too small to set off the land mines. They are taught to scratch the surface when they smell something. They can smell an infinitesimally small amount of TNT. They are also used in TB screening of samples, in other countries. They had an area that was covered with sand, and they had two baubles, one with a small sample of TNT, and the other with nothing. The baubles were the size of hailstones. It walked straight past the clean one, which was visible, but detected the one that was buried in the sand. The figure they quote is that they can clear an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes, which would take a human team all day.

After that 5 minute display, which was quite interesting, we then sat and watched about half an hour of videos, most of which I had seen on YouTube. The Apopo thing is quite outstanding, amazing really, and the bloke who thought of it is a genius, but after all the trouble I went to, to see the actual museum, well, it was basically nothing to write home about. Which is a silly thing to say, because that is what I am doing right now.

Sunday I booked Daral, our tuk tuk driver, to take me up to Tonle Sap. Enola had gone to Bangkok for the weekend, and Daral had offered to take me around and visit some of the families. This is where we watched the sunset from, dining on frog and rat. But at the bottom of the hill, is a shantytown, and it is the poorest of the poor.

At the moment, with little rain, it is all dry. The houses are built on stilts, but in the wet season, they are supposed to be flooded up to the floor, and the roads are under water (roads being a term that over describes them). I was walking along, and the first house I came to, there was a woman sitting at the door. I asked if I could take her photo and she said yes. I noticed in the room behind her was a man. He had the most interesting face, covered with lines, but still with a warmth and beauty. I “walked” up the path to their house (which was strips of bamboo sort of strung together). It was a pretty rickety stairway. I got to the door, and the bloke was inside still, I asked him if he could come to the door, I wanted to get some light shining on his face. He dragged himself to the door, and Daral whispered to me, “he can’t walk.” I’m thinking this is going really well, here. Anyway, I took some photos of him. I just love it. Probably one of my favourite photos of all time. His face is just a tale of lifeand hope and despair and laughter. It will be coming to a Christmas card near you soon.

We continued to walk around the village, it really was a lesson in humility. These people have nothing. Nothing!

Monday morning arose, and I headed off to my
 last day at school. I decided not to take my
 camera, just to sit there and soak in the
 experience. These kids are simply quite
 beautiful. They are so sweet and innocent and joyful. I know they have their moments, but it is really great.

Class wise, Teacher Ee asked me to help mark the exams her students had taken on the previous Friday. I was looking forward to this, because one of the questions she gave was for them to write a short passage on Rural Life in Cambodia. Most of the responses were the same, one student said rural life was very hard, but there was another theme running through many that life was in fact easier in the rural areas. They didn’t have the supermarkets and so on of the cities, and they had no money, but they didn’t need any. They could go out to the lake or rice paddies, and catch some fish, frogs, or crabs or whatever for dinner. City folk, if they had no money, just starved.

I decided to buy lunch for the staff, all five of them. I bought some pork the night before from one of the street barbeques where my hotel is. They have a bbq with only pork. Having said that, there was intestines, ears, everything. I was hoping to pick out a few more common cuts, but they just grabbed a few bits and cut them all up.

It reminded me of an old joke my dad use to tell, that they went to a place that similarly had all bits of pork. When they asked, what did they have to drink, the waiter replied, bore water. To which my dad replied, geez, you don’t waste any of that pig.

I used the usual OH and S standards here: buy the pork 16 hours before use, put it in the fridge briefly, and then let it sit un-refrigerated until eaten, which can be of any length of time. It works. I’ve been surprised how I have hardly been unwell at all.

Tuesday, 27th,we headed off for our staff retreat. We had a week of 5 o clock starts. It was a team building experience for the team. About 20 staff in all went, plus myself and Enola.

The day was exceptionally long as we had a lot of ground to cover. We were basically heading to the north and east of Cambodia. During the bus trip, designated members of staff gave talks on various topics. It was all in Khmer, so you can guess I was riveted. We stopped for lunch at a river with quite a sensational section of rapids. In fact, it was the Laos border. Back on the bus, the talks were over, and it soon became a bit of an end of season footy trip. The boys had all chipped in and bought beer. Needless to say, all the boys were at the back of the bus, and all the girls at the front. I was invited back to share a beer. I had one, and managed to spray most of the contents over Enola. I then told her that she was now a Catholic!

We eventually got into town, and had dinner, then to KARAOKE. Well, I ruled, of course. Bit of Elvis, bit of Enrique Iglesias, and I had them in the palm of my hand. So much so, that one of them took over the controls and from then on, only Khmer songs were played. I was not quite sure how to take that. Anyway we laughed and sang and dance for an hour or so, and it was back home and off to bed. One of the things here is that they don’t care who they dance or sing with. There would obviously be cultural things about boys and girls singing and dancing in public, if they weren’t partnered, but the boys can sing and dance with the boys, and the girls with the girls. It really was a great night.

Wednesday, we had a short drive, maybe only 4 kms to another lake, where we had lunch. It was really quite beautiful. The boys had organised some of the local brew, what was some rice wine, and what else I’m not quite sure, but you drank it through the straw, and the straws were stuck in sand or mud at the bottom of the urn. It really was quite odd, and quite disgusting if I may say so. They had also bought a heap of food at the markets in the morning, and did a bbq.

Again, the markets had everything. Everything. There were quite a few
 sellers with a buckets of cockroaches. Another seller had the raw and
 racked rats. There was even a dead hedgehog for sale. It was really quite amazing.

After the day at the lake, we got back to the hotel, and we still had heaps of meat. So they decided to have a bbq of the leftovers. Only problem was they had no rice. So Buon, one of the men, hailed down a tuk tuk, and then 20 minutes later, returned back with about 12 containers of steamed rice. I guess this is the Cambodian equivalent of a Macca’s run.

After that we still had some time to kill, so Rady and the team split us into pairs, for a fashion contest sort of thing. Needless to say, I was paired with Enola. We had to dress up singularly, then pair up, to present a play. Well, of course, I had no idea what to do. Enola grabbed every prop she could, including a broom, and ended up looking most unattractive. I decided to put on a few things, and grab an empty beer can, and fill it with water, then pretend I was drunk. Well that part went over well. Then we had to do something together. So I put on a rain jacket, and told Enola to grab the “beer” can, and tip it over me. Well you would have thought we had won the Oscars.   

There were about 6 teams. Then we had to describe what our concept was. Well we had no idea, we had just made it up. The other descriptions were quite vivid. One of the other guys had grabbed a basket and was limping around. I thought he was imitating a land mine victim begging for money, which I thought was a bit rough. Turns out he was a doctor who had decided to become a pickle seller. Don’t even ask me!!!

Anyway, we had to describe our concept, so I used the old chestnut, we were portraying world peace. I outdid myself in drivel as I explained that myself and Enola had come from completely different parts of the world, and had found a shared experience amongst all the kindness and love of Cambodian people. Fair dinkum, I was in the zone.

Needless to say, we won, and I asked for a moment of solemn silence, as we all prayed, deep in our hearts, for world peace. Who says you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? It was a fun night out of nothing.

Thursday, and we were all on the bus again at 5 am, for what turned out to be a beautiful day. We stopped at a place called Basroa falls. An absolutely stunning waterfall. Further to it, all the team got dressed up in traditional gear, and it was just a beautiful thing. Words can’t describe the beauty of this day.

I had a thought during the day that I had found a place that I could never have found on my own through the love and care of these wonderful Cambodian people. And I would probably never be there again, and we would never be there as a group. Probably never, so just savour the love and goodness and beauty that is there. It was a great day.

By the time we headed off, the rain was really coming down. We stayed at a lodge owned by local indigenous people (who also owned the waterfall). I quite enjoyed staying in the hut, though the door to the bathroom was about 1 metre high, so I lost count of how many times I hit my head on the door.

Last day we headed back to Siem Reap. Another 5 a.m. start, and more talks by staff. What I found interesting was that the sharing by the group was more personal. It was really quite moving.

Ee has recently been employed by the school as the head teacher. I pegged her at about 26 years of age, she looked very young, but she has done quite a lot in her life, even starting a school herself. It turns out she is 22 – she has really packed it in. She shared a very moving story of how she had been hurt by life (she didn’t go into the personal details, just the general story – which of course is fine) and how she pulled herself together. I was quite touched by it.

People spoke about others who had mentored them. The builders all pointed out Bun Theun. Bun is probably the oldest bloke there, which makes him significantly younger than me. But many of the staff of VBC come from very poor backgrounds, rubbish jobs that pay no money, and they have to learn building skills to build these houses. And these other four young fellows spoke about Bun Theun’s kindness, and patience, and skill in bringing them onboard. It was quite humbling.

One discussion moved onto cultural issues. Nica, a lovely young local woman who works in the office, spoke of how she was proud to be Cambodian and would always look after her parents and so on. She really valued the family connections.

One of the other young women basically said she rejected all that. She was living her own life, and it was up to her parents to look after themselves. She was adopting the western way of life.  

Sinn, the founder of VBC, then said he was proud of his culture, and was happily looking after his parents, and it was no problem to him. He has also visited Australia, and he realises Westerners do it differently, but there are still many great things about western culture.

He then posed a question that made me think a lot: ‘Which is more valuable, diamonds or gold?’My left side of the brain was working overtime – ‘well it depends what you want it for, blah blah blah,’ and the discussion went on, mostly in Khmer. Occasional translations were made for me and Enola. Buon is one of the builders, a fine young man. And he made his observations in Khmer. Then his last line was translated for us. He simply said, whatever is the more valuable, they are even more valuable when they go together. I just thought, what an inspired beautiful thought by a simple humble builder who has come from nothing.

And that, my dear friends, brings us to the end of this week’s entertainment.

I am in Thailand at the moment, I’m suppose to be following up stuff for Bill Crews, but it is really going nowhere at the moment. I will catch up with some different groups, but I am not sure we can provide a lot of assistance. They have plenty of people on board, and labour is cheap. Its intellectual property they need, to write programs, manuals and that sort of stuff. So lets see how that goes.


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Peter Gardiner CP in Cambodia

Peter Gardiner CP, part of our JPIC committee, has once again headed north to Cambodia to do volunteer work for VBC (Volunteer Building Cambodia). He is keeping a diary of his work and time there and has sent me his first installment. I share it with you all as our blog article for this month. Peter writes:

“I arrived here via Bangkok, and a nine hour bus trip to Siem Reap. I thought I would enjoy the view. I can’t say there was much to see. Dry rice paddy after dry rice paddy. I have since found out, that despite the rain I have seen since I’ve arrived, the wet season here this year is quite late, and quite poor. If it doesn’t rain soon, the rice crop will fail.

The days are long. At the moment, I haven’t even touched the tools. I’ve spent the first two weeks at the school. The first day at the school the temperature on the phone was 34c, but the phone said it feels like 41! The early morning tuk tuk ride is beautiful, a balmy mid twenties. Of course, most days a thunderstorm rolls in about 3. I think the easiest job in the world would be a TV weather forecaster here in Asia.

So the day starts at 7.30 a.m. on the tuk tuk, about a 40 min trip to the school. There is a staff meeting before school starts, but so far that hasn’t happened. So I just cruise around while the kids turn up. First class, 9:00 till 10.30 a.m., then a break till 1pm!!! That is usually the teachers asking me questions for about half an hour about English, then we have lunch, and then a nap.

There is a little road side stall across from the school. I have tried it a couple of times. They have some chicken sticks, which the teachers described as “roast chicken”. I bought a few to share. The one I had was quite chewy and nothing like chicken. It turns out it is chicken intestines. Beautiful.

At 4 back on the tuk tuk, home here at 5. Then by the time I clean up, have a swim (that was on the must have list for my accommodation), dinner, then I spend a couple of hours processing the film and or video that I have done that day. I have only put a couple of things on FB, but if you are on FB, the link is*F

The short version of the story is that they want me to promote the work of the community centre, so hopefully to get more volunteers there, get some donations etc. They get a steady supply of volunteers on the building side, but not in the school. I suppose people think, and I have to plead guilty here myself, you can build a house, and you can say, “I’ve done that, take a photo etc. and I have a memory for life.”

But something less tangible like schooling is harder to get people on board. They have been singularly unsuccessful getting teachers to volunteer. You don’t really need to teach, they just want someone in the classroom to help the teacher with grammar, spelling, pronunciation.

It’s quite hard to get money for schools here in Cambodia. So the kids attend their local school, while the community centre runs three sessions a day, for four different classes. So there are eleven classes in all (the older kids don’t have a session in the morning). They only teach English here.

The kids who come actually choose to come. It is a choice their family makes, so they are kids who want to get on. There are very few behavioral problems. Quite the opposite.

Mr Sinn, who founded all this, uses money made from the building sites, and uses that to run the school. About 10 – 15 % of the building money ends up there. I was not aware of all the issues getting backing for the school.

So those who come not only build a house and change that family’s life. They help build a future for these kids. It’s quite wonderful, really.

So my brief is to produce some assets, etc., so they can promote it, use them for fundraising etc. I also sit in the classes and help the teacher with the English, and do short stints teaching.

Let me say, they have already learned that English is a living language. I have taught them some new concepts, which they have grabbed. “Morning Teacher” has been replaced by “Hi Champ.”

Also I have standardized the marking system. I help the teacher mark the homework, and then depending on how many they get right, they get a comment. She started out with comments like “good”, which you received if you got half of them right, to “very good” if you got a perfect score. The new system starts at the half way mark, which gets you a “very close”, and there is a sliding scale up to a perfect score which earns you “sensational”

I must say the kids are absolutely beautiful. They have such a quiet beauty: Lot of fun, and not afraid to be cheeky in a nice way. Taking pictures has been easy. Some are a bit shy, but they soon warm up. I think I have my Christmas cards covered for the next couple of years.

As the photos are of kids, I am not putting them up publicly, but on the VBC CC page, and then sharing them on mine from there. I hope to put some on Google Drive, and send the link around later. But the copyright and ownership remains with VBC CC

There are three teachers at the school, Likik and Sam, both women, and Lida, a guy. They are all probably about 20. They are all great mentors, they love the kids, and you can see the kids love them

I have sat in on LIkik and Sam’s classes, and soon will help Lida.

Likik spent a bit of time talking to me about her real dreams. She wants to study abroad. But her parents are against it. They are both rice farmers, and only went to grade two, and can’t see why she needs any more in life. Her English is quite good, quite understandable. She did year 12 here locally, and is now studying at Uni. But she said to graduate you need level 12 on their standards, and she is only level 3. She is a real hard worker. All three of them teach during the day, and study each night. Saturday is their day off, and both the girls work in their rice paddies. Sunday, they study. They really work hard. Lets hope their dreams can come true. They won’t die wondering.

Likik and Sam are both former students at the school, and VBC have given them scholarships to help them get ahead.

A new head teacher started yesterday. She looks about 18, but must be mid 20’s given what she has done. She has started and run a school previously and spent a year working as a teacher in Laos. She is a very capable young woman. Her name is Ee

The kids love their games. One popular one for the boys is to make sling shot type things. Then they put a stick up in the middle of the dirt, and try to knock it over with their bands. They stand about 15 – 20 metres away. It’s quite amazing to watch really. They seem to have a simple form of betting, with the currency being rubber bands. So when someone wins, you see the others reach into their pockets, pull out rubber bands, and settle with the winner

Both the boys and girls play a game, much like knuckles when we were kids. But they use the gravel stones. I haven’t worked out all the rules, but they start with a version of paper, rock, scissor. They have a fourth option, which is a needle. Im not sure how that fits into the pecking order. So all four or five or how many start off playing, then one by one they get eliminated. Till the first to go is set.

Then they do the knuckles things. At the end, they are all serious as they count the stones they have accrued. At the end they do a nice thing where all the losers stick out their right hand, and the winner goes around to each one and sort of claps, meeting in the outstretched hand. It’s all done with a great deal of kindness and fun.

Then they throw the rocks back on the ground, and go into class. Which sort of makes me laugh. One minute these stones are all valuable, then the next minute, worth nothing.

I’m sure we have all been there.

It also means they are not as devious as me. I would have picked up a few extra stones, put them in my pocket, then pulled them out as needed, to win each game. As I said, there is a kindness and innocence amongst them. A couple of times, arguments have broken out amongst players, but they don’t last long. Everyone settles down quickly.

Walk to Valley of 1000 Lingas

It was quite a solid walk. The length of the walk was 1500m, but the first 700m were basically straight up a mountainside. Over rocks, tree roots, up stairs, I was pretty done by the time I got half way. Fortunately, the second half was pretty flat. The photos on the travel guide were beautiful. The two other girls had gone ahead, and when I get to the top, there was NO water. A scattering of tepid pools you couldn’t drown a cat in. I was pretty annoyed, all that walking and no water.

Anyway, we kept poking around, and we found the waterfall. The only water flowing was the equivalent of a small tap. (what looks like water on the falls is actually tree roots.) Anyway, I wasn’t gonna waste the opportunity to at least splash my head under it. I took a drink of it, and it wasn’t too bad.

I found out later that the locals call this “holy water”. The place is known as the Valley of a Thousand Lingas. Way back when, some hermit monks carved sacred carvings into the rocks in the river, depicting various Buddhist deities, mostly Shiva and Vishnu. So the water flows over them, making them holy water.

On the way back, I never thought I was gonna make it. There was thunder, a light sprinkling of rain, and I thought we were gonna cop it. I sent the girls on ahead so I wouldn’t slow them down.

So these two young guys started following me down. I could already see what was coming. At about the second lot of rocks I had to scramble over, they came over and offered their help. So they helped me all the way down. They claimed they worked there, as “Security”. True or not, I was more than happy to cough up a tip for them. I doubt I would have got back without them, at least not without a big struggle. I wasn’t sure what to pay them, so I gave them $20, and judging by their reaction, I had paid over the odds. As I say, I couldn’t care. Good luck to them.

The other person on our walk was Marrissa, who is Dutch, a volunteer for another agency staying at Enola’s guest house., and so they hang out together. We have all done a few things together.

Next week I will finally be helping with a house build. One of my suggestions is to make a short film, say 3 minutes, showing the house build from start to end.

We went out yesterday to interview the family. Fair dinkum, it was terrible that people have to live like that.

So next week, I will finally get on the tools


For those on this list looking for sermon material, I thought I would add something that happened on the first day in Bangkok. I was waiting at the guesthouse for the bus to arrive. Outside there were three or four taxi drivers waiting for a fare. While they chatted, one of the drivers used the time to clean the car. He wiped down the inside, the windows, then wiped over the car. Then he opened the hood, to clean the engine. I’m thinking, the customer wont even see this part. When he had finished that, he took off the Engine Bay cover. I have never removed that ever. I didn’t know you could!!! Then he cleaned all the bits and pieces under that. While he waited, they chatted, and he cleaned. Everything – whether it could be seen or not. He didn’t know when the next customer would come, but when they did, he would be ready.”

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Contemplating Israel

On the 5thof June, I conducted a mass for a house of a Catholic Girl’s high school in which I used, in my homily, the case of Israel Folau as a means to try to open up the discussion on religious freedom. I never expected the negative reaction to what I said would be so great. After the mass, a group of the administration staff spoke to me. They were deeply concerned and expressed their belief that my point on religious freedom would have been completely missed by the girls and that all that the congregation would have heard, was that I agreed and supported Folau’s condemnation of homosexuals. They were right! I failed to correctly read my audience and failed to recognize how contentious an issue this currently is, such that rational debate is almost impossible.

I thought that I was on safe ground as I used, as resource material, an article by Fr. Chris Middleton SJ (rector of Xavier College, Melbourne) that appeared in Eureka Street on the 7thof May, 2019. I have read a number of articles that have followed the case since, as I wanted to write this next blog article on the issue and my experience with it, yet I find that the article by Fr. Middleton says best all that I would like to say. I find it the most balanced appraisal of the situation. So I have included below Fr. Middleton’s article as it appeared in Eureka Street for your information. Like Fr. Middleton, I do not in any way agree with Israel Folau’s theological approach to God’s love and the condemnation for sinners, but also feel uncomfortable with Israel Folau’s own condemnation for stating his beliefs, from the point of view of an effort to save souls rather than foment hate speech. Chris’ article is as follows:

“The post on Instagram by Australian Wallaby, Israel Folau, is an example of the impact of our use of social media, and of the complex issues that are raised by it. Folau posted a passage from St Paul’s biblical Letter to the Galatians (chapter 5 verses 19-21), along with a warning that hell awaits eight categories of people unless they repent, in the conviction, as Folau posts, that Jesus loves them and desires their repentance. His post caused immense offence to members of the LGBTQI community and many others, as it referenced homosexuals, even though this reference is not in St Paul’s list of ‘sins of the flesh’.

“Folau is a lay minister in his church and has been filmed preaching and baptizing. There is no doubt that he, as an evangelical Christian with a literal understanding of the text, believes a whole lot of people will go to hell unless they repent.

“But he is also an Australian representative, a sporting hero to many, and a contracted player for Australian Rugby. In that position, many found his post to be unacceptable hate-speech that violated the sport’s code of conduct. Rugby Australia determined that he should show good cause why his $4 million contract should not be terminated. In all likelihood, the case will go to the courts. Important issues around the role and responsibility of professional sport stars, the relationship of sport to social policy, sport as a business, and the rights and limits of free speech all come into play in what is emerging as a significant case in Australian public life. Numbers of commentators have taken up his case and some voices have linked it to a perception of attacks on religious freedom. I remain conflicted about the sacking of Folau, as I believe his case does raise questions around important issues in a society that values diversity and that promotes inclusivity and tolerance.

“Highly paid sports stars are indeed role models, and to publicly canvas that gay people risk going to hell because of their orientation has an impact on young people and their wellbeing and safety. A sporting star has clear responsibilities in this area to weigh the consequences of their words or actions. It is appropriate for governing sports bodies to enforce codes of conduct in this area and to insist on the responsibility of players.

“Moreover, the fact is that Rugby is a business and has a brand name to protect. Folau is an employee and has contractual expectations. After a previous incident around the same-sex marriage plebiscite he gave his word that he would not venture into this space again.

“But he is also a sportsperson with a private life, and is a member of a small church. Should his employer have required of him to be silent on issues related to his faith? Is it discriminatory to require this on some issues but not on others? Should sports, and sportspeople, have public positions on social issues that don’t directly relate to their sport, for example, officially endorsing same sex marriage, as distinct from ensuring a lack of bigotry or hate speech within a sport?

“Rugby Australia enjoys a monopoly in terms of employment (playing Rugby), and unlike in other employment contexts Folau doesn’t have a choice about employers — if he wishes to express himself he cannot simply look for another employer. It seems to me that this monopoly situation is relevant in what can or should be asked of a sportsperson. Selection for a sport to represent a country cannot be reduced to an employee relationship.

“Is Australian Rugby heading dangerously towards imposing a religious or a political test for sporting selection? If a conservative Muslim player was to publicly support Sharia law would that disqualify them from representing Australia? If a Maronite Catholic player was to publicly affirm their opposition to same-sex marriage would that disqualify them from representing their country?

“There is an important side issue here: how much influence should big sponsors have in determining policy? Qantas is clearly an issue — they are the Qantas Wallabies, and CEO Alan Joyce, and the company itself, were vocal supporters of same-sex marriage. It seems Rugby Australia feels the pressure here.

As a Catholic priest I have a very different understanding to Folau about the redeeming love of God. Threatening hell has no place in my way of seeing faith. But as a member of the Assemblies of God, Folau has a much stronger belief in the likelihood of people going to hell. In his post he named a whole lot of ‘sinners’ as he saw it, and how he wished to help ‘save’ them. I don’t agree with his theology but it is hard to see in its intent, at least in a layperson’s terms, as meeting the threshold of hate speech. His intent is repentance so that they can be saved.

“Now, I don’t for a moment doubt that many find these views hateful, but in a pluralist, multicultural society that cannot be, in itself, justification for silencing someone. I think his way of reading the Bible is dead wrong, but the Church learnt some time ago that it can’t impose its understanding on other Christians. Can Folau be held to account by Rugby Australia for expressing a religious belief that is shared by many millions? As one writer noted: ‘there is no distinction between a person’s beliefs, and publishing material consistent with those beliefs, as much as the latter might be dressed up as a code-of-conduct issue.’

“Is race also an issue in this case? Over 40 per cent of professional Rugby players have Pacific Islander or Maori heritage, with many belonging to ‘fundamentalist’ churches. Like all communities there are a range of views within Islander communities, and various judgments about the rights of Folau to express his views the way he did, but I sense a growing unease among this part of our multicultural society about how Folau is being treated.

“Are their cultural and religious sensibilities to be respected? As Paea Wolfgramm, who won Tonga’s first-ever Olympic medal, silver, at Atlanta 1996 in heavyweight boxing, and who was critical of Folau writes: ‘It now feels that Folau is under a sustained attack, and therefore his and our “Tongan-ness” is being attacked as well. As we counted our connection to Folau, perhaps with each attack our empathy as well as our sympathy grew.’

“The Folau case remains disputed space that has raised genuine and serious issues on both sides, but also highlights how intemperate language and polarization in our society poses such a challenge to debate in the public square.”

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Dear Mr. Morrison

Our recent federal election returned Scott Morrison, leader of the LNP, to the post of Prime minister of Australia. It was a surprise for many of us due to the turmoil that the coalition leadership has experienced over the last few years, but particularly for young Australians for whom Climate Change is a major concern.

Some commentaries suggest that one reason for the convincing win has been the support of religious groups who feel that religious liberty has a better chance of being safeguarded under an LNP government than under Labour, who have aligned themselves with the radical Greens who spout an anti-Catholic rhetoric and blatantly stand against the Christian value of the sanctity of life, in their pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia stance.

For better or for worse, we have a conservative government back in office and have to reflect on how best to fight for those values that their economic approach threaten. To that end, the CRA (Catholic Religious Australia) have written a letter to Mr. Morrison expressing our concerns and hopes for his next term in office. It sets out the agenda we will be fighting for. It is reproduced below for your information:

19 May 2019, To the Hon. Scott Morrison M.P., Prime Minister, Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600.

Dear Mr. Morrison,

Congratulations on being elected to the leadership of all Australians. We wish you and your team well as you form Government. I write to you as President of Catholic Religious Australia (CRA).

CRA represents over 150 religious congregations across Australia with approximately 5,500 Catholic religious women and men throughout the nation, as well as many thousands of people working in organisations run by religious institutes. Our members and their lay colleagues serve in education, health care and social services. We work with First Australians, refugees and asylum seekers, people struggling to survive on the margins of society and many others in need of assistance. The members of CRA and their colleagues, many of whom engage daily with the vulnerable and the marginalised throughout the nation, look forward to working with your Government.

As you set the agenda for the future of Australia and this term of office, we ask that your Government gives priority attention to several areas that might restore Australia’s reputation andpractices as a compassionate and creative nation.

Firstly, as a matter of priority we ask that, having secured the borders and stopped boats coming to Australia, you revisit the Government’s position in relation to the treatment of asylum seekers.Australia needs to take its fair share of asylum seekers and to restore its reputation as a humane and compassionate country. We ask that steps be taken to: immediately restore SRSS which has left many asylum seekers living in the community in dire circumstances and reliant on NGOs and faith- based organisations to meet basic needs of shelter, food and clothing; enact a public one-off moratorium for asylum seekers in the community, giving citizenship to those awaiting the processing of their claims; bring asylum seekers in off-shore detention who have been judged to have a medical condition to Australia and re-start negotiations with third countries for those remaining; and take the initiative to restart negotiations with other countries towards an agreedregional solution that honours Australia’s obligations.

Secondly, we ask the Government to take the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ seriously and, within the coming twelve months, advance consultation and decisions related to Constitutional Change and Treaty to empower Indigenous people to take their rightful place in their own country. We ask the Government to view Indigenous people and their leaders as active partners in this process and in developing legislation, policies and programs to address their disadvantage.

Thirdly, it was often repeated during the election campaign that Australia faces a climate crisis with disastrous effects on our nation, and effects that fall disproportionately on neighbouring low- income and small island states. This is an emergency on which the new Government must act. We ask that your government upholds the Paris Agreement by reducing subsidies to the fossil fuel industries and reducing tax breaks for polluters; invests in renewable energy and commits to no new coal or coal seam gas projects in Australia; and takes strong remediation action to restore the health and administration of the Murray Darling Basin waterways. We have only one earth, it is our common home as Pope Francis reminds us. The Government and we, as citizens, must do all in our power to protect it.

Lastly, with over 116,000 people experiencing homelessness, an insufficient supply of affordable housing and almost one million households now living in rental and mortgage stress, we ask your government to commit to a realistic budget allocation to create new, affordable social housing in its first term. Women who experience domestic violence are a particularly vulnerable population who experience these stresses disproportionately and so we ask for investment in emergency housing.

Prime Minister, in the wake of discourse and advertising that has been unedifying and, in some instances untrue, we ask that you take leadership in working with the Opposition in a constructive way that places the good of all Australians as a priority over gaining political advantage.

CRA believes in the inherent dignity of each human person and is an advocate for justice and compassion towards those whose life chances are limited. Our members have extensive experience in providing many services for those in need and look forward to working with you and your Government in addressing these. Thank you, Prime Minister, for taking on this service of the country. We wish you and your Government well.

Yours sincerely,

Sr Monica Cavanagh rsj President


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The Problem of Corruption in Our Church

For this month’s JPIC blog article, I offer you a homily  delivered at St. Dominic’s parish, Camberwell, Melbourne, on Sunday the 3rd of March this year by Fr. Peter Murnane OP. It pertains to the sex abuse scandal in our Church, particularly how we respond to all this following the conviction of Cardinal George Pell. It is not easy reading, but so important to ensure we act with integrity. Peter’s homily is as follows:

I apologise that this homily is a little longer than usual. I think you will agree with me that the conviction of Cardinal George Pell for sexual offences, has brought us to a unique point in the history of the Church and of Australia, and raises huge questions for every Catholic Christian.

We have come together to worship the risen Christ in our midst. Perhaps Jesus has something to tell us, through this gospel that we read and love, about how we can each cope with this difficult situation. He says here that the quality of each person is known by their fruit. He is backed up by the Book of Sirach, from which we took our first Reading. “An orchard is judged on the quality of its fruit.”

What applies to persons and orchards must be said of institutions, such as our Catholic church. This weekend Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane sent his people a letter in which he reassures them about the good work that our church has done and is doing every day… fruits that show what we are as a church.

Archbishop Coleridge writes that everywhere we turn we see stories about the Church’s failures with child sexual abuse. We have to accept that. The Church will never walk away from its responsibilities in this area. We will continue to do all we can to help and heal those who have been abused and their families. ‘We have much to atone for. But today I want to say a word about the Church that’s almost never mentioned in mainstream media. It’s the Church that is you’. The church that works with refugees to find accommodation and fight for their permanent stay; on the frontline with domestic violence victims; with Australians who have a disability; with people on the poverty line; with the homeless; those living with dementia; to protect our environment and to provide pastoral support to prisoners. It has educated millions of Australian children over generations and has provided first-class medical treatment in our hospitals. This is not an exhaustive list, the archbishop stated, of what you do from day to day in the Catholic Church.

All that is very true. But doesn’t Jesus warn us, quite strongly, that his hearers – that’s us! – are quite skilled at noticing the splinter in the eye of another person, while they do not notice the plank in our own. This morning, let’s dare to look for the plank.

Archbishop Coleridge was right to say that the Church will never walk away from its responsibilities in this area of uncovering sexual abuse. But we are doing this only after a five year Royal Commission on the subject has forced us to. This is what the Royal Commission uncovered. I am quoting directly from its Reportand I apologise that this can be hard to listen to.


In the 36 years from 1980-2015, Catholic Church authorities in Australia received complaints of sexual abuse from 4,444 persons. Of those who abused them:

  • 32 % were religious brothers; 5 % were sisters 
  • 30 % were priests 
  • 29 % were lay people.

Through 60 years (1950 – 2010) 7 % of all Catholic priests in the survey were alleged to be perpetrators.

Many senior Catholic Church officials knew about allegations of child sexual abuse but failed to take effective action. We have learned a lot more about sexual abuse since the 1980s, but it is clear that many Catholic Church leaders knew a lot long before then, but did not act effectively.

Over many decades Catholic Church authorities catastrophically failed to help children. Their failures caused much suffering to them, their families and communities. Much of it could have been avoided had Catholic Church authorities acted in the interests of children rather than in their own interests.

Survivors were often disbelieved, ignored or punished, and in some cases further abused. This happened mainly because Catholics wanted to avoid public scandal, to maintain the Church’s reputation, and be ‘loyal’ to priests and religious.

Most complaints were not reported to police. If they had been, it could have prevented further sexual abuse of children. Sometimes police also refused to act, for the reasons given. Some alleged perpetrators were allowed to continue in ministry in the same position for long periods. Others were moved to new positions, where they continued to abuse children. Sometimes lies were told about why the abuser had gone. Sometimes no warning was given to the new place about the risk they posed. Some of the above can be excused because we lacked knowledge. For example leaders can hardly be blamed for hoping that psychological therapy or counselling could ‘cure’ alleged perpetrators; or that abusers could be controlled by imposing restrictions on their ministry. Nevertheless, there is much that is worthy of serious blame.


Nearly four and half thousand abused children. Over many decades. And now we have an archbishop, a cardinal, himself convicted of abusing. A cardinal in jail. He is suffering. He is our brother. He urgently needs our prayers. Is he guilty? Or was his conviction unjust, another terrible wrong? The Catholic community is divided on this. Some journalists and even some lawyers – including Jesuit Frank Brennan – claim he must be innocent. But do we have a plank in our eye? Do we still think that the church can do no wrong? I hope what I am about to say will help you to move nearer to the truth.

Cardinal Pell has done much good in his life, and I respect him for that. I attended eight days of his trial, and I can confidently accept the jury’s verdict of guilty. The journalists – and lawyers – who claim his innocence say that he was condemned by only one witness, who claims that Pell raped him when he was 13 years old. There were actually two choir boys, on scholarships that paid their school fees at St Kevins. They loved going to choir… but suddenly stopped loving it, and wanted to quit. They did not tell their parents why. Most victims don’t tell, at least for many years afterwards. If it took them a year to leave the choir, it was because they could not reveal the reason. If they left, their poor families could not afford full school fees: they depended on those choir scholarships. But they did leave, and by about 16 years of age both boys were taking heroin. One eventually died of an overdose.

If the survivor’s story is true, can we consider for a moment what he must have suffered. If his story was not true, why would he come forward 22 years later, with such an unlikely story, to take on the might and wealth of the Catholic church and the highest-paid lawyers in the land? Might he have been trying to save his own sanity by coming out with the truth at last, to get justice? Recall how many victims we have re-abused by not listening.

And the QC, Robert Richter, grilled him thoroughly, challenging his story. The court was closed for the two and a half days of his evidence, so no one except the jury knows how genuine the young man appears, nor all the details of his case. Not me, not the journalists; not Fr Frank Brennan. If we Catholics assume that the appeal must and will declare that the jury was wrong, can we be sure that we are not making another enormous mistake? If the appeal wipes out his whole story, how great will the young man’s suffering be?

If you doubt his story, I suggest that you read the book by Louise Milligan, who listened to him at length. It is on sale again now. Read at least the last chapter. I have met Louise Milligan, and she impresses me as a truthful woman, not at all sensationalist. She assures me that the young man is also genuine and truthful. If Richter QC brought out small inconsistencies in his story, do we expect a traumatised 13 year old to have perfect recall after 22 years?

Pell’s supporters claim that the crime could not have been committed in the cathedral sacristy after high Mass because there were too many people around. Many witnesses were called: the choir master, his assistant, the organist, sacristan and master of ceremonies. But they all had to speak in probabilities: ‘people were coming and going; there were people with work to do; the archbishop always followed this routine’. But they could not rule out exceptions. No one could swear to seeing the archbishop all the time. After every Mass, in the cathedral as in any church, people eventually drift away. There are moments of quiet. The sacristy is empty. No one noticed two choir boys missing from their places, but that doesn’t mean that they never went missing to trespass naughtily in the room where, it is claimed, Pell found them pinching the altar wine.

Please forgive me this distasteful detail; it is a necessary part of the argument of those who think Pell is innocent. I was astonished, in the trial, that Richter spent so much time trying to prove that a bishop dressed in a full length cassock with an alb over it could not possibly expose himself for the purpose of rape. It is a stupid argument. In my 53 years as a priest, if I wish to answer a call of nature when vested for Mass, it is a simple matter to lift the hem of the multiple garments or vestments I might be wearing. End of story. It is astonishing too that Fr Brennan is still spreading this foolish argument.

Then – the QC claimed – priests who abuse boys must first groom them over a time, winning their trust. Pell did not do this. But that is only one kind of abuser. There is another kind, like Jimmy Saville of the BBC, and Rolf Harris. They were powerful and wealthy men, who mixed with royalty and Prime Ministers. No one would dare challenge them. They would abuse suddenly and recklessly; hit and run, even when other people were present. Jimmy Saville would abuse children in their hospital bed. He abused an 11-y.o. girl in the sacristy during Mass. When such revered public figures were eventually accused, many could not believe they could be guilty.

Cardinal Pell is accused of a violent act of sheer power. He has at times admitted that he has a strong temper. The young boys were powerless. The actions might have been very risky, but he would have felt confident he could not be caught: even if his totally powerless accusers dared to accuse him, no one would believe them.

Pell’s defenders claim that the action was completely out of character. Was it? Sadly, the archbishop does not have a clean record. On at least three other occasions he has had to face accusations by individuals or groups. A judge once decided that his accuser was telling the truth, but that so many decades had passed, there was not sufficient evidence to bring the matter to court. The same happened recently with the men who said that as a young priest he had often abused them in the swimming pool at Ballarat. The case was about to go to trial, but last week was dropped because once again, after four decades, the evidence was legally inadequate.

And how has he treated those complaining of sexual abuse. Chrissy and Anthony Foster’s two daughters were raped when very young by their Oakleigh parish priest, Fr Kevin O’Donnell. If you read their very fine book you will be saddened to see that Archbishop Pell treated them abominably. So too was John Ellis, the Sydney survivor of abuse, whom Pell almost destroyed by legal trials.

I watched Cardinal Pell give evidence to the Royal Commission by video link from Rome. Like the Commissioners themselves, I could not believe him when he claimed not to know about several cases of abuse that he must have known about. Those who think Pell is innocent – and he himself – boast of his Melbourne Response to abuse. But that plan was in fact designed to limit compensation and tended to gag those who accepted its limited payouts. It was not a wonderful, original initiative, but was launched in haste before the other Australian bishops could finish their combined plan.

Bishops and cardinals can do wrong. Three eminent cardinals of Philadelphia, in succession, lied to grand juries about the huge amount of abuse in that diocese. Just last week Cardinal McCarrick of Washington was reduced to the lay state – stripped of his priesthood – for sexual abuse.

Cardinals are called ‘princes of the church’. One of the psalms that we use in the Prayer of the Church says: God pours contempt on princes… They diminish, are reduced to nothing… But God raises the needy – the suffering – from distress. Was it a bad mistake, way back in our history, ever to have allowed such rankings to be part of our church? Likewise with other fancy titles, bishops’ palaces and elaborate vestments? Jesus did not tell us to use titles and privileges: he positively forbade them. In today’s gospel he tells us: the disciple is not greater than the master…who died penniless, murdered for loving and defending others.

Our church as it is today is sick. Was it the structure of our church – the way power is not shared; the clericalism that puts the clergy before others – which let all this happen, or made it easier? Some of our church’s fruit is rotten. We need urgently to pray for its recovery, which will only come about by deep reform. Jesus has not left us; the risen Christ in our hearts, in our Eucharist. Many agree that it is the form, the shape of the church that went astray, centuries ago.

How to change it is a huge question, and possible solutions will be discussed at the coming Plenary Council. Our parish urges you to take part. There are forms at the back of the church for you to have your say. Many parish members have already put in their suggestions. We urgently need to hear your ideas for reform. Please do not miss your opportunity. 

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Good News for the Environment

The election of President Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s new leader was a great concern for those of us who are worried about the environment and the immanent threat of Climate change. He promised to exploit the Amazon, harvesting the rain forest’s riches, threatening both the destruction of what has been called the ‘lungs of the Earth’ and the indigenous communities that call it home. Loss of forest cover jumped almost 50% during the election campaign, in anticipation of looser environmental regulations.

But on the other side of the world there has come a good news story as a counter to this threat. NASA satellites have revealed that the world is actually a greener place than it was 20 years ago, and this has come from a counterintuitive source in China and India.

The two emerging countries with the world’s biggest populations are leading the improvement in greening the world. The effect stems mainly from ambitious tree planting programs in China and intensive agriculture in both countries. In 2017 alone, India broke its own world record for the most trees planted after volunteers gathered to plant 66 million saplings in just 12 hours.

This new insight was made possible by a nearly 20-year-long data record from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), a NASA instrument orbiting the Earth on 2 satellites.

Taken all together, the greening of the planet over the last two decades represents an increase in leaf area on plants and trees equivalent to the area covered by all the Amazon rainforests. There are now more than two million square miles of extra green leaf area per year, compared to early 2000s – which amounts to a 5% increase.

This does not erase the fact that Bolsonaro’s plans threaten to wipe out habitat for thousands of species of animals and plants unique to the Amazon, nor does it justify the displacement of indigenous peoples native to this part of the world. But it does take some pressure off the threat that deforestation adds to climate change in terms of the build up of Carbon Dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere.

Given that China and India are generally considered to be places of high land degradation due to overpopulation, though, it is a surprising find to learn that they account for one-third of the greening of the planet in the last 20 years.

Rama Nemani, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre, said, “When the greening of the Earth was first observed, we thought it was die to a warmer, wetter climate and fertilization from the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to more leaf growth in northern forests, for instance. Now, with the MODIS data that lets us understand the phenomenon at really small scale, we see that humans are also contributing.”

China’s contribution to the global greening trend comes in large part from programs to conserve and expand forests. These were developed in an effort to reduce the effects of soil erosion, air pollution and climate change. The greening seen in India comes from intensive cultivation of food crops.

How the greening trend may change in the future depends on numerous factors, both on a global scale and the local human level. Fore example, increased food production in India is facilitated by groundwater irrigation. If the groundwater is depleted, this trend may change.

The hope this trend does present us with is that once people realize there is a problem, they tend to fix it. We human beings are incredibly resilient. We can make a difference.

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The Insect Apocalypse

Where have all the grasshoppers gone? Over that last 2 years I became aware that I hadn’t seen a grasshopper in years. I remember as a child that whenever I crossed a piece of lawn, be it our lawn at home, a park or the bush, that myriads of little grasshoppers would be jumping out of the way of my oncoming feet. I wondered, of course, if this was an effect of climate change and so I asked a friend of mine, who is a biology teacher, what he thought. He suggested that it could just be that the bird population has increased and they keep the insect numbers down. He also suggested that it could be the lack of rain, as insects need a certain amount of moisture to propagate. These suggestions calmed my fears until early this year when articles started to appear in the paper about a decline in the world wide insect population. Not just in the Bee population, which I was aware of, but in the rest of the insect world as well.

A damning scientific report, “Worldwide Decline of the Entomofauna,” that appeared in Biological Conservation, Volume 232, April 2019, pages 8-27, warns that an ecological disaster faces our world as insect populations are dying out at an alarming rate. Scientists predict that more than 40% of insect species will be wiped out within the next few decades as insect biomass declines in almost all regions of the world at a steady rate of about 2.5% per year. The rate of predicted extinction of namely bees, ants and beetles is said to be eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. On the other hand, houseflies and cockroaches are expected to thrive in the man-made environment, having evolved a resistance to pesticides and other pollutants.

The report blames a combination of pesticide use, intensive agriculture and climate change for this unprecedented die off. The biggest driver in the decline of insects is the loss of habitat and conversion of land to intensive farming, urban development, and deforestation. The root cause of the problem has been the intensification of agriculture over the last 6 years, and the relentless and widespread use of pesticides that coincide with that.

The bumblebee has been officially added to the ever-growing list of endangered species. Once abundant in the grasslands and prairies of the East and Midwestern USA, the bee has now been restricted to protections in the continental US as its population keeps declining at an alarming rate. The loss of bees will have a devastating effect on the human population, as they are key to the process of pollination. But it’s not just about bees, or even about pollination and feeding ourselves – the declines also include dung beetles that recycle waste and insects like dragonflies that start life in rivers and ponds.

So what can we do? Well, there are ways we can all, on an individual level, help to save the often-invisible creatures that support our entire civilisation. The first thing we need to do is stop using so many chemicals. Of course there are bugs we don’t want, but the problem is that other useful insects get caught in the sprays, pesticides and fertilizers we use. There are many tips out there about ecological gardening that is healthier for us and better for the environment.

The second thing we can do is to plant flowers. Even if you live in the middle of the city, having flowers in pots on the veranda is an easy and beautiful way to support both pollinators and insect predators such as wasps.

Thirdly, if you have a big garden, leaving a bit of mess around like leaves lying around or some bushy trees provides shelter for the insects. This also extends to having nature strips and allowing them to grow a little longer before mowing them and let the trees grow a little wilder before they’re trimmed.

Fourthly, don’t demonise insects. They may look like aliens and not as cute as koalas, but on their shoulders our world actually rests.

Fifthly, paying a little more for sustainably produced food and clothing will go a long way to helping minimise chemical overuse.

It is becoming increasingly obvious our planet’s ecology is breaking and there is a need for an intense and global effort to halt and reverse these dreadful trends. Allowing the slow eradication of insect life to continue is not a rational option.


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