The rebel priest standing up to the Catholic Church
For 62 years, Peter Murnane has been a Dominican priest.
He remained so through the storm after he poured blood on the floor of the US Consul’s office. When he provided a safe house for the asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui. When he broke into the Waihopai spy base, was prosecuted and acquitted. Even when he gave a sermon explaining why he thought Australia’s top Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, was not a good bloke.
Only now, at 82 years old, have the Dominicans seemingly had enough of their rebel priest after Murnane refused instructions to pulp his new book, Clerical Errors, which clinically examines the Catholic Church’s dismal sexual abuse record, lays out a long treatise on Pell and argues the entire church should be dismantled.
Ironically, the Dominicans have labelled him a ‘priest not in good standing’, a tag normally attached to paedophiles and other deviants.
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It has left Murnane entirely unworried.
No longer willing to support a system he thinks is rotten, he has declined to take masses, has moved out of Dominican property and is living as a “semi-suburban hermit” on a state pension, “peeling my potatoes carefully” and as always, saying what he thinks.
“I know I am doing the right thing and saying the right thing,” he says, in his gentle, mumbling voice.
“I may be doing it a bit undiplomatically, but I am not a good negotiator.”
‘You take a deep breath’
For two decades, the Australian-born Murnane led the Dominicans - a small Catholic order - in New Zealand, living simply and communally in a central Auckland house. And yet despite his monastic existence, he would venture into the headlines with some regularity.
In 2003, he inveigled an audience with the US Consul. During their conversation, he took out a vial of his own blood and poured it on the carpet in the shape of a cross, a protest against the Iraq War. The consul, he says, was “very wise”, kept him talking, and refused to call in the guards.
“We kept talking for 10 minutes ... then he said ‘you’ve got to go now’ and we found ourselves outside saying ‘what happened there?’.” Murnane’s press release afterwards, he says, was even picked up by Chinese agencies.
The reaction within the church, he says, was “a bit of scorn, not a lot of admiration”. Auckland bishop Pat Dunn apologised on his behalf; Murnane, unrepentant, rejected the apology. “It was only a few carpet tiles, after all,” he says now.
Two years later, Murnane provided a home for the asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui. Amnesty International, he says, first alerted him to Zaoui’s arrival and internment at Auckland Prison at Paremoremo, and he visited him with a French-speaking bishop before joining the campaign for his release.
Eventually, he agreed to host Zaoui under curfew while his case to stay in New Zealand freely progressed to the Supreme Court. He recalls a chaotic three years, but a “lovely fellow. He was a scholar and a family man”. It prompted a profile piece in a newspaper, which delighted in Murnane’s vow of poverty and lack of a bank account.
But Waihopai was probably where he made his biggest mark. Murnane arrived at the GCSB Spybase near Blenheim and observed that two decades of peaceful protest hadn’t achieved much. He suggested a more direct approach.
Along with collaborators Adrian Leason and Sam Land, they did a 2am trip to “case the joint”.
Symbolically, because of the Biblical verse about turning swords into ploughshares and spears into sickles, they took a $10 Bunnings sickle to perform the deed, but found bolt-cutters more useful in getting through two mesh fences.
“We planned very carefully, but the whole thing went to custard - we were Dad’s Army,” he says, amused. However, they did cut down one of the radomes - the golfball-like structures which protect the radar antennae - before placidly awaiting their arrest. Murnane recalls five nights in a “very cold” Blenheim police cell, a two-year wait for trial, and an acquittal in 2010 - and then a $1.2m damages action he was always confident (and correct) would fail.
And so it wasn’t until he was 80, he says, gleefully, that he acquired a criminal conviction - in Australia, for protesting against their intelligence services. He faces more criminal charges now, which he says are “ridiculous”, with police claiming they have footage of him taking part in the Blockade climate change protests in Sydney. He says he was 800km away in Melbourne and can prove it. It seems like another stoush he’s looking forward to.
He sees all of this as simply his job. “It is the role of a Christian to speak the truth - any Christian, and the priest is a leader, by accident and design, so yes. But not many see it that way.”
Likewise, the church has had precious few whistle-blowers through the years when it comes to their dismal record on sexual abuse. But Murnane spends a chapter of his book steadily working his way through summaries and examples of their behaviour in every corner of the globe.
“The awful thing about the institution is that it forms us, to conform, not to criticise, otherwise you lose your job, your income, your good name - it is self-preserving and there is an evil dimension to it,” he reflects.
He considers it a path he could have stumbled down as well. Murnane became a priest at the age of 18 and says he was very much the type he despises, tied to ritual, an unquestioning subscriber to the system until he “saw the light”.
In his mind, the church has been ruined by clericalism - the elevation of priests to some sort of higher, semi-holy status - but he says the church isn’t the priests, it is the people. He’s always advocated for small groups of people praying without a hierarchy, and says in a world of diminishing religious attendance, it is the only future. “It will become a cult,” he says, “and people in their millions will have walked away… it’s begun.”
And yet, he says, while he moved out of the Dominican community when he realised while writing the book that he needed to make a statement, he says he will remain a member of the order until he dies. The Dominican provincial (leader), he says, told him he couldn’t move out, and he couldn’t publish. Murnane felt too far down the track with both, and refused - leading to his effective banishment. But he says he is still on good terms with his Dominican colleagues. “It’s like people that are racist - you can’t turn them suddenly, it is a conversion.”
While it may not have gone down well with his own kind, so far he says the book has been well received. The morning we talk, he’s just rung the Auckland library to ask if they are getting any in, and was enthused to hear they already had three copies.
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It was a fortnight long visit, with launches in Christchurch and Auckland and an interregnum on the Otaki farm of Adrian Leason, another of the Waihopai Three.
Leason has a collection of cottages and buses for the homeless on his property, and Murnane delightedly details how he shared his ride back to Auckland with an inquisitive Dobermann and friend of Leason’s who had loved driving since he stole his first car at the age of nine.
After his time in Auckland, Murnane spent four years in the unsettled Solomon Islands, and was destined for Papua New Guinea before being hospitalised with peritonitis and instead returning to Melbourne. It allowed him to be a regular at Pell’s 2018 trial, where Pell was convicted of the sexual abuse of two young boys, a sentence overturned on appeal.
Once Pell was found guilty, priests were sent talking points for their Sunday sermons, stressing Pell was still pleading his innocence. Murnane instead delivered a homily to his parishioners in Camberwell, suburban Melbourne, in which he was critical of Pell, including his record as a bishop in dealing with complaints of sexual abuse.
He says about 15 of the congregation walked out, led by the son of an influential adviser to the bishop, and he was asked not to circulate the text of his sermon - but it had already been sent out by supporters and picked up by media.
He says a colleague said Pell would sue him. “I said ‘I don’t think he will, he’s never sued anyone’.”
Standing against the church on Pell, he says, was like any of his rebellions - just something he had to do. “Once I had made my mind up, you just take step after step, and I didn’t react too much at the time. You just do it. It is a thing that should be done, so you just plan and proceed ... you take a deep breath.”
Death, where is thy sting?
How much longer Murnane can fight the good fight is uncertain. His health isn’t great - he suffers polymyalgia - an inflammatory disorder causing muscle pain and stiffness - and has had two bouts of cancer. Illnesses, he says, “are a benefit, if you see them rightly. They are a great way of insight into how we are, how long we have left, what’s next, who is looking after us. I am grateful for the illnesses”.
He agrees that he is a man at peace, and he says he is as happy as he can ever remember being. And death? Like it says in Corinthians - death has no victory over him. Asked what’s next for him, he says: “How long have I got? I am 82, and reasonably infirm of body. I’m looking forward to death. I love life, I love every day, but what is there to be afraid of? You get to meet the transcendent… I hope to be alive a bit longer, but I am not afraid of death.”