For 62 years, Peter Murnane has been a Dominican priest.
He stayed that way during the storm after he spilled blood on the floor of the US consul’s office. When he provided sanctuary to asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui. When he broke into the Waihopai spy base, he was prosecuted and acquitted. Even when he gave a sermon explaining why he thought Australia’s best Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, was not a good guy.
Only now, at 82, are Dominicans seemingly fed up with their rebellious priest after Murnane refused instructions to pulp his new book, Clerical Errors, which clinically examines the sad record of sexual abuse. of the Catholic Church, presents a long treatise on Pell and argues that the whole church should be dismantled.
Ironically, the Dominicans called him a “priest not in good standing”, a label normally attached to pedophiles and other deviants.
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This left Murnane entirely carefree.
Unwilling to support a system he thinks is rotten anymore, he has refused to take masses, left Dominican property and lives as a “semi-suburban hermit” on a state pension, “carefully peeling my potatoes and as always, speaking his mind.
“I know I’m doing the right thing and saying the right thing,” he says in his soft, mumbling voice.
“I may be doing it a bit without diplomacy, but I’m not a good negotiator.”
‘You breathe deeply’
For two decades, Australian-born Murnane led the Dominicans – a small Catholic order – in New Zealand, living simply and communally in a house in central Auckland. And yet, despite his monastic existence, he ventured into the headlines with some regularity.
In 2003, he was granted an audience with the United States 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 war in Iraq. The consul, he said, was “very wise”, kept him talking and refused to call the guards.
“We kept talking for 10 minutes…then he said ‘you have to go now’ and we ended up 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, has been “a bit of contempt, not much admiration”. Bishop of Auckland Pat Dunn apologized on his behalf; Murnane, unrepentant, rejected the apology. “It was just 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 in Auckland prison in Paremoremo, and he visited him with a French-speaking bishop before joining the campaign for his release.
Eventually, he agreed to house Zaoui under curfew while his case for staying in New Zealand progressed freely through the Supreme Court. He remembers three chaotic years, but a “charming boy. He was a scholar and a family man”. This prompted a profile article in a newspaper, which gloated over 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 had yielded little. He suggested a more direct approach.
Along with collaborators Adrian Leason and Sam Land, they took a 2 a.m. trip to “crack the joint.”
Symbolically, because of the bible verse about turning swords into plowshares and spears into sickles, they took a $10 Bunnings sickle to perform the deed, but found bolt cutters more useful for getting through two fences in trellis.
“We planned very carefully, but it all went cream – we were daddy’s army,” he says, amused. However, they shot down one of the radomes – the golf ball-shaped structures that protect radar antennas – before placidly awaiting arrest. Murnane recalls five nights in a ‘very cold’ Blenheim police cell, a two-year wait for trial and an acquittal in 2010 – then a £1.2million claim for damages dollars that he was still convinced (and correct) would fail.
And so it wasn’t until the age of 80, he says happily, that he received a criminal conviction – in Australia, for protesting against their intelligence services. He now faces further criminal charges, which he calls “ridiculous”, with police claiming to have footage of him taking part in the Blockade climate change protests in Sydney. He says he was 800km from Melbourne and he can prove it. It looks like another stoush he’s looking forward to.
He sees it all simply as his job. “It’s the role of a Christian to tell the truth – every Christian, and the priest is a leader, by accident and by design, so yes. But few people see it that way.
Likewise, the church has had very few whistleblowers over the years regarding their dismal record on sexual abuse. But Murnane spends a chapter of his book weaving his way through summaries and examples of their behavior from all corners of the globe.
“What’s horrible about the institution is that it trains us, to conform, not to criticize, otherwise you lose your job, your income, your reputation – it’s self-preserving and there’s a evil dimension in there”, he laments. .
He considers it a path he could have taken too. Murnane became a priest at the age of 18 and says he was truly the type he despises, bound to ritual, a die-hard subscriber to the system until he “sees the light”.
In his mind, the church has been ruined by clericalism – the elevation of priests to some kind of higher, semi-holy status – but he says the church is not the priests, it is the people. He has always advocated for small groups of people praying without hierarchy, and says that in a world of declining religious attendance, that is the only future. “It will become a cult,” he said, “and millions of people will have moved away…it has begun.”
And yet, he says, while he left the Dominican community when he realized while writing the book that he needed to make a statement, he says he will remain a member of the order until ‘when he died. The Dominican provincial (head), he says, told him he couldn’t move and he couldn’t publish. Murnane felt too far down the track with the two and declined – leading to his effective banishment. But he says he is still on good terms with his Dominican colleagues. “It’s like people who are racist – you can’t suddenly turn them, it’s a conversion.”
Although he may not have been well received by his people so far, he says the book has been well received. The morning we spoke, he had just called Auckland Library to ask if they were getting any, and was delighted to hear they already had three copies.
It was a fortnight’s visit, with launches in Christchurch and Auckland and an interregnum at 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 happily details how he shared his drive back to Auckland with a curious Dobermann and friend of Leason’s who had enjoyed driving since he had flown his first car at the age of nine. .
After his time in Auckland, Murnane spent four years in the volatile Solomon Islands and was destined for Papua New Guinea before being hospitalized with peritonitis and returning to Melbourne. This allowed him to be a regular at Pell’s trial in 2018, where Pell was found guilty of sexually abusing two young boys, a sentence overturned on appeal.
After Pell was found guilty, the priests were given talking points for their Sunday sermons, emphasizing that Pell was still pleading his innocence. Murnane instead delivered a homily to his parishioners in Camberwell, a Melbourne suburb, in which he criticized Pell, including his record as a bishop in handling sexual abuse complaints.
He says about 15 members of the congregation came out, led by the son of an influential adviser to the bishop, and he was asked not to broadcast the text of his sermon – but it had already been sent by supporters and picked up by the media.
He says a colleague said Pell would sue him. “I said ‘I don’t think he will, he’s never sued anyone’.”
Standing up against Pell’s Church, he said, was like any of his rebellions – just something he had to do. “Once I had made my decision, you just had to take it step by step, and I didn’t react too much at that point. You just did. It’s a thing that should be done, so all you have to do is plan and do it…you breathe deeply.
Death, where is your sting?
How much longer Murnane will be able to fight the good fight is uncertain. His health is not great – he suffers from polymyalgia – an inflammatory disorder causing muscle pain and stiffness – and has had two bouts of cancer. Diseases, he says, “are an advantage, if you see them correctly. They are a great way to understand how we are, how much time we have left, what awaits us, who takes care of us. I am grateful for the illnesses”.
He agrees that he is a peaceful man and he says he is as happy as he can remember being. And the dead ? As it says in Corinthians – death has no victory over him. When asked what is the next step for him, he answers: “How much time do I have? I am 82 years old and reasonably disabled. I look forward to death. I love life, I love every day, but what to be afraid of? You meet the transcendent… I hope to live a little longer, but I am not afraid of death.