Gay with God: The life and times of a turbulent priest By Julian Punch

Reviewed by Gerard Henderson

  • Publisher: Red Planet Print Management, 2017
  • ISBN:  9780648099604
  • RRP: $ 34.99

 Question: How does the first time author of a self-published book get to do a 30 minute interview with Jane Hutcheon on the ABC TV One Plus One program?  Answer: Make your inaugural work an attack on the Catholic Church in general and Cardinal George Pell in particular.  That’s how. And so it came to pass that Gay with God: The life and times of a turbulent priest ran on One Plus One on 8 September 2017.  The producers were Tanya Nolan and Annie White. Ms Hutcheon asked six questions about George Pell – despite the fact that Julian Punch and George Pell have not met for over half a century.

Meet Julian Punch.  Born in May 1938 in London, he was the eldest of five children who arrived with his parents William (an Anglican) and Imelda (a Catholic) in Australia a decade later.  As a boy, Julian demonstrated empathy and courage.  He has never got over the “unrelenting sadness” experienced when his Airedale dog was killed on a main road near the family house in Melbourne.  In September 1955, Julian (then 17) and his younger brother Robert (aged 12) rescued the three youngest children, plus the family dog Rusty, from a fire in their home in the Melbourne suburb of Black Rock.  It was Rusty who drew attention to the fire and Julian went back to rescue him after the other children had been saved. As a young man who did his secondary schooling at St Bede’s Mentone, Julian was traumatised by receiving a strap from a De La Salle brother for errors in the mathematics class.  He maintains that this was done for reasons of “sexual gratification” – overlooking the fact that corporal punishment was common in most schools during the first six decades of the 20th Century.

In his late seventies, Julian Punch feels that he has “a duty to explain my life’s journey” – from birth until now:

I wrote this book to share the path that I have trodden and my pilgrimage to the stage of spirituality and commitment where I now exist.

Sounds self-important?  Sure does.  Julian Punch’s “duty” to share the path he has trodden takes over 200 pages – in which the author acknowledges virtually no personal flaws.  There is one exception – a failure to keep in contact with some family members and personal friends.  Otherwise, Punch regards himself as manifesting few consequences of The Fall. However, he has been much sinned against – it seems.

Yet a fair assessment of this memoir leads to the conclusion that the author is self-centred, passive-aggressive, uncharitable and ungrateful – with a tendency to embellish stories to suit his case.  Punch acknowledges that he possesses a “sense of righteousness” and is wont to experience “a high state of paranoia”. Also, he claims to have suffered “persecution” at the hands of his personal enemies.  However, for a man who parades his current “spirituality”, Punch sure can hate.

For all its weaknesses, Gay with God tells an interesting tale about the Australian Catholic Church between 1950 and 1990. As the author puts it with respect to his sexuality:

As the eldest and thus the one who had to be responsible and support my parents and brothers and sisters, this [sexuality] became an increasing issue as I moved into adolescence and the conflict of my sexuality increased. Even at the age of five I understood that I was different because I was romantically linked to men, which became more sexually specific as I went through puberty. I also understood that I could not disclose this to anyone because it would set me apart and I started to understand the awful Catholic attitude to gay people. This exaggerated sense of responsibility became an excuse to deny to myself that I yearned for close boyfriends while everyone else was talking about girlfriends. I sought girlfriends in a need to be normal and I regret that I misled and probably hurt some of them.

Julian joined the secular Boy Scouts and had sexual relations “with other scouts of my own age, 15, 16 or 17”. Soon after, he decided that enrolling for entry into the Catholic priesthood would be “an acceptable way to live and also to make a difference in the world”.  The author does not claim that he was pressured to train to be a priest. It was an act of free-will when he was over 18 years of age.

Julian Punch entered the Corpus Christi College seminary, at Werribee in Victoria, in 1958. As he explains the position:

As a teenager, the priesthood was very attractive because I wanted to lead my life in a meaningful and socially responsible way, It also meant that I did not have to answer the inevitable question: “Why aren’t you married?”  I would soon meet many other young men travelling down the same road.

 At that time, there was no open discussion about the legitimacy of being gay and studying for the priesthood. The status quo was similar to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy applied to gays and lesbians serving in the US military, which prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual service members or applicants, while barring openly gay, lesbian or bisexual persons from military service. When I applied to study for the priesthood, initially for the Archdiocese of Melbourne, the psychological assessment requested by the then archbishop, Daniel Mannix, ostensibly excluded young gay men by asking the question: “Do you have, or have you had, a girlfriend?” The profiling was so ludicrous that it became code for identifying the other gays by asking how they answered the question.  There were a lot of invented girlfriends.

The teaching of the Catholic Church at the time was that, outside a traditional marriage between a man and a woman, sex was sinful.  This applied to heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. Consequently, in male seminaries and female convents, what was called “particular friendships” or “special friendships” were frowned upon.  But so was sex before marriage engaged in by heterosexual couples.

In any event, Punch maintains that the ban on special friendships in the seminary “was widely ignored”. According to the author, “older students courted younger students, who were referred to as ‘colts’”.  Punch had “close male friendships” at Werribee.  Towards the end of Gay with God, the author claims that “a quarter of Australia’s Catholic priests were gay in the 1970s”.

The Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, headed by Justice Peter McClellan, focused on the sacrament of confession and involuntary celibacy as factors in clerical child abuse among Catholic priests and brothers – particularly in the period 1950 to 1989. This despite the fact that there is scant evidence that clerical pedophiles confessed this crime in confession or that there is a link between involuntary celibacy and child sex abuse.   Moreover, Justice McClellan and his fellow commissioners all but overlooked the issue of homosexuality in the Catholic Church and other institutions. The fact is that, until recent decades, sex between men was illegal in Australia – consequently homosexuals were expected to be celibate according to both the teachings of the church and the law of the state.

A couple of years after Punch enrolled as a seminarian at Corpus Christi, fellow students included George Pell (now a cardinal) and Denis Hart (now Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne). Six decades later, Punch still expresses anger at the way Pell and Hart disapproved of and (allegedly) reported special friendships to their superiors.  Punch accuses Pell and Hart – without any evidence – of victimising gays in the seminary.

The author writes that, in 1961, he was ordered by the rector “to take time out” on account of “a discreet affectionate physical relationship with one student in particular”. He went to live with his parents on the Gold Coast but returned to the new Corpus Christi College, located in the Melbourne suburb of Glen Waverley, in 1966.  Not long after, Punch approached “the Archbishop of Hobart, Guilford Young, who was renowned for his sympathy for people in my situation” with a view to becoming a priest in Tasmania. He acknowledges that, without Young’s support, he could not have become a Catholic priest.

In other words, Archbishop Young invited Punch, a known gay, to work as a priest in his archdiocese.  This was a compassionate decision by an archbishop whom Punch concedes “was renowned for his sympathy for people in my position”. Punch was ordained by Archbishop Young in St Mary’s Cathedral on 22 May 1970.  Punch resigned from the priesthood on 12 May 1981 – after a controversial decade. As he acknowledges in Gay with God, his difficulties with Young did not turn on his sexuality – but rather his political engagements and his own disillusionment with the Catholic Church to which he had voluntarily signed up to as a priest.  These days many a disillusioned ex-Catholic cleric overlooks the fact that no one has to be a Catholic, let alone a priest.

Put simply, soon after his return to priesthood studies in 1966, Punch took up fashionable left-wing causes of the day.  By the 1970s he embraced liberation theology, a left-wing movement which had its roots in Latin America.  Tasmania was a politically conservative place during the decade when Punch was a priest.  As documented in Gay with God, Punch took leading roles in various protest movements over the Vietnam War, South Africa and Indonesia’s rule in East Timor and more besides. All with his self-proclaimed “sense of righteousness”.  All of which was embarrassing for his archbishop who had the responsibility of running an archdiocese consisting of Catholics of varying political and social beliefs and who had an interest in maintaining a cordial relationship with the Tasmanian and Commonwealth governments.

One of the Punch protest activities involved property damage – secretly taking South African produced fish fingers from supermarket freezers on Friday and hiding them elsewhere in the store where they would rot over the weekend.  Even today, Punch does not understand why this action enraged many Catholics, including Brian Harradine – the secretary of the Tasmanian Trades and Labour Council. Harradine was interested in the jobs of Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association members and the businesses which employed them. Unlike Punch, Harradine was aware that a small protest in Hobart would not end the apartheid regime in South Africa and was conscious that profitable businesses provided employment for union members.

It is understandable that the Archbishop of Hobart was embarrassed by the high profile political protests of a relatively junior priest.  Yet, in public, Young defended Punch – even when he was briefly arrested by Tasmanian Police.  In the late 1970s, Punch set up a drop-in centre at what was called MacIntyre House in the working class suburb of Chigwell in Hobart.  In March 1979, he was interrogated for a couple of hours as to whether he was running what in Tasmanian law was then termed a “disorderly house” – this was aimed at confronting prostitution and “vagabond behaviour”.

Punch was briefly detained in police custody before appearing before a magistrate, who remanded him on bail on his own cognisance. The charge was subsequently dropped. Punch acknowledges that he was told by the Labor Police Minister at the time that a complaint had been made by a disgruntled neighbour.  This is a common occurrence in such circumstances.  But Punch does not believe this. He maintains, without any evidence, that his troubles were caused by the operations of B.A. Santamaria’s anti-communist National Civic Council (NCC) operatives in Tasmania.  The Catholic activist Santamaria was influenced by Archbishop Daniel Mannix (1864-1963) and was on friendly terms with Archbishop Young. Punch told One Plus One that, by the 1970s, Santamaria’s NCC “had taken over every trade union in Tasmania” along with “the universities”.  This statement is false.

Punch, who admits to occasions of paranoia, seems to regard those who disagreed with his political and theological views as a priest in Tasmania in the 1970s as agents of the NCC. In fact, the organisation had only one operative in the state at the time – Rocky Mimmo – and his focus was on politics in general and the trade union movement in particular.  Mimmo refutes the allegation that he campaigned against Punch and sought to have him arrested – Mimmo had other priorities.

Punch also believes that the NCC controlled the Tasmanian Police – at the time of his arrest – when the police minister was a part of the Labor government.  He even claims that there was “little difference” between the NCC in the 1970s and the “fascist determinism of Hitler’s Germany”.  All this is delusional.

Put simply, Punch hates – literally hates – social conservatives and anti-communists in the Catholic community.   For example, he accuses George Pell and Denis Hart of “appalling treatment of victims of sexual abuse”.  Punch ignores the fact that, when Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, George Pell (with the assistance of Denis Hart) set up the Melbourne Response to handle clerical child sexual abuse in the church. This was a world-first in the handling of clerical child abuse.  Punch also distorts Cardinal Pell’s (voluntarily given) evidence to the Royal Commission.

The penultimate chapter of Gay with God contains a rant against Cardinal Pell – which happens to contain a number of gross factual errors. Here Punch boasts that David Marr flew to Hobart to interview him before the publication of Marr’s 2013 book on Cardinal Pell titled The Prince.  Marr certainly did not speak to an objective source in this instance. Like many a journalist, Marr has a habit of believing what people tell him – if it so happens to suit his narrative at the time.

Punch accuses George Pell of having established “a rule of terror” at Corpus Christi College some six decades ago.  At Page 176, he links this to the story he “related earlier” (at Page 60) about “two students who suicided in their first year” at Werribee.   Yet at Page 60, Punch concedes that he has no evidence that this tragedy ever occurred:

I will never forget two young men who were attracted to one another; they were badly bullied by a prefect and reported to the authorities.  It was rumoured that they had ritualistically taken off and folded their soutanes near the main gate and gone by train to Melbourne, where they suicided together by jumping off one of the city’s highest buildings. Attempts to verify this story have been unsuccessful….

So, at Page 60, Punch acknowledged that he has no evidence to back the rumour that two Corpus Christi students committed suicide circa 1960.  But at Page 176 he accuses George Pell as being responsible for a “rule of terror” which led to the (alleged) suicides.  How unprofessional can an author get? There is no evidence that such a tragic event ever took place – and Punch has not been able to support his claim by citing contemporary police, coronial or media reports.

Julian Punch made much of the suicide allegation on the One Plus One interview without challenge – suggesting that neither the interviewer Jane Hutcheon nor her producers read Gay with God from cover to cover before interviewing its author.  Punch’s claim has subsequently been made the subject of an editor’s note of clarification on the ABC’s website.  Also, the ABC TV journalists did not pick up any of the numerous errors in Punch’s inaugural book. For example, the author’s claim that Brian Harradine was a “long-serving” Democratic Labor Party senator. Not so – Brian Harradine was an Independent Senator from Tasmania from December 1975 to June 2005.  The DLP was formally wound up in 1978.  Before he became an Independent senator, Harradine was a member of the Australian Labor Party – from which he was expelled for complaining about the influence of the Communist Party of Australia on the ALP.

Not long after he left the priesthood, Julian Punch joined the Tasmanian public service and retired in 2007. Between joining the seminary in 1958 and quitting the priesthood in 1981, Julian Punch had his expenses covered by the Catholic Church. Later he was supported by Commonwealth and Tasmanian taxpayers.  In a material sense, Julian Punch has led a comfortable life. Even so, Gay with God is an embittered book by an embittered author.  But one which contains some valuable insights into a previous era.

Gerard Henderson is the author of Santamaria – A Most Unusual Man (MUP 2015).