THE TEAM AND THE BUREAUCRATS
Distressed by the thought of the gutted church and the prospect of what was still to come, many parishioners were also bitterly disappointed at the lack of effective support from government conservation agencies. From the outset, they had sought government assistance to prevent the Team from remodelling St. Joseph’s. In addition to appeals to the National Trust, which nominally classified the church, parishioners had nominated St. Joseph’s for inclusion on the Historic Buildings Register as early as 11 May 1989. A letter sent to the Historic Buildings Council. (HBC) as a result of the Public Meeting in June also called for HBC intervention, and on 28 June 1989 the Classifications Committee of the HBC had resolved to examine the church building and land. Yet the bureaucrats, usually noted for their omnipresent and intrusive meddling in Australian life, were nowhere to be seen. What happened?
Apart from the natural reluctance of secular bodies to become embroiled in religious disputes, the fact is that government officials faced the same immovable obstacle as the counterrevolution — the Team. On top of their normally onerous workload it was just too much.
At the time of writing, the Historic Buildings Council was a branch of the Victorian Department of Planning and Environment. As Benalla hostilities raged and parishioners waited in vain for bureaucratic assistance, an article in the Melbourne Age pointed out that the Council was “understaffed and underfunded” and went on to reveal that “the organization is just treading water in what seems to be an ocean of requests for buildings to be listed on the Historic Buildings Register.” It further stated that the Council is “deluged with registration applications at the rate of about 250 a year. In contrast, only about 40 buildings a year are added to the register.”
Given this impossible situation, the HBC hardly needed the added aggravation of implacable newchurch clerics. It did what it could for the parish, keeping an eye on things through its Building Inspectors and eventually issuing an Interim Preservation Order (IPO) on 25 September 1989. An IPO temporarily places a building on the Register while the Council considers the merits of a permanent listing. While repairs may be undertaken following the imposition of an IPO, a permit is required for alterations, demolitions, etc. Two such permits were requested by the Team but at no stage was permission sought to demolish the altars. This seemed incredible yet altogether in keeping with the temperament of Team Ministry, as HBC officers themselves discovered.
“The Catholic Church always opposes registration,” one quiet and courteous staff member informed me. “The Church [the Team and authorities in Bendigo] kept saying it was a private political matter, a liturgical matter. They were incensed that a ‘small group of people, nearly hysterical about changes’ could cause such trouble.”
“How did you find the Team?” I asked.
“Throughout the process the architect has been very frustrated with the things that have been done and his suggestions have been ignored.”
I interrupted. “Did they have a permit to smash the altar?”
“Recent alterations to the altar have been carried out without a permit,” came the wary response. “But the necessity for one is questionable because the altar was not actually fixed. It was very heavy but not fixed to the floor. Had it been part of the building it would have needed a permit.”
“What about the other damage? The IPO didn’t stop the Team.”
“Usually an IPO works!” exclaimed the officer with a perplexed look, “but we gave them a permit which they stretched to the limit — beyond the limit.”
At this point, satisfied that I was ‘on-side’, another officer entered the discussion and released her pent-up frustration at the whole sordid affair.
“I was told it was only eight people [complaining] in a congregation of eight hundred people. We had three people dealing with it and every time we visited or made contact we were reassured that ‘nothing’s happening, no changes, it’s just a restoration’. Basically we were told stories. It doesn’t leave a very good impression of the Catholic clergy, especially with outsiders like myself.”
“I can imagine,” I proffered apologetically. “Tell me about it.
“For example, in relation to the altar they told me ‘We’re only moving it back six feet against the wall’. Next time I went it was in pieces on the floor! The other thing that disappointed me was that the original pressed metal ceiling was not restored to its original condition.”
“If it could be proved that they contravened an IPO,” I queried, “what are the penalties?”
The Historic Buildings Act was promptly secured and Section 39 pointed out. It states that any person who contravenes or fails to comply with an IPO shall be liable to penalties ranging from $5,000 – $10,000 fines or imprisonment or both.
I asked the obvious question.
“Most things were done very subtly, before the IPO was issued in September,” said one. “It would be very difficult to prove the case.”
So much for Section 39.
But despite its apparent failure in the eyes of the Catholic faithful, the Historic Buildings Council had not quite finished with the Benalla Team.