Tuesday, 14 June 2011 09:21




CathBlog - Priest's detention centre shock

Published: June 13, 2011


 I recently visited the Scherger Detention Centre outside Weipa on the West Coast of the Gulf/Cape York.

I am the Administrator of the Sacred Heart Mission Parish in the Torres Strait and based in Thursday Island, but encompassing Bamaga and environs and Weipa, which I visit once a month.

On a recent visit, while enjoying the Community cuppa after Mass, I was approached by a lady from the Scherger Detention Authority who enquired of the possibility of my visiting the Centre.

She mentioned prayer of some kind, in view of the more recent growth in the number of male refugees from Sri Lanka who were joining a large contingent of men from Afghanistan. I explained I was only a visitor and referred her to the parish Administrator.


Since then the parish has organised itself into a rostered weekly visit of six members of the parish per visit who go armed with music, prayers, Holy Communion, an enormous woofer music blaster, huge dishes of food, plates, drinks, lollies, religious cards and rosary beads etc. etc. etc.

I was asked if I would celebrate Mass on my regular visit as the Sri Lankan men, all of whom had left family behind whom they were hoping to bring over when allowed into the Community or whose spouse etc. had been killed. I was told the men wanted Reconciliation and Mass particularly. I was only too happy to join the parish in this visit of mercy.

My visit however left me shocked and sick.

I had visited another detention Centre in Adelaide during the Vietnam War, but I was not prepared for the 20 foot double row of wire surrounding the camp, the desolation and isolation of the Centre in the Weipa red dirt bush, the lack of beauty, water, flowers, scenery, civilisation, comfort, home… of any kind.

Those who live in the area know it as a hot, humid, desolate affair, in no way inviting or welcoming, made passable by work, good wages, a boat, 4 wheel drive, amenities, fishing, water, creeks, rivers, holidays, a plane in and out, a road at least passable inn the Dry, family, the pub, the bowling green, Church, hospital etc. etc.

To see these bright young men crowding into the tent for Mass, their utter reverence, their utter attention as I spoke my words which were translated by one of their own who had a beautiful cross around his neck, and to hear their stories of desperation as they hang in there for nearly two years many of them left me feeling sick and deeply pained.

This is what my Country, the best in the world I am told, does to people seeking what we all take for granted, a home, peace, security, food, family, water, a garden, a car, and being able to walk freely around. I am not intending to write a political comment, but to register my pain at what our refugee solution, Pacific or otherwise, means in practice.

One young man was brought forward by his friends with the red raw marks of attempted suicide on his neck. It was in fact the interpreter of my words who heard the chair fall in the early hours of the morning and went to investigate. A few minutes later and the man would have been dead.

These men have surely suffered enough from their own civil war and now seek what is their right. I am not looking forward to my next visit. I feel afraid even as I type. I do not want to see the pain and hurt in those eyes again, and the deadly frustration of waiting, waiting, waiting … to be like me.

So many lined up for reconciliation I ended up giving them General Absolution. I felt the real sinners lay elsewhere. I do not want to go back and feel helpless.

Maybe I need to take to heart my own words to them on the Sunday of the Ascension that Jesus came to set us free with a freedom not even wire and desolation can deprive us of, and that as Nelson Mandela remarked sometimes those in confinement are sometimes more free than their jailers.

Father Laurie Bissett MSC is the parish priest of Thursday Island.