catholic church jobkeeper
(Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

I do occasionally wonder what God thinks of the Roman Catholic Church. The focused sophistication of its manipulations would put Machiavelli to shame. Maybe he just admires its survival instinct, because that is a marvel to behold.

The Australian arm of the church, it turns out, has been collecting JobKeeper. Not only that, but the church bureaucracy has been writing to its priests who, in their capacity as its “employees” have been receiving the federal money, asking them to pay between $500-700 a fortnight of it back. To the church. Which intends to keep it.

Okay, let’s just pause for breath there, because that’s a lot to unpack. First: why is the Catholic Church getting JobKeeper, exactly? Is it not one of the wealthiest institutions on earth? Is it not a not-for-profit charitable institution, dedicated to Christ’s message of poverty and giving? Does it not have an asset base estimated to be worth more than $30 billion, in Australia alone?

Yep, but it’s still getting, and banking, the money. But the second thing: JobKeeper is designed as a wage subsidy, to help employers cover their payrolls while they suffer through the COVID-caused downturn. The money, by law, must go to the employees. It is illegal for the employer to keep any of it. It is in fact a criminal offence, as the government keeps insisting.

The ABC uncovered that the Diocese of Parramatta in Sydney has 41 priests on JobKeeper, and that it has tried various approaches towards keeping up to half of the money for itself. 

Initially this was framed as skimming off the top, but that’s flat-out illegal. Then the Diocese changed tack, asking the priests instead to “voluntarily donate” the cash back to the church. Not illegal, unless it’s coercion, but the church doesn’t do coercion, so I guess that’s completely kosher then.

Third thing — and hold me back here — excuse me, the priests are employees? This is the same Catholic Church which constructed the infamous Ellis Defence under the clever eye of Cardinal Pell, the purpose of which was to successfully enable it to avoid legal and financial liability for the acts of child sexual abuse perpetrated by its clergy members over decades and decades.

That goes back to John Ellis, who was serially sexually abused as an altar boy in the 1970s by Father Aidan Duggan. When, many years later, he tried to sue the church, the NSW Court of Appeal ruled that he couldn’t. The church, it found, did not exist as a legal entity and therefore didn’t employ anyone, and its assets were held in a trust that could not be got at by the victims of its priests. The only person Ellis could sue was Duggan, who was dead.

The Ellis Defence was maintained by Pell and the church until the child abuse royal commission brought the whole pious edifice to the ground. Among its effects was legislation that now effectively overrides the defence and makes the church’s assets vulnerable to victims who choose to sue.

All well and good, but the whole underlying justification of the church’s machinations was that the priests, brothers, monsignors, bishops and whatevers who wear its glittering robes and swing its incense-filled baubles are not its employees. Full. Stop.

So, why are they getting JobKeeper? Well, enter the generous benefactors that we call the Morrison government. The church’s artifice in having no employees among its clergy placed it outside JobKeeper’s rules, and it did not qualify on their behalf. However, that was only a temporary problem, because — as the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, happily explained to the flock in Catholic Weekly — “the federal government was persuaded to extend the JobKeeper allowance to clergy and employees in parishes and the archdiocese”.

Remember Scott Morrison announcing that rule change in one of his many media conferences? No? Must have slipped his mind. Anyway, for reasons that we will never be told but let’s not be surprised if the word “Hillsong” has something to do with it, JobKeeper was stretched to accommodate the churches with precisely the same flexibility that has proved impossible for the government to extend to the now moribund arts, tourism and entertainment sectors.

Again, no law broken, all above board. 

We can argue over the fiscal merit of giving taxpayer cash, under a program supposed to exist solely to keep the economy afloat and workers employed, to wildly rich religious institutions that clearly don’t need it and already benefit from extremely generous treatment at our cost.

What is not up for debate is the deep, rich, shameless hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. Been raped by a priest? Sorry, the church has no responsibility for that.

But when there are billions of dollars being shovelled in our names to any organisation that needs a hand getting the people for whom it is legally responsible through the COVID crisis? Oh yes, those priests are ours. Money please, ka-ching.

I’m sorry. This is too much.

Should the Catholic Church stop getting JobKeeper? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.