The demise of ABC Radio's Sunday Night with John Cleary

Yesterday I was catching up with a friend who spent many years in religious media. We discussed the week’s news of the axing of John Cleary’s Sunday Night religious talk program on ABC local radio stations. As an old timer, I was prompted to think back to the program’s early days in the late 80s.

John presented the program for much of its 28 years, though it did begin with a team of three presenters - ABC head of religion David Millikan, Movement for the Ordination of (Anglican) Women convenor Patricia Brennan, and Sydney northern beaches Baptist pastor John Hirt.

The program was a tribute to Millikan’s vision and negotiating skills. He had earlier been a key player in establishing the still existing Compass program on ABC TV, and now he identified the unloved late Sunday night timeslot on the metropolitan and regional radio network and persuaded higher management that a religious program belonged there.

As the program’s first producer, I was as inexperienced as the three presenters. It wasn’t long before it was thought that the veteran broadcaster and Sydney Anglican Kel Richards should be brought in, with John Cleary and myself both producing.

However it wasn’t going to work having a headstrong presenter in Richards and a headstrong producer in Cleary, especially with Kel wanting to evangelise and John seeing the program as a forum for intellectual debate. So within a month or two, John was the presenter and I was the producer, and we lasted together for most of the rest of my three or four years in the Religious Department, which I left in 1992.

As was the case with many radio programs at the time, it was the presenter who called the shots. I thought the program should have music and variety so that it would fit in better with other programs on what was the ABC’s popular network. John held sway with his commitment to a more serious intellectual discussion of a single topic for the program’s then two hour duration from 10:00 to midnight. I think he was right. It made for very stimulating listening, and it survived so long because management did not consider the ‘graveyard’ of late Sunday night worth worrying about.

I had mentioned to David Millikan the name of former Melbourne priest Terry Laidler, whom I’d worked with in my first ever media involvement, which was a religious discussion program with Melbourne University students on FOX FM Melbourne, that was actually not too dissimilar to Sunday Night. Terry ended up as presenter of Sunday Night before going on to present the Drive and Evenings programs on what was then 3LO in Melbourne. Later, ABC religious radio EP David Busch presented what was by then called Sunday Night Talk, for a number of years until the return of John Cleary.

The program gradually acquired more variety, including the much loved Inquisition quiz at midnight, which mirrored the 25 Question Quiz in the midnight timeslot on Nightlife on weeknights. But management seems to want much more homogeneity on the stations, and Sunday Night is finishing.

I have not tuned into to the program regularly for many years because I found it too stimulating and I could not get to sleep if I listened to it. I always listen to radio when I’m going to sleep, but I deliberately opt for much more bland content.

It was often said that the program was more suited to the more serious spoken word station Radio National, and indeed it was funded out of Radio National’s budget. But as far as I know, there were never any moves to shift Sunday Night from the local stations to Radio National, as had occurred with the long running documentary program Encounter, back in the early 1980s.

Instead of moving Sunday Night to Radio National, they are commencing a new program with the working title God Forbid and the very talented and engaging younger presenter James Carleton.

As far as I know, James has no specialist knowledge of religion, though he will ensure that, as much as it can be, it is a very good program (hopefully with a better title). There’s no doubt that effectively replacing Cleary with him represents not just generational change, but one of the final nails in the coffin of genuine religious expertise at the ABC and in Australia’s mainstream media in general.

The head of ABC Radio Michael Mason says the Nightline program that will replace Sunday Night will include some coverage of religion. But, as is the case with the press, where there are no longer any journalists specialising in religion, the lower level of expertise in those asking the questions will lead to less scrutiny of the fundamentalism that seems to be increasing in most areas of Australian religious life.


Sharing my story at the child abuse Royal Commission

Yesterday I had my private session at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It was about 'Sharing your story' and open to those who felt they had something to contribute to the Commission's findings and registered before the September deadline. 

I'd always thought that my experience of sexual abuse was too slight to be considered at the Royal Commission, but a staff member I know encouraged me to participate, and it turned out that I had much to tell the commissioner about the aspects of institutional life that fostered sexual abuse, and he and his team were certainly interested listeners to what I had to say in the one hour that I was allocated.

I spoke about the 'culture of disrespect' of the institutions I attended as a child in the 1970s, and how it takes a lifetime to get over the poor self-esteem you can have when you emerge from the institutions. I was part of the culture, which means that not only was I was bullied, but I too bullied when given the chance. Teachers and fellow students alike participated in the intimidation. 

I noted that there was very little actual sexual abuse I knew of at my Jesuit boarding school, although the effects of the bullying and other disrespectful behaviour could be just as traumatic and enduring as those we hear about in the horrific stories in the media. That was my experience. I was the only student I know of in my class who was at the receiving end of what can be technically classed as 'sexual abuse', although I feel that I was much more affected by the non-sexual abuse I experienced at the time. 

Paradoxically my abuser - whom I feel inclined to call my 'so-called' abuser - was also the teacher whom I feel treated me more respectfully than any of the other teachers during my years at school. However I'm open to the possibility that I have subconsciously edited my memory of the (one-off) event because I liked the priest who abused me and at times I've felt he was treated harshly in action taken against him by his other victims and their advocates. 

But I can also accept that it's just as likely that I have let him off lightly because any sexual abuse is a serious matter that cannot be excused at all. I bought the line of the Jesuit official whom I first mentioned it to, who minimised the incident by calling it 'low-level sexual abuse'. However a few years later, another high-level Jesuit argued that there are not degrees of sexual abuse and that I should treat the incident as a very serious matter.  

I also told the commissioner about a Christian brother from my primary school years who is currently serving a prison sentence for child sexual abuse. I described my feeling of elation when I heard of his conviction, a sense that justice had been done for me as well as all the other victims of his sexual and non-sexual abuse. There was nothing sexual about what I experienced, but his cruel and sadistic behaviour towards me had diminished my fragile self-esteem, and I'm not sure that I have ever recovered from it.

The Commission is encouraging me and the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of others who have shared their stories to write a brief account for a book to be placed in the National Library as a permanent memorial. I'm very much supportive of this, and I note that it flies in the face of the 2008 statement of the now Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher, who castigated those who were 'dwelling crankily ... on old wounds' caused by sexual abuse in the past.