Spirituality on Sydney’s streets

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Fr Paul O’Donoghue refers to his NSW Police Bible. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Not just a chaplain but a sign of hope amid evil

When police head out on the beat each day they carry an extra layer of protection in addition to their bullet-proof vest … the prayers of Catholic Chaplain Fr Paul O’Donoghue.

The veteran priest has been the Senior State Chaplain for the NSW Police Force for more than 10 years and sees his role quite simply as “serving those who serve and protecting those who protect.”

He is one of around 60 chaplains representing all major denominations to minister to the spiritual welfare of employees, former employees, widows, widowers and their immediate families, and hold a crucial behind-the-scenes role beyond the time they spend at a crime scene.

“I guess there’s not really much difference between a priest and a police officer – we both deal with evil, it’s as simple as that” – Fr Paul O’Donoghue

Whenever they are called, no matter the time of day, or how tired or hungry they may be, they respond, ready to bring spiritual aid and comfort to those most in need, working as a team and sharing the inadequacy of knowing what to say in times of trauma.

Fr Paul has attended most of the critical incidents in the state including the Lindt Café siege, the Curtis Cheng murder outside Parramatta Police Station, the Lin family murders at Epping, the south-coast bushfires, and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic as well as countless other car accidents, drug overdoses, domestic issues, robberies and everything in between.

Fr O’Donaghue leads the coffin of Tim Proctor who died in a crash at Lucas Heights in September 2019.

He has been to more crime scenes than he can remember, married countless officers and blessed thousands of new police before they embarked on the difficult and often dangerous profession. He laughs as he admits the only sentence he can hand out is a decade of the Rosary.

However reflecting on the role of the police chaplain he said the most powerful weapon he can give the boys and girls in blue is hope. Dealing with some of “the worst of the worst” everyday can take its toll and he is there to pick up the pieces. He has a prepared answer when asked ‘why God would let this happen’ admitting he doesn’t know the answer but promises to have that conversation with him when he gets to heaven.

“The more I think about it I guess there’s not really much difference between a priest and a police officer – we both deal with evil, it’s as simple as that,” he said. “Sometimes I think to myself ‘God I don’t know what the hell I’m meant to be doing here but can you please help me and give me the wisdom to know what to do in this situation.

“I am there to support lay vocations. The Second Vatican Council said laity are important for the stuff they are doing in the world for example marriages, families etc and police are important because they bring about peace in the world. It’s a different way of looking at my own vocation against theirs.

“A chaplain is sent out to every critical incident in NSW, and it’s not the chaplain we are sending, we are sending someone who is a sign of hope to those people who have fired a gun, been in a chase and somebody’s been killed and their world’s falling in on them.

“The chaplain is somebody saying despite all this don’t let it get on top of you, there is hope among all the crap. I have actually discovered there are a lot of lessons the police can teach us to be better priests, even those who are atheists but who have an inane sense of how to treat people with human dignity.”

The NSW Police Bible. Police chaplains are there for the boys and girls in blue whenever they need them. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Ordained to the priesthood in 1979, the then 25-year-old assistant priest at St Columbkille, Corrimal within the Wollongong Diocese, said his vocation was something he was drawn to from an early age due to inspiration from a “cranky Irish priest who had a heart of gold”.

“Fr John Purcell was a big motivator because of his sense of appreciation for the Blessed Sacrament as well as being a very generous-spirited, social minded person,” he said. “Despite being a cranky old thing he’d hate anybody finding that out he really was a really good bloke.

“He was fairly significant in me joining the priesthood. You are talking about the fact that God chooses somebody to do something he’s not capable of doing himself.

A striking image of the priesthood

“Once ordained I’d only been in the parish a couple of weeks but I’ll always remember coming home one night and seeing the parish priest Fr Morrie Rossa asleep on the lounge with a single bottle of beer beside him and the nun who was principal at the school going cranky at him for resting but he was quite simply exhausted.

“And in a strange way at that moment I thought that was such a great image of the priesthood … giving yourself completely to the people.”

It was during the Wood Royal Commission and as an honorary chaplain at Berrima Gaol that Fr Paul realised there were some really good men ending up in jail, and wondered whether it was as much of a reflection on the community as it was on the men themselves.

While they may not have been innocent, he felt they had the right to be supported and after meeting Police Chaplain Fr Jim Boland and being impressed with the work he did, took over from him once he retired.

Fr Paul O’Donaghue outside the Sydney Police Centre. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

“Corruption in the police force is not corruption in the police. It’s corruption in the whole of society and it’s not just police, it’s all of us,” he said.

“If we don’t want corrupt police we have to be prepared to support them and I could see the police chaplaincy and Jim Boland was achieving that.” Over the past 10 years Fr Paul has seen it all, however one incident that sticks in his mind left him unable to recall the words to a prayer ingrained in him for as long as he can remember.

“I had attended a car accident near Wollongong where a whole family had been killed and the sergeant acting as an inspector said to the troops ‘it’s pretty gory down there. If you don’t need to look don’t’,” he said.

“I remember saying to him ‘do you mind if I go down and say a prayer, I’m a priest and I just feel a bit awful that I’m not praying for them’. You wanna bring God and hope into the situation so I went down and I can remember I was really emotional and I couldn’t remember the words to The Our Father. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get the words out, I remember starting and stopping, it was the emotions that were hitting me.”

“I HAVE ACTUALLY DISCOVERED THERE ARE A LOT OF LESSONS THE POLICE CAN TEACH US TO BE BETTER PRIESTS”

Fr Paul readily admits police have taught him to see goodness in the world … something he needs to survive in his role as police chaplain.

He said being the support for those who see the worst takes its toll and a daily reminder he also needs to lean on others from time to time. “I have to be very careful because if I’m not finding someone to talk to I could go under too,” he said. “I’m supported by other chaplains, psychologists who I talk to occasionally, fellow priests, Fr Chris Sarkis from the Wollongong Diocese wouldn’t know how important he is to me but he’s a great support, as well as of course my family.

“I don’t cry a lot but it wouldn’t worry me if I did, I don’t think I always have to be stoic but I do try and wait until I get home and think “gee that’s overwhelming”, but it’s just the nature of the job.”

Assistant Commissioner, Commander Central Metropolitan Region, Michael Willing agrees that while police chaplains are a vital support to many people, police also offer some form of support to them in return.

A ‘mutual covenant’ that makes all the difference

He said they are a critical and essential part of how the NSW Police Force manages the welfare of its people. “It really is a mutual covenant, I do think that the giving and receiving of care and support is a shared thing,” he said. “I see how the chaplains have a sense of pride and admiration for the police they interact with which not only gives our chaplains a level of reassurance that we have a collective level of resilience that gets us through tough times, but I do think that they learn from us as well.

“The role involves ‘being present’ in both good and challenging times and sometimes just being there, or even knowing that a police chaplain is available, makes all the difference to police employees.

“While our organisation has its own psychologists and access to a variety of support programs, the ‘informality’ of having access to a police chaplain is often what makes the difference between someone reaching out when they need to and continuing to battle with an issue in silence.

“Even now as an Assistant Commissioner, when the focus is often rightly on our employees, I appreciate the times when a chaplain walks through my door just to say hello and ask how I am going as ‘the boss.’ It sometimes makes all the difference between a good and a not so good day and it always puts a smile on my face.”

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