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The priest our spies framed: Fr Ugo Modotti

Australia's wartime intelligence services conspired with - among others - police to frame and convict an innocent man who was a Catholic priest. Sound familiar?

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As Australian Catholics face a struggle for religious freedom, a disturbing precedent has come to light

The saga of an innocent Catholic priest harassed by Australia’s WWII intelligence  apparatchiks forms one of many sordid episodes brought to light in a new book by Macquarie University academic, Dr John Fahey.

The book, Traitors and Spies: Espionage and Corruption in High Places in Australia 1901-50, explores the at-times farcical underbelly within Australia’s early – and often disorganised – intelligence milieu a culture riddled with prejudicial blunders and paranoia resulting in the bullying of harmless communities under the guise of national interests.

Dr Fahey, who previously served in Australia’s intelligence services, uncovered the details of the Modotti story as he trawled through the archives of Australia, MI5 and the CIA.

“there was severe anti-Catholic bigotry at the time”

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The wartime Italian Australian community was no exception to mistreatment at the hands of intelligence officials, especially Italian Jesuit Father Ugo Modotti SJ.

“The thing that bothered me about the Modotti affair was that they went to such an extent to entrap him,” Dr John Fahey told The Catholic Weekly.

“We must not ignore the fact that there was a severe anti-Catholic bigotry at the time [and] if Military Intelligence took a dislike to you, your life could be made utterly miserable. What they did to Modotti was exactly that.”

A naturalised Australian, Fr Ugo Modotti SJ was banished from this country forever. PHOTO: Italian Historical Society

Born in Basiliano, Italy in 1897, Fr Modotti trained as a priest at the Gregorian University in Rome and commenced his ministry in Bangalore, India where he served as principal of St Joseph’s College before taking his final vows in Calcutta in 1926.

With the growing influx of Italian migrants in Australia, Melbourne Archbishop Daniel Mannix asked Modotti to come to Australia to minister to the country’s growing Italian community. Fr Modotti was posted to Melbourne shortly before the onset of the Second World War in 1938 and it was within this cultural and geopolitical context that the Jesuit would fall under the scrutiny of the authorities.

A Jesuit falling under official scrutiny of ruling powers for advocating the wellbeing of the marginalised is not necessarily unusual.

But coinciding with the deterioration of diplomatic relations with Fascist Italy, Australian authorities began to view all Italian Australians –regardless of individual political opinion –  with heightened suspicion. In a country governed by the White Australia Policy, the prejudice was also cultural. The swarthier Italians were regarded by the White Anglo Saxon Protestant establishment in much the same light as Australia’s Irish Catholics.

With the onset of World War II and Italy allying itself to Germany militarily in 1940, Australian state governments began to sequester Australia’s Italian residents alongside Japanese and German Australians.

The policy was most severe in Queensland where Italian sugar cane growers were arrested and properties confiscated – resulting in the  deterioration of Australia’s sugar industry. Throughout this period, Fr Modotti continued to minister to Italian Prisoners of War and migrant Italian families – many of whom were without a breadwinner following the  internment of adult males.

Australian Military Intelligence somehow concluded that the Italian Jesuit was “a keen Fascist” who had “been actively engaged in Fascist propaganda since his arrival from Italy in 1938” and drafted a form for his internment. “This evidence appears to be nothing more than gossip,” said Fahey.

Nevertheless, the scheme was the first of many plots to bring down Fr Modotti – measures which according to Dr Fahey’s research, were approved by the-then Director General of Military Intelligence, Brigadier William Simpson and the Director of Security of Service, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wake. Wake is described by Dr Fahey as “probably the most corrupt individual to be employed by government anywhere in Australia.”

Jesuit priest Fr Ugo Modotti was target by Australia’s wartime intelligence agencies in a shameful episode now revealed in the new book on the country’s intelligence services by Dr John Fahey. PHOTO: Italian Historical Society

Fortunately for Fr Modotti,  the internment was prevented by the intervention of Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne who knew Fr Modotti and regarded his work highly.

This did not mean Fr Modotti was going to be left alone by Australian Military Intelligence who subsequently ordered Victorian Police to enforce a restriction order on the priest preventing him from leaving his neighbourhood.

Harassment of kitchen staff at his residence also commenced.  “These restrictions were so draconian [that] Fr Modotti was prevented from leaving his district and he could not even visit the Archbishop,” Dr Fahey told The Catholic Weekly.

The harassment caused  Archbishop Mannix to write to the Minister for the Army  to complain about the travel restrictions placed on Fr Modotti by the Victoria Police.

“Mannix had already shown one Australian government (fighting against conscription in the First World War) that he was not a man to be intimidated, and he made it clear that he was not just supportive of Modotti’s work but he had ordered Modotti to continue and placed Modotti under his direct authority,” Dr Fahey said.

Archbishop Mannix’s mantle guaranteed some degree of protection – and movement –  of Fr Modotti’s ministry to the Italian Australian community.

Nevertheless Australian Intelligence  concocted another shameful plot to frame the priest – this time through the Sacrament of Confession with the cooperation of an Italian-American US Army plant, Staff Seargent Frank Collucci. Codenamed GREEN and acting as an agent provocateur, Collucci was briefed to entrap Fr Modotti by pretending to be a deserter in the confessional.

As Dr Fahey notes in his newly-published book, “The vileness of this operation not only lies in the use of an agent provocateur but in the misuse of a sacrament to catch Modotti, a Catholic priest whose faith told him that his soul would be forfeit if he broke the seal of the confessional.”

“The vileness of this operation not only lies in the use of an agent provocateur but in the misuse of a sacrament to catch Modotti”

The ruse was planned by Colonel Wake with the full knowledge and approval of Simpson. “Australia’s Director-General of Security,” Dr Fahey notes in the book, “was actively complicit in arranging the entrapment of an innocent man.”

The planted information obtained from the confessional was to be used to arrest Modotti on treason. “The objective of this operation was not to secure the safety of Australia, its people or its forces overseas; it was to get Father Modotti.”

The  operation failed, in the main because Collucci failed to integrate into the Melbourne Italian community to which Fr Modotti ministered. But Australian Intelligence continued its harassment of Modotti – even after World War II ended.

As the war came to a close, Archbishop Mannix requested permission from Attorney-General Herbert Evatt for Fr Modotti to travel to Italy to recruit priests to work in Australia.
During the trip Fr Modotti’s naturalisation file was hidden away by changing the spelling of his name, Ugo, to the anglicised ‘Hugo’ thereby obfuscating his identity for re-entry. He was banned from returning to Australia as an undesirable alien – despite his naturalisation in 1945.

Fr Ugo Modotti never returned to Australia again. “That the authorities allowed an Australian citizen to be banned from returning is a smear on the reputation of Australia and one that was put there by an unholy alliance of Australia’s Military Intelligence and the Security Service,” Dr Fahey said. “This travesty has still not been officially addressed.”

Dr John Fahey worked at Defence Signals Directorate and served in regimental intelligence posting in the British and Australian armies. He is an honorary fellow of the Department of Security Studies in Criminology at Macquarie University and is also the Author of ‘Australia’s First Spies’.

Traitors and Spies is available through Allen & Unwin Publishers Australia.

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