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"It's pretty hard to preach the gospel on stolen land" : Churches grilled on land holdings at truth-telling inquiry

Dechlan Brennan -

The truth-telling hearings into land injustices in Victoria have heard that despite holding significant portions of land across the state, major churches currently have no plans for land reparations.

Representatives from the Catholic, Anglican, and Uniting churches appeared in front of the Yoorrook Justice Commission into land injustices on Wednesday, where they were questioned on the role they played in setting up Victorian missions and reserves where Aboriginal people were confined.

Appearing on behalf of the Anglican Church, Bishop Richard Treloar said the missions were built on a premise that was "fundamentally flawed," being built on "stolen land" with a complete disregard for the rights of First Peoples.

"Our church partnered with the colonial government to implement policies and practices that were and continue to be profoundly harmful to First Nations people in Victoria," Bishop Treloar said, accepting they were grounded in "deep seated and pervasive racism from which our church is far from immune".

"It's pretty hard to preach the gospel on stolen land," he said.

The Anglican church ran missions in Victoria at Lake Tyers and Lake Condah.

During the hearings, Counsel Assisting Tim Goodwin noted the Anglican Church's property trust is in possession of an estimated 260 hectares of land in Victoria, equating to about $1.49 billion.

The Melbourne diocese alone holds $1.38 billion of that value, and not accounting for improvements to the land or any buildings on it, which Mr Godwin said, "does not include the value of buildings and improvements on the land".

When Mr Goodwin flagged that much of this land would have been given to the church by the colonial government without the consent of Traditional Owners, Bishop Treloar said: "There's no question that there's an incredible disparity of land justice outcomes between the Anglican church and First Nations Victorians."

No Traditional Owner group in Victoria holds land of the value currently held by the Anglican Church.

Both the Uniting and Catholic churches applied to keep their land holding figures confidential from commission.

The inquiries were slated to determine the churches' 26 claims for non-publication orders at a later date, with Commissioner Tony North KC observing there was a "shattering silence" from the religious organisations about what they planned to do to right the wrongs of history.

The hearings heard all three of the major churches did not have a redress scheme to address the land acquisition, with Bishop Trealor accepting the 1.5 per cent of land sale revenue put forward by his Gippsland diocese towards Aboriginal ministry was "woefully inadequate".

He said the church would be guided by Yoorrook on compensation towards Aboriginal people.

"I want to reiterate the apologies to First Nations peoples who were traumatised and dispossessed [by] cultural genocide," Bishop Trealor said.

"I just want to acknowledge the truth of that and offer our commitment to continue to work towards reparation."

Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli stressed the Catholic Church was not involved in the running of missions, but accepted the damage that led to Aboriginal people's languages stopping was profound.

However, he suggested the church's history and interactions with Aboriginal people in the state were mostly positive and were only marred by "individuals and localised communities".

Deputy Chair Travis Lovett told the representatives of the religious institutions: "I have had to try to learn and reclaim language myself."

"Very rarely is our language taught; our history taught," Mr Lovett said.

"But we can learn other people's languages...Churches played a significant role in taking that human right and cultural right away from us."

Tim O'Leary from the Catholic Church said he accepted "the Archdiocese had been the beneficiary of land and other supports from governments in the context of dispossession".

"The church has made sincere efforts to translate those benefits into services for both Catholic First Peoples and non-Catholic First Peoples," Mr O'Leary said.

Reverend David Fotheringham from the Uniting Church told the hearings it was "entirely true" that the desire to spread the gospel amongst Indigenous people "was completely entangled with the idea of the superiority of Western civilisation and certain social structures".

"So, it is entirely true that the missions were disastrous in that regard," he said.

The hearings will reconvene towards the end of the month to cover health, housing, and education.

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