The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide is continuing to probe the role of religious chaplains in the Defence Force’s wellbeing support architecture, with questions raised this month about cognitive biases of padres.
At the hearing in Perth, Counsel Assisting Peter Singleton asked Brigadier Nicholas Foxall, Commander of the 1st Brigade in the Northern Territory, what his chaplain – also referred to as a ‘padre’ in the military – “sees and doesn’t see, as a result of just the way his cognition works”.
Brigadier Foxall said such cognitive biases were “a common problem for everyone” but could be balanced between himself, the padre and his regimental sergeant major.
He described the chaplain as the “independent assessor of the wellbeing of the brigade as a whole”.
In a submission to the Royal Commission last year, the Rationalist Society of Australia raised concerns about the problematic religious worldviews of chaplains, particularly in the context of a Defence Force now being a majority non-religious and diverse workforce.
In the submission, the RSA argued that the Defence Force’s reliance on religious-based wellbeing and pastoral care as its frontline support capability was failing personnel and worsening mental health outcomes. In doing so, it also noted that theological degrees – required by religious chaplains – were inadequate for meeting the wellbeing needs of Defence personnel.
Earlier this year, the RSA sought answers from Australia’s Defence ministers about publicly expressed views of a number of Defence Force chaplains, including views claiming same-sex marriage as “bereft of the fullness” and “often quite harmful”, and non-religious people suffering from being “self-deceiving”.
At the Perth hearing, Brigadier Foxall argued that spiritual and pastoral care were “fundamental elements of people’s wellbeing, regardless of religion”.
Mr Singleton challenged the point: “They are fundamental elements, but it’s not either the whole of a person’s welfare, nor is a spiritual approach the whole of the solution for dealing with problems.”
At the Royal Commission in June last year, Commissioner James Douglas asked Army Chaplain Gary Pope whether there was much interaction between non-religious personnel and chaplains.
Chaplain Pope conceded that some non-religious soldiers “might have a sense” that a religious chaplain “may not be a person for them to speak with”, but said chaplains served all personnel and could be approached by all.
In November, Counsel Assisting Gabriella Rubagotti questioned Commander Alisha Withers, Commanding Officer of the Navy’s recruit school at HMAS Cerberus, on the appropriateness of chaplains as the “first port of call” for personnel during times of mental health crisis.
Upon confirming that the recruit school’s chaplain was a Catholic priest, Counsel Assisting Rubagotti suggested to Commander Alisha Withers that “this might be a barrier to access support for some members”.
Image: Commonwealth of Australia/Department of Defence
*This article has been revised on 30 November 2023