Former top Navy chaplain advocating for reform ‘forced out’ of Defence Force

Si Gladman / 18 October 2022

A former top Navy chaplain who has been publicly advocating for reform of the religious-based pastoral care and wellbeing support provided to Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel says he has been “forced out” of the military.

In the latest episode of The Secular Agenda podcast, former Director-General of Navy Chaplaincy Collin Acton OAM reveals that he has resigned from the ADF following complaints by the taxpayer-funded Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS).

Listen to the full interview here on our website or find The Secular Agenda on your podcast app.

As revealed by the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) last month, RACS wrote to the Chief of the Defence Force mid-year to raise “concerns” about an interview Mr Acton gave on ABC radio program Conversations in April. In the ABC interview, he shared about his experience of losing his faith in the Navy and repeated his calls for the ADF to move away from religious-based chaplaincy as the primary wellbeing model for its service personnel.

Mr Acton (pictured), who remained in the ADF after retiring his roles as Principal Chaplain and Director-General of Navy Chaplaincy last year, told The Secular Agenda that RACS’ letter to the CDF sparked a high-level investigation into him.

He said it had been “a very difficult couple of weeks” since having it “made clear” that he would have to leave behind his career of more than 35 years if he wanted to continue advocating for reform.

“I’ve really been forced to resign from my commission in the Navy. So I’ve been forced out of the ADF,” he said.

“I received a call to come into Navy Headquarters and have a cup of coffee with a fairly senior member of Navy. And it was there I discovered not only had – I knew about the existence of the RACS letter but I wasn’t aware that there was a fairly high-level investigation going into me out of the allegations raised by the RACS letter, and also out of allegations and complaints by a number of chaplains who had written.

“It was really made very clear to me that RACS wanted me gone from Defence. And, distressingly for me, it wasn’t just about getting rid of me out of the Navy; but I also work in a civilian role with Defence at the Defence Member and Family Helpline. And apparently RACS wanted me sacked from that as well. 

“I understand that the top brass weren’t interested or weren’t keen for me to be sacked from a civilian role, as well. But I was left with no doubt that what was expected was I would resign, particularly if I wanted to keep going in advocating for change in the mental health and wellbeing space.”

Before retiring as Director-General of Navy Chaplaincy in 2020, he was instrumental in having secular wellbeing officer roles introduced for the first time into the Navy to help meet the needs of non-religious personnel.

Since then, he has continued to publicly advocate for further reform in the Navy and in the Army and Air Force, arguing that the reliance on religious-based chaplaincy was inappropriate given that a majority of ADF personnel identify as non-religious.

In the podcast interview, Mr Acton has also accused the RACS of blocking reforms efforts and being “implacably opposed to any change in the status quo”.

RACS consists of bishops, senior pastors, a rabbi, an imam and other religious leaders who represent their denomination or faith groups and are accorded two-star status – the rank of a General. Earlier this year, Anglican Bishop Grant Dibden, the chair of RACS, wrote that “…where there are more soldiers who follow the Lord Jesus, it is more likely that evil will be restrained in the heat of battle…”

In a submission to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, the RSA argued that the ADF’s religious-based model of pastoral care and wellbeing support was failing service personnel and negatively affecting mental health outcomes.

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

Images: Commonwealth of Australia / Department of Defence

All the more reason.