Investigation exonerates former top Navy chaplain and advocate of secular reform

Si Gladman / 06 October 2023

A Defence investigation sparked by complaints from a taxpayer-funded committee of religious clerics has exonerated a former top Navy chaplain who has been leading the push for secular reform of the military’s wellbeing support capability.

In a document prepared for the Chief of the Defence Force mid last year, Deputy Chief of Navy Chris Smith detailed the complaints about Collin Acton’s advocacy for secular reform and the investigation into his public commentary.

Despite accusations that Mr Acton had breached Defence Values, undermined Defence personnel and their families’ confidence in religious chaplains, and disrespected religious chaplaincy, Rear Admiral Smith found “no evidence to suggest any contravention of Defence policy or unprofessional conduct” by Mr Acton (pictured).

The Rationalist Society of Australia has viewed the document, which was obtained under freedom of information (FOI) laws.

In a new submission to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide this week, the RSA has highlighted the case in making the argument that the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) has pursued a pattern of conduct aimed at blocking much-needed secular reform within Defence.

Read the submission here.

In October last year, Mr Acton told the RSA that he had been “forced out” of Defence for his public advocacy of the need for secular reform of Defence’s religious-based chaplaincy model. Mr Acton, who remained in the Navy despite retiring as Principal Chaplain and Director-General of Navy Chaplaincy, said it was made clear to him that RACS wanted him removed from Defence.

In September last year, the RSA reported that FOI documents revealed that RACS had written to the Chief of the Defence Force mid-year to raise “concerns” about an interview by Mr Acton on ABC radio program Conversations in April. At a meeting on 1 June last year, RACS decided to write to the Chief of the Defence Force “outlining RACS concerns with [the] interview”.

The document detailing the subsequent investigation into Mr Acton states that the Chief of the Defence Force received a letter on 15 June raising the following three complaints “regarding public comments” by Mr Acton:

Firstly, Acton persistently breached Defence Values. Secondly, he undermined Defence personnel and their families’ confidence in religious chaplaincy. Finally, by disrespecting religious chaplaincy he will make it more difficult to recruit ADF chaplains in the future.”

However, Rear Admiral Smith, in his report to the Chief of Defence Force, said Mr Acton’s public commentary was “overwhelmingly positive to Defence and more specifically Navy”.

“His discussion around Religious Chaplaincy pastoral care was focussed on it not being relevant due to the nature of the care required in most circumstances and the percentage of ADF members who identity as belonging to a faith-based group,” he wrote.

Rear Admiral Smith noted that Mr Acton had “encountered deep opposition” in his drive to introduce some secular wellbeing officers, now known as Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officers (MSWOs), into the Navy chaplaincy branch.

While he noted that the public narrative was having a “negative impact” on serving religious chaplains and there was a view that Mr Acton should be repudiated, Rear Admiral Smith said it was noteworthy that Navy chaplains were “overwhelmingly reconciled with the introduction of MSWOs” and believed the secular roles would make a valuable contribution. He wrote:

“…there is no evidence to suggest any contravention of Defence policy or unprofessional conduct on CDRE Acton’s part. Furthermore, I do not believe Acton has made any disingenuous commentary on the work of chaplains in the military while serving as DGCHAP Navy. Nor can I determine if his actions as DGCHAP Navy were anything other than genuine attempts to serve the best interests of Navy’s people and Command.”

In the new submission to the Royal Commission, the RSA argued RACS is using its privileged position to obstruct secular reform. The submission says: “Its presence is providing a structural block to much-needed secular reform within Defence.”

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

Image: Department of Defence/Commonwealth of Australia

All the more reason.