A newly proposed chaplaincy program to support Defence veterans must include secular welfare support, says the Rationalist Society of Australia.
The federal government’s latest Budget statement for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs states that a new program will be piloted over the next two years to “test the effectiveness” of extending chaplaincy to veterans.
In a letter to veterans affairs minister Andrew Gee, Labor veterans affairs spokesperson Shayne Neumann and some crossbenchers, RSA Treasurer Brendan Liveris has urged them to ensure that the pilot program be a “modern chaplaincy capability”, with access to secular pastoral care.
In the letter, Mr Liveris noted that the Royal Australian Navy had recognised the inadequacy of the religious-based chaplaincy model and had introduced secular welfare roles, known as Maritime Spiritual Welfare Officers (MSWO), in recent years.
“The demographic of ADF personnel is becoming increasingly non-religious, making religious-based chaplaincy anachronist and increasingly irrelevant to service personnel. The Defence Census of 2019 showed that the number of ADF personnel identifying as having no religious affiliation has grown rapidly from 37% in 2011 to 57% in 2019,” he wrote.
“Defence veterans are, no doubt, also increasingly identifying as non-religious, in line with broader community trends. They require suitable pastoral care, too.”
Mr Liveris noted that, prior to the introduction of the MSWO roles, senior Navy officers had told the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal (DFRT) that the religious-based model of chaplaincy put up barriers in the ability of non-religious ADF personnel to access the pastoral care that they need.
In 2020, the then head of Navy chaplaincy, Principal Chaplain Collin Acton, and then Commander Shore Force Captain S Bowater OAM RAN said non-religious personnel were reluctant to seek help from religious chaplains. They also claimed theological degrees did little to prepare religious chaplains for the provision of pastoral care required in the modern ADF.
Former Principal Chaplain Acton is now urging the whole ADF, including Army and Air Force, to modernise their chaplaincy capabilities.
The government outlined its plan for the pilot program on page 16 of the 2022-23 Budget statement for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, saying: “Chaplains have long been a feature of the Australian military, playing an important role in spiritual and pastoral support. The pilot program will test the effectiveness of extending chaplaincy support to veterans and their families post-service, providing care, mentoring and education through transition back to civilian life, during crisis or acute events such as adjustment, grief, and recovery.”
Mr Liveris said Defence veterans – religious and non-religious – needed and deserved the best support possible.
“While we welcome extra support for Defence veterans, we urge your party, if elected to government at the upcoming election, to ensure that any chaplaincy pilot program within the Department of Veterans Affairs is a modern chaplaincy capability,” he said.
“… the new chaplaincy pilot program within the Department of Veterans Affairs’ must follow the lead of Navy and include secular welfare support.”
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman
Photo: Commonwealth of Australia