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An Australian lesson in telling the whole Catholic story

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MELBOURNE, Australia — A human rights lawyer and anti-death penalty activist named Julian McMahon, who was recently proclaimed "Australian of the Year" in his home state of Victoria, is every bit as much a part of the Catholic story in Australia today as the embattled Cardinal George Pell.

You really wouldn't know that, however, from coverage of the church in this country's media.

Pell, 74, is at the center of a national storm related to his record on handling child sexual abuse cases, both as a priest in the city of Ballart and later as archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney. He's scheduled to begin testifying, for the third time, before a royal commission investigating institutional responses to the abuse scandals on Monday via video link from Rome, and talk about Pell is pervasive in the national press.

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I spent 72 hours in the country last week, and spoke to scores of national and local news outlets on the Pell story. What I picked up is that many Australians believe Pell is getting a long-overdue comeuppance, while others think he's being railroaded.

In any event, if all you knew about the Catholic Church in Australia was what you get from TV and newspapers, you would conclude that the ferment over Pell is the only thing happening.

I was on hand to speak at a Melbourne conference sponsored by Catholic Social Services of Australia, an umbrella group of 60 or so church-sponsored charitable and humanitarian groups that together serve a million people a year, including impoverished and isolated communities in remote regions of the country.

These are salt-of-the-earth folks, who quietly carry out a staggering variety of good works.

Many of the people at the conference are, for instance, involved in the "Let Them Stay!" campaign, protesting a plan by the government to ship 267 asylum-seekers off to the Pacific island of Nauru, including 37 young people actually born in Australia and another 54 children, many of whom now attend Australian schools.

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As part of a "get-tough" policy on illegal arrivals from places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, China, and Sri Lanka, Australia runs offshore detention centers on Nauru and the island of Manus in Papua New Guinea. The brutal conditions there are the stuff of legend, including sexual assault of children, rape of men and women, and deaths due to both violence and untreated medical conditions. Reportedly, children as young as 7 have attempted suicide.

A coalition of religious and human rights groups is fighting the resettlement plan, with Catholic leaders prominent among them. Earlier this month, Bishop Vincent Long, the country's first Vietnamese-born prelate, celebrated a Mass of solidarity with refugees and asylum-seekers at Melbourne's St. Patrick's Cathedral.

These are the kinds of people who came together Thursday night in Melbourne to hear McMahon, an accomplished former prosecutor who now devotes his energy to defending death row inmates pro bono. (He’s not to be confused, by the way, with the hunky Australian actor by the same name.)

McMahon told the group about the time he spent representing Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, two Australian citizens executed in Indonesia in April 2015 after being convicted of drug smuggling.

A serious Catholic, McMahon described monitoring Chan and Sukumaran in jail, seeing them strive to help others and to improve themselves, including a deepening religious commitment. He described his growing horror at watching the "machinery of justice" grind forward, despite the fact, he insisted, it was abundantly clear by the end that putting these two to death served no useful purpose.

McMahon revealed that at the time the executions were carried out, Indonesian law required that Chan and Sukumaran hear a summary of their legal journey and then sign a document attesting to its accuracy. Since neither summary mentioned their service to others behind bars, both refused to sign until the documents were amended.

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"We often talk about speaking truth to power," said McMahon, who's a deep admirer of St. Thomas More, and who once shared some of More's writings from prison with Van Tuong Nguyen, another client hanged in Singapore in 2005.

"I watched two young men who really did it, refusing to sign off on a lie as basically their last act on earth," he said.

McMahon's zeal for justice is palpably rooted in his faith.

"I had a very privileged education, and I'd rather do something useful with it than play computer games," he said.

For me, to be honest, it felt surreal to encounter so much passion, so much commitment and real impact — not to mention, by the way, so much laughter and positive energy — and to realize that the public image of Catholicism in the country right now wouldn't give you any clue those things are part of the picture, too.

(In fact, the only time the gathering got any media play was when the local archbishop vetoed a Catholic politician as a speaker because of her stance on gay marriage.)

Obviously, media outlets are obliged to tell stories of scandal and controversy because those things are undeniably real, and revealing them is part of holding institutions accountable.

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Yet until the Julian McMahons of the world generate at least something like the same buzz, don't expect many Catholics to believe that the full story about the church is being told. The examples here may be Australian, but the point is universal.


John L. Allen Jr. is associate editor of the Globe and Crux, the Globe's website covering Catholicism. He can be reached at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and Facebook, www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.