Catholic Church PR Unit: Stephen Elder (Or: Hart’s Transplant)


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Stephen Elder, CEO of the Catholic Education Office (C.E.O.) in Melbourne (pictured above) has been appointed to the Catholic Church PR unit charged with handling the fall-out from the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. Superficially, he is there to represent the Catholic Schools system where many abuses have occurred in the past.

Mr. Elder taught in the classroom for a short time after graduation from Victoria University. Mr. Elder is the Great-nephew of former Victorian Liberal Premier, Sir Henry Bolte, best remembered as the leader of the last government in Australia to execute a prisoner (Ryan, by hanging).

Mr. Elder entered the Victorian Parliament for the Liberal Party in 1988, serving until losing his seat in 1999, and rising to the rank of Parliamentary Secretary for Education in the Kennett government. After losing his seat, he got a Liberal staff job with David Kemp for a while and then moved to an middle-management administrative position at the Catholic Education Office in 2001. In controversial circumstances, he was elevated to CEO of the organisation in 2006 by Archbishop Hart (pictured above) of Melbourne.

Mr. Elder is a member of the National Catholic Education Commission, a Director of the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria, a Director on the Board of Management of Church Resources, and a Director of Catholic Network Australia Ltd. He is also a member of the Senate of the Australian Catholic University, and in this position, like fellow PR unit member, Greg Craven who is the Vice-Chancellor (see previous posting) , he is nominally or effectively the boss of Royal Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald (a professor of law at the Australian Catholic University).

There appear to be indications that Mr. Elder is particularly close to the Good Archbishop Hart, particularly from comments by the Good Father Eric Hodgens. Mr. Hodgens caused headlines by questioning the appointment of Mr. Elder to the leadership position in the Catholic Education Office seemingly without widespread consultation of stakeholders in Catholic Education.

Indeed, many of Mr. Hodgens’ comments about Mr. Elder were quite brutal ( see references below). Among other things, Mr. Hodgens states that “The reason a person of such limited qualifications and experience could get the top job is that Archbishop Hart made the appointment unilaterally without any advertising, search or selection process. Overall, the impression could be gained that Mr. Elder was some sort of “plant” by the Bishop in the Catholic education system. He may well be seen by people such as Mr. Hodgens as filling a similar role with the PR unit.

Certainly, Mr. Elder has been right on message for issues so far. As Mr. Hodgens notes, “Consultation with governments has been confrontational and political rather than diplomatic.” This view is borne out by Mr. Elder’s attitude towards the Australian Greens Party. In a recent by-election for the state seat of Melbourne, closely fought between the Labor Party and the Greens, Mr. Elder sent a circular to parents at his schools supporting the Labor candidate and criticizing the Greens as being effectively out to ruin the Catholic education system. Mr. Elder says his actions were prompted by concerns from parents and that “We don’t tell people how to vote but we actually inform them what the impact of the policies of the two major parties contesting this by-election will be.”

Greens federal member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, says Mr. Elder’s letter is a dishonest attack that misrepresents Greens policies and that it represents a misleading and outrageous intervention into a pretty tight electoral contest.

During the last Federal Election Mr. Elder further intervened against the Greens. He said that “If the federal election comes down to a few seats the Greens may well play a role in forming a minority government”. They did, so he was right there. Mr. Bandt’s vote is vital in supporting the government of PM Gillard (a noted atheist). Also, Mr. Elder notes that “The Greens policy is to significantly strip Catholic schools of funding.”

Mr. Elder’s and Archbishop Hart’s blasts are not limited to the Greens. For a long time Catholic Schools have co-operated with the organisation, Amnesty International, and encouraged students to have concerns for the kinds of issues they highlight. Not any more, thanks to Mr. Elder who cut the relationship because the organisation supported abortion under certain circumstances.

In the end, when considering the roles of individual committee members, it comes down to a matter of opinion rather than any statement of fact. If one is indeed permitted to have an opinion without drawing the wrath of people like Bishop Hart, then it can be stated that it appears that Mr. Elder’s role is that of political attaché.

[Postscript: Is this a new trend? A catholic priest and former principal, Charles Newman, has been sent to prison for stealing US$331,000 from the school and US$550,000 from his Franciscan Order, allegedly to buy silence from students he molested and to ply students with drugs and alcohol, relatives and authorities charged. He was reported to police and fired by church authorities.]

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TOMORROW: Catholic Church PR Unit: Rosemary Sheehan

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)

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