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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Chaplain Joe Johns

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

Dr. Knight: How did you begin your initiation into the sexual abuse crisis?

Chaplain Johns: Whilst on operations in the Middle East as a Commissioned Officer (Rank Flight Lieutenant) and military Chaplain as a Lay Pastoral Associate with faculties granted to me by the Australian Catholic Military Diocese also known as the Military Ordinariate of Australia, I reported (as required by Military Regulations and under the guidance of a Military Lawyer) allegations of sexual harassment against a fellow military Chaplain (non-Catholic) who was deployed with me on the same military base in the Middle East in 2010. As a Catholic Chaplain I had dual reporting responsibilities: a) to my Military Commanding Officer and b) to my senior Catholic Chaplain in the Royal Australian Air Force. When I informed my senior Catholic Chaplain that I was under legal advisement to report all of the allegations to the Director General of Air Force Chaplaincy I was threatened with the words: “Are you sure you want to fall on your sword over this?” This is when the nightmare of the whole Abuse Crisis in Australia came crashing down on me and my family. I was medically retired from the injuries I subsequently sustained.

Dr. Knight: What actions have you taken to push for change and help in working toward healing in the Church?

Chaplain Johns: After a number of attempts to get the attention senior leadership within the Australian Defence Force, I finally succeeded in convincing our equivalent of the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ordered a comprehensive investigation of all the senior chaplains involved in the attempt to force me to participate in a cover-up off the allegations against the chaplain in question. The Senior Air Force Chaplains didn’t want a scandal on their hands, they didn’t want national publicity. The dynamics were identical to abuse victims who came forward to speak out against the abuse they suffered at the hands of clergy (not only in the Catholic Church but in all of the churches in Australia.

I have asked that the Department of Defence (Australia) promulgate regulations that ensure the protection of chaplains who (as required by military regulations) report abusive behavior of any nature against other chaplains be protected from retaliation against senior chaplains.

Furthermore, the Department of Defence now has a policy of informing the licensing Church of any chaplain who has been found to have sexually abused or harassed anyone in the Australian Defence Force so that the responsible church can take professional standards actions as required.

I have also established (under the sponsorship of the Anglican Diocese of Willochrahere in Australia) St. Peter’s Sacred Space which is currently the only centre in world that is dedicated to facilitating the spiritual healing of survivors of Church abuse regardless of the form of abuse. The protocols can be used by anyone of any faith both Christian and non-Christian although we are primarily set up for survivors within the Christian faith tradition.

Dr. Knight: What support do you give to Catholics in the pews?

Chaplain Johns: We have received the blessing of our local parish priest, a Jesuit who has now shared our initiative both within the parish and with the global Church. He has made a commitment to introduce our initiative to Fr. Hans Zollner in Rome. Our local Archbishop has also been appraised of our ministry. We are also supported by the Australian Council of Churches

Dr. Knight: Can you tell us how you dedicated your military expertise to this cause?

Chaplain Johns: As a military chaplain I learned early on that I had to earn the trust of those of all ranks in order to have the privilege to serve the men and women of the Armed Forces in Canada and in Australia. In order to earn the trust of those I served I had to be with them and walk with them in the daily hardships of military life. I trained with them in -38 F weather. I went on field exercises with them, I sailed on ships in the North Atlantic under harsh sea conditions. I put my life in harm’s way in war zones right alongside them. All along I asked nothing from them, I was there to serve them and they came to trust me with their stories of their lives knowing that they could trust me and that I would only ever help them.

Having suffered the betrayal of clergy – not just my senior Catholic priest but other ministers from other religions, I know from personal experience how devastating it is to have those you trust the most betray you and victimize you for their own means. As the suffering of military life alongside our men and women in uniform helped me earn the trust of those I served in the military, so too has the suffering I endured by clergy helped me to earn the trust of those who visit us at St. Peter’s. I am here with them, only to serve. We ask nothing in return here and do not take donations from those we help


Dr. Knight: Why do Catholics need to hear survival stories and tell us about your ways to listen well.

Chaplain Johns: Catholic, indeed, people of all faiths, need the encouragement of those who have made it from the darkness of betrayal back into the light of God’s love for them.

Dr. Knight: What is kind of programs have you initiated in Australia?

Chaplain Johns: I’ll attach our brochure again. It’s the most succinct way to describe what we do here.

Dr. Knight: Could you tell us how to talk to kids about sexual abuse?

Chaplain Johns: Victims of any form of abuse, feel that somehow they are to blame, somehow it was there fault that they did something wrong to deserve what had happened to them. What it so vital for children (and anyone of any age) is that they have someone they can talk to about anything, someone they trust unequivocally. We need designated listeners for children to talk to who don’t necessarily need to be clinicians. I think survivors who have come to a place of healing and a place of peace in their own lives would be tremendous resources as speakers for churches and schools. What’s vital is that children don’t feel alone, that they are the only ones that sexual abuse has happened to and that there is someone they can talk to who will underscore the fact that it wasn’t there fault.

Dr. Knight: What has your involvement in these programs assisted your own spiritual development?

Chaplain Johns: My ministry here at St. Peter’s has given me a peace and a joy I didn’t think I would ever find again after the devastation of the betrayal I suffered. This place is my new chaplaincy. I have now regained a sense of mission and purpose I never thought I would have again. My faith is deep, rich and gentle. The vision of this ministry came from the darkness of despair.

Dr. Knight: How do you work with clergy on the sexual abuse crisis, without making then the crisis?

Chaplain Johns: We underscore the fact that we are here to help people who have suffered a disconnection from God’s love from any form of abuse from any source, not just from ministers of religion. Clergy in Australia have given us overwhelming support.

Dr. Knight: How does the conviction that we are the Church affect your work?

Chaplain Johns: Where two or more are gathered in His name, we have Christ, we have His community, His Church.

Thank you so much for helping us to understand your model of healing.

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