The energy behind the campaign to support whistleblower Bernard Collaery was a remarkable 76-year-old nun, Susan Connelly. By Amy Fallon.

Bernard Collaery’s divine intervener

Bernard Collaery (left), Joel Hodge and Sister Susan Connelly.
Bernard Collaery (left), Joel Hodge and Sister Susan Connelly.
Credit: Helen White

When the decision to end his prosecution was announced, one of the first people that whistleblower Bernard Collaery called was a 76-year-old, plain-clothed, straight-talking nun living in a south-western Sydney convent.

Susan Connelly, a sister of St Joseph, the religious congregation founded by the Australian saint Mary MacKillop, may seem like an unlikely ally for the embattled Canberra lawyer who had faced jail time for allegedly revealing spying in Timor-Leste.

But Connelly, who’s been a Catholic nun for more than 50 years, was behind much of the public support for his case. She acknowledges that she doesn’t resemble a “Midsomer Murders caricature”.

“I cried when the news came through,” Connelly tells The Saturday Paper, in reference to last week’s announcement by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus that Collaery’s case would be shelved. “I’m still getting over it, really. It’s terrific. Bernard rang not long after [the decision] was announced. He’s really happy. So many people have been in touch – I’ve had about 200 emails.”

Connelly, a former primary school teacher and principal who has worked in Timor-Leste for nearly three decades, knew Collaery only “vaguely” before he was charged with five secrecy offences.

“We weren’t firm friends, but I’d met him on occasion,” Connelly says. She perceives Collaery as “a person of courage and integrity who’s willing to put his whole life – and livelihood – on the line about something that should not have happened, and should not be countenanced.”

The former ACT attorney-general and his client, an ex-spy known only as “Witness K”, faced prosecution over their alleged role in exposing an Australian espionage operation in the impoverished country dating back to 2004. The charges were revealed in June 2018, and Connelly received a letter from Collaery, 77, about the same time.

“[He] expressed his gratitude for the Sisters of St Joseph, his early teachers, for whom he has great esteem,” she says. He said he would appreciate their support.

Collaery tells The Saturday Paper he was taught by the Sisters of St Joseph at Corrimal below the mining pits along the Illawarra escarpment. “When the Mines Rescue Siren went the nuns had us down on our knees. When the other team turned up without football boots Sr Le Merci made us take our boots off. Eight of us had lost our fathers in the war. The nuns sustained our community just like they sustained K and myself all these oppressive 4 years.”

Connelly would normally visit Timor-Leste twice a year, for a week to a month at a time. In 2000, after independence, she brought a choir of 23 young people from the new nation to Australia for three months.

“We were doing all this, little knowing that our, my, government was working against these people,” she says. “[Australia] attempted to diddle, to swindle, one of the poorest countries in Asia. That really, really gets at me.”

The charges against Collaery and Witness K, who received a three-month suspended sentence in 2020 after pleading guilty to breaking secrecy laws, also made “Australia seem to be a highly untrustworthy international citizen”, Connelly says. “It hasn’t protected national security … all this rubbish about national security.”

If Collaery wanted support from Connelly and the two other Sisters of St Joseph nuns she lives with, Sister Josephine Mitchell and Sister Kathleen O’Connor, he got it. Overwhelmingly.

Connelly “left no stone unturned” to support Collaery, says Sister Mitchell, 91, who has worked with her for more than 25 years. “[Susan] spoke out with voice and pen, spread the word in every way possible – articles, letter writing, webinars.” The “pursuit of truth and justice” was “in her very bones”, Mitchell tells The Saturday Paper. “Sue is one who goes straight to the point.”

Collaery says, “She has a strong sense of what is right and has been tireless in supporting me in fighting the criminal charges against me. Susan Connelly and others like her who believed that the charges against me were unjust gave me hope and support over the four years of the prosecution. She embodies the sense of ethics and justice from so many people that has kept me going.”

“I’m a kept woman,” Connelly says, “so therefore I give everything I’ve got to what I do and I’m very happy to do it.” Whenever she could, Connelly travelled from Sydney to Canberra to attend the legal hearings. Later, she emailed supporters, updating them.

She was “at the forefront of advocacy – for four long years, she campaigned organised events and rallied outside court to keep the spotlight on the Australian government,” says Kieran Pender, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre. “Her contribution, and that of colleagues including Kathryn Kelly, has been deeply significant to this long-awaited outcome.”

The nuns sewed about 100 hessian bags, which Collaery’s supporters used at many rallies to highlight the dangerous secrecy of the trials, says Kelly, who is co-convenor of the Alliance Against Political Prosecutions. Connelly also penned “Falsely, Australia” to the “Waltzing Matilda” tune, which supporters sang.

Protests aren’t new to Connelly, who holds a PhD and is one of the founders of the Mary MacKillop Institute of East Timorese Studies. In 2016, she helped to lug a huge crucifix into then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Sydney electoral office during an asylum-seeker demonstration. When she refused to leave, police arrested her.

“There was another (protest) in Parliament House, like a flash mob,” says Connelly. “That was really good. It was some years ago and at a given time we all just went and sat in the foyer and had to be moved out.”

Father Claude Mostowik, a Sydney Catholic priest who was with her during some nonviolent sit-ins over offshore detention, says she does everything with “determination but humour as well”.

“She sinks her teeth into issues, and doesn’t give up,” says Mostowik, who is director of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre.

The nun, who earlier this year published East Timor, René Girard and Neocolonial Violence: Scapegoating as Australian Policy, says she’d been arrested “a couple of times”.

“You’ve got to do some of those things sometimes to get a bit of notice,” says Connelly. Such actions may go against the image of a nun as a timid, passive, creature, shut away from society but, Connelly says, “God is in favour of all good work and campaigning and God is with all people who do that, whether they are believers or not”.

Mary MacKillop, she points out, set an example for others with her vision of education for poor children and caring for needy families. A paper written by Connelly and the institute on the importance of mother-tongue education inspired Timor-Leste’s former first lady to set up a highly successful education pilot program. “It is hoped that this program is eventually upscaled to benefit kids from minority language groups across the country,” Kirsty Sword Gusmão tells The Saturday Paper.

But does Connelly’s activism ruffle some feathers in the church? Not at all, the nun insists.

“The Catholic Church is like the rest of society,” says Connelly. “You get people who are really right-wing, you get people who are really left-wing.” The church is concerned about many other social justice issues, she stresses. “Look, I know that the church is not God, God help us,” says Connelly. “We get a bit of bad press sometimes. But we’ve done some pretty good things, as well as some pretty horrible things too, like others.”

Though this may be the end of Collaery’s prosecution, Connelly isn’t done yet. “The Timorese have been swindled out of billions of dollars, not only because of the spying, but there were other areas in the Timor Sea that are now depleted,” she says. “They got a raw deal for that.”

Connelly believes compensation should eventually be paid. “There are significant admissions that we should make, at the very least admissions that things have not been right,” she says.

She also keeps a close eye on West Papua, which she visited in 2016.

One might wonder where Connelly, who describes herself as “76 going on 35”, gets the energy.

“You say to yourself, ‘One day I’m going to die’,” she says. “What about all the other days that I’m not dead?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "Divine intervention".

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