We can never see ourselves as others see us

David Russell, as I have written before, was for many years director of music at St Mary’s Cathedral.

He was unjustly dismissed by the church, then reinstated after bringing proceedings to vindicate himself in the NSW Industrial Commission. The commission, however, does not have the power to award any costs. If he had lost in the commission, that would have protected him, but when he won, it didn’t help him. After that, he brought proceedings in the Supreme Court to recover his costs and other expenses incurred as a result of the church’s breach of its contract with him. The court found that the church had breached its contract, but that he couldn’t be awarded his costs in the commission or the other damages he claimed. He appealed to the Court of Appeal but was unsuccessful.

I have written about these cases on this blog (1), (2). There is one unflattering thing I said about him in the first of these posts (I won’t repeat it here, but it started with mentioning that when younger I thought he was fat), but actually I thought I made it clear that he had been hard done by by the courts and that the church was treating him shabbily.

Since then, David Russell has left his position as Director of Music. He has published a memoir, Surplice to Requirements. I bought a copy for $35 from Gleebooks, where it was recently launched by Fr Edmund Campion.

There is a lot in the book which is of interest. The first part treats Russell’s (Catholic) youth and early involvement in church music and music education in Sydney. He confesses to what is a probably an offence under the Copyright Act (reverse engineering – from the piano score and listening to recordings – of the non-available orchestral parts for Oliver! when he was music teacher at Enmore Boys High in 1969), but I doubt if he is going to be prosecuted for that. There is maybe a bit too much detail for the general reader about his overseas tours with the cathedral choir, ending with a tour to Europe just before the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991. Then, at page 203, the narrative jumps forward to 1999 and his arrest by officers from the child protection squad concerning allegations connected to David O’Grady which, so far as they related to events which concerned Russell, were ultimately found by the Industrial Commission not simply to be not proven, but actually not to have occurred.

This section of the book (roughly the last third) is obviously the prime reason for its publication. Russell wants to set the record straight. It has basically three parts.

First is the initial call from the police and criminal charges (brought on the flimsiest of evidence against him; dismissed with costs), after which all seemed over and he returned to directing the choir. A couple of years later, under pressure from the relevant government authorities to set its child abuse risk protection in order, the church launched its own investigation (of a sort) and dismissed him. This is the second part, leading to the the Industrial Commission hearing. These parts are the probably the best in the book, at least for me reading as a lawyer. Of course these are the bits which have a happy ending, or at least a great victory, for Russell.

The third part deals with the aftermath: the unsuccessful court cases (dealt with rather generally) and the pressures and intrigues (his word: there were undeniably manoeuvres) which ultimately led to Russell leaving his position at the cathedral.

During this last period, Russell kept working at the cathedral, preparing in particular for the visit of the pope in 2008 – which must have been a wonderful moment for him. Shortly after this, there was a further complaint or complaints that Russell had dealt over-harshly with a boy who misbehaved in a rehearsal. Russell was suspended again. He wasn’t told who had made the complaint, though there are dark hints. After Russell left the job he received a letter stating that the last complaints [sic] had been found to not merit any disciplinary action against him.

Russell’s account of the denouement is rather cryptic [not a pun]. He says “for legal reasons, I cannot recount the straw that eventually broke this camel’s back.” I take that to mean there has been some kind of legal settlement with the usual confidentiality clauses – after all, Russell was liable for the costs of the court proceedings and so vulnerable to pressure on that account, at least to the extent that he had any assets left by this time. This doesn’t stop him having a swipe at some of the people who he thinks have acted dishonourably in the course of this endgame.

Russell seems to have obtained legal advice that he should be careful about naming people, so there is a lot of stuff where names aren’t mentioned, though it should be reasonably clear to anyone with a little familiarity with the facts who he is talking about. As he writes, in a final section entitled “Coda”

When I started writing these thoughts and recollections I had no idea where they would take me. The only certainty I had was a need to have my ‘view from the peak’ in some way validated.

As he correctly points out, “Like flypaper sticking to your fingers, this whole affair refuses to go away.” He then refers to an SMH story (about O’Grady being struck off as a nurse) which he felt was unfair to him, especially because it was on the net. I agree that story was unfair, because it referred to the claims made about Mr Russell but merely said that he was reinstated when the Industrial Commission found no evidence to support the claim. That was understating the strength of the commission’s finding in Mr Russell’s favour.

And then (p 292):

Apart from the Herald site, which is disseminated internationally, there were other Blogs, which had an extraordinary amount of private detail about the various activities I had pursued in my life. The Operas in which I had appeared, as well as the lighter works by Offenbach and Sullivan. And I sang in some excellent pieces from the American stage. There was an attempt to disparage me by quoting the paucity of the cathedral salary that I was prepared to accept. Perhaps the writers of this diatribe would be shocked to know that at the commencement of my term I was paid nothing at all.

The language had quite a degree of pomposity about it, a type of low cast legalese bordering on the ‘camp.’

I think he was talking about me there. You can click the links above and see why.

I mentioned his salary ($25,000) to show Mr Russell’s fight to clear his name and get his job back was not about money but about vindication and of course, his life’s work. If that salary reflected poorly on anyone, it was on the church for paying him so little. In my observation, churches are quite often terrible employers. You are meant to be doing it all for God and if they don’t like you or don’t want you, then they are doing what they do for God too.

I didn’t think either post was a diatribe.

It just goes to show that you can never see yourself as others see you.

2 Responses to “We can never see ourselves as others see us”

  1. Ken Says:

    Thanks for that, M, an interesting and sad story, of which I only knew bits.

  2. O Says:

    For what it’s worth I remember reading at least one of the earlier posts (I have a particular professional interest in the case) and did not read them as ‘disparaging’ – nor is that the impression on re-reading them now.

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