Dame Lyndsay calls it a day after 37 years

Dame Lyndsay Freer

Perhaps the most widely-recognised Catholic voice in Aotearoa New Zealand will no longer be heard or seen in an official Church capacity.

Dame Lyndsay Freer has retired from her role as media and communications officer for Auckland diocese, bringing the curtain down on a 37-year career as the go-to “Church person” for media.

With Pope Francis accepting the resignation of Bishop Patrick Dunn as Bishop of Auckland late last year, Dame Lyndsay said she felt it was the right time for her to step down as well.

“With a new bishop coming on to the scene, this was time for him to make his own decisions on how to deal with the media. I felt my shelf-life had come to an end in terms of being employed by the diocese, so I thought it was the right time,” she told NZ Catholic.

Reflecting upon her career in journalism and Church communications, she s

aid that her interest was likely sparked when, as a young Lyndsay Kearns, living then in Christchurch, she won a Zealandia short story competition, and her prize was a biography of Pope Pius XII.

Reading the book enkindled a greater interest in matters to do with the Church. She would read articles about the Church and wrote book reviews, many of them to do with faith and ecclesiastical life, for a Catholic library in the city. She also graduated from a walk-by-faith course when she was young.

As she looked back on her career, she noted the connection between reading that papal biography so many years ago, and the “high points” of her work for the Church — attending two conclaves, in 2005 and 2013, and a papal funeral, as well as helping organise the visit of St John Paul II to New Zealand in 1986.

In Auckland, she received singing training from Dame Sister Mary Leo at St Mary’s College.  According to a 2003 article in The New Zealand Herald’s Canvas magazine, she had been a
regular guest artist on Concert FM, sang at weddings and funerals, and might also have had an international career in this arena.

But that was not to be her path. After leaving school, she worked for an advertising agency, for The Waikato Times, The Dominion and The Sunday News, writing an “agony column” under the penname “Gaby Fulton”. Her time as a journalist also saw her meet and marry Ken Freer, a widower with four children, who was in media management. He was the brother of former Labour cabinet minister Warren Freer. The couple married and had a son of their own. Ken Freer died in 1995.

In 1985, Bishop Denis Browne was looking for an Auckland diocese media spokesperson, to follow on from Fr John McAlpine. Dame Lyndsay’s then-parish priest in Remuera, Msgr Philip Purcell, suggested that she apply for the position.

Although shortlisted for the role, as were two male candidates, she didn’t like her chances. “I didn’t think for a minute I would get the job, because I also said I could only work from 9 until 3, because I had a son at school, and would need to have school holidays off.”

But Bishop Browne decided she was the best candidate and offered her the role, with hours designed to fit her requirements.

Woman

Dame Lyndsay believes she was the first woman in such a position in the Church in New Zealand, and that this made a difference.

“I think it softened the image of the Church,” she said.

“I don’t say this disrespectfully, but I think, rather than have what might have been seen to be a rigid clerical response to everything, here was a woman who was a wife and a mother. . . .”

Her work was recognised with her being made a papal dame in 1995, the first such award in Auckland diocese. Nationally, Dame Betty O’Dowd from Christchurch preceded her, she said with a smile.

In the late 1990s, the then-national communications director for the Catholic Church, Fr James Lyons, went back to pastoral work, and the
bishops invited Dame Lyndsay to apply for the role.

“And I, at first, was hesitant, because I said I was not prepared to move out of Auckland, where my family was.” She said that one of the conditions of her taking on the role was that the national communications office had to be in Auckland, which was, and is, she believes, the media centre of the country.

Highlights of her time as national communications director included the events of 2005, when she was able to be in Rome for the funeral of St John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI (and later, in 2013, to cover the conclave that elected Pope Francis). She also travelled throughout the country with the relics of St Therese of Lisieux in 2005, which saw crowds gather in churches throughout the nation in veneration, and was a “wonderful demonstration of our Catholic faith”.

But in 2008, the national office of communications was disestablished, a decision which disappointed Dame Lyndsay.

“I had the view that if a thing is not broken, don’t fix it,” she said.

“We were fortunate that the media came to us — to our office — for any enquiries to do with Christianity, and often concerning ethical or moral issues. We had a lot of clout with the media, and I feared that, if it was going to be restructured
in a totally different way, that was going to be lost.”

Although her national role was no more, Dame Lyndsay continued her Auckland diocese communications position. She also worked for the Society of Mary. In recent times, she has assisted Bishop Dunn in the new field of social media.

This is one aspect of the media landscape that has changed over the years, and it isn’t the only one.

Many people in media used to see the Church as an anachronism, and as irrelevant, Dame Lyndsay said, but that changed with a properly-functioning national communications office. However, she fears that many in the media have reverted to their former outlook.

“Media sees Church law in direct conflict with society’s prevailing values of individual freedoms and basic human rights. They believe their role is to challenge such teachings. There is deep resentment that institutions have the right to tell people how they should behave and live their personal lives.”

Counter-cultural

With so many in the media having values at odds with those of the Church, Dame Lyndsay saw her work as distinctly “counter-cultural”. Religion in many ways challenges “consumer culture”, while media, in many ways, seek to legitimise it.

That said, she also believes that the Church has benefitted from media, when it has discharged its rightful function reporting on scandals and uncovering abuse and corruption. But that shouldn’t slide into gratuitous insult, she added.

Dame Lyndsay has for years been the contact point for media reporting stories of clerical abuse. NZ Catholic asked her what toll this had taken on her

“I’m fortunate that I have many interests in my life, outside my work for the Church. Having been a more-or-less professional singer for many years, doing roles in opera and oratorio and broadcasting and lots of singing engagements — having a child and a large extended family gave me other perspectives.  My late husband was not a Catholic, and he helped me keep my feet on the ground and I tended not to bring my work home.  But I have always been deeply distressed by the disclosures of abuse within the Church community and the sense of betrayal that goes with it.

“One of the things that did upset me was . . . the fact that I met quite a lot of resentment within the Church community for the work I was doing. Criticism was not just confined to those outside the Church!”

Dame Lyndsay played a key role in helping with the establishment of the National Office for Professional Standards. She recalls calling for such a body to be established, and addressing a meeting of the Mixed Commission, made up of bishops and heads of religious orders.

“I actually decided to speak frankly, and say that I was very disappointed that, while all of the dioceses and the orders had signed up to the document which had not long been established — “A Path to Healing” — yet I was being questioned frequently by the media about dioceses and religious orders which did not follow the protocols that they had actually signed up to.”

She told the Mixed Commission of “my frustration and, in fact, my anger that there was dishonesty in the Church and that there was a serious need of reform. If we were going to say that we were transparent, and were going to follow a particular protocol and process, why were we not doing it, right across the board?  Some were, and some most certainly were not”.

The Church’s National Office for Professional Standards (NOPS) was established soon thereafter, and Dame Lyndsay was on the committee that interviewed some of the applicants to head the office. Former Police Commissioner, John Jameson, a Baptist, was appointed.

Dame Lyndsay had plenty more to say about the Church needing to commit more resources to missionary outreach, when it is currently, in her opinion, spending too much money, time, and resources “talking to ourselves”.

But future Church ventures will not have Dame Lyndsay working in any official capacity. Asked by NZ Catholic, what now for Lyndsay Freer? she replied: “I’m doing voluntary work, within the Church community, largely. But I will possibly  see if I can do some work within the hospice movement as well. I have family, and am still involved in singing and music, so there are still lots of things to do.”

 

Posted in

Michael Otto

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Ann Fallshaw says

    What a shame Australia does not have
    such ladies in the public view,
    particularly with acknowledgement
    of lasting character.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.