This cartoon was drawn by Jeff Hook especially for the Advocate. It appeared in the final edition of the Advocate on 6 September 1990

A Tribute by Peter Lalor Philp

He wasn’t Irish; however, he was a fierce Celtic warrior – Father Bob Maguire who died recently in Melbourne.

Many of the tributes paid to this remarkable Catholic priest have rereferred to him as a larrikin. After working alongside him on two occasions I would never call him a larrikin – certainly a rebel who believed in, not only helping the poor but calling out injustice in the community and the sound of silence that frequently pervaded church officials on matters of social inequality.

Bob wasn’t one for holiness and devotion but expounded a gospel that he lived out daily. He loved to be irreverent because it was his way of demonstrating how so much of Christianity had adopted various forms of popular religiosity and fundamentalism. 

He was educated by the Irish Christian Brothers at Melbourne’s CBC St. Kilda. That is where I first uncounted Bob Maguire as my school prefect and even in those early days, he was one to look up to. 

Later as a journalist I really got to know him. Like Spike Milligan, Father Bob developed a wicked sense of humour and once his audience was totally switched into what he was saying, he would deliver his message. Some Catholics liked him; many Protestants and non-churchgoers loved him. Taking risks was part of his presentation. When he heard that I was about to go and work in terror-ridden El Salvador in the 1980s, he requested that I do an interview with him direct from San Salvador for his 3AW radio program. I explained that my hotel, where so many of the international media were accommodated, phones would be constantly monitored by the local Treasury Security police and probably the US Embassy in that city.  ‘That’s alright,’ he said, ‘I’ll ask the questions and leave you to answer them the way you want.’ I was not arrested or deported, and it was a great interview.  

As Managing Editor of Melbourne’s Catholic Advocate, I employed Bob to do the weekly gospel reflection. This was Bob at this theological best. Telling the Jesus story simply but leading the reader deeper and deeper into the significance of the reading and the responsibilities it carried. His column was not only well read but clearly understood. 

I was invited by Father Bob to the deserted Christian Brother’s Technical College in South Melbourne to see his latest project. He had reopened the bleak and neglected structure, now instead of ghosts there was a team of homeless young people refurbishing an old motor vehicle. He had plans to extend the project. I thought what a great story and sought comment from the Melbourne Archdiocese about this productive program. Its reaction: ‘What the hell is he doing in there. We want to sell the place’, one church official barked at me.

The morning he rang to invite me to the circus was the ultimate illustration of his brilliance as a social justice prophet. For weeks he had been attempting to awaken the authorities to blatant abuse of street kids in and around public lavatory blocks in St Kilda by some notorieties. Nobody took any interest in the warnings, so an angry and frustrated Father Bob went public on the Sunday night news. At dawn, the next morning the sleeping law enforcement agencies were on their feet hunting not the abusers but calling for Bob Maguire’s blood. He had dared to challenge the system. 

There I was at the rear old the Coroners Court near the Melbourne’s Jolimont rail yards witnessing what Bob had predicted, a three-ring circus with the priest encircled by a collection of incensed bureaucrats demanding a lynching. I thought I was back in Central America. His responses would have made Spike Milligan proud. Finally, instead of pounding the meeting’s chairman with questions to be relayed to the ‘Reverend Father Maguire’, one by one the officials gave in and ignored the chairman, but while still noticeably shaken and desperately grasping for some calming relief, they addressed Bob asking: ‘What can we do about this situation?’  He had them all right where he wanted them – a humbled mob, listening.

It was a masterpiece in communication. The humour had vanished, and he was taking them right inside the dark reality of sexual abuse that was happening on their watch and being committed by many whom these people were trying to protect.

So, what does one say about Bob Maguire. Thank God for his 88-year ministry. 

Peter Lalor Philp

Peter Lalor Philp is the great-great grandson of Peter Lalor, and also Melbourne journalist and a broadcasting historian.