FOUR members of the Catholic Worker movement have been found guilty of wilful damage for their part in dismantling a brass sword from an historic war memorial cross in Brisbane.
Jim Dowling, 61, his son Franz Dowling, Andrew Paine and Tim Webb each represented themselves in the Brisbane Magistrates Court and pleaded not guilty to damaging the Cross of Sacrifice, erected in the Toowong Cemetery in 1924 as part of Queensland’s first Anazac Day memorial.
Brisbane’s mayor Graham Quirk, the RSL and veterans spoke out against the action which took place on Ash Wednesday, March 1, after the men released a video to the media showing Jim Dowling using a ladder to scale the cross and loosen the sword with a crowbar before the blade fell to the ground.
The video, shot by Andrew Paine and tendered in court as evidence, also showed Tim Webb using a hammer and anvil to beat the blade into the shape of a garden hoe.
The video also showed several dozen onlookers, including Franz Dowling who played the guitar and sang.
His singing included a hymn The Vine and the Fig Tree, which made reference to “turning swords into plowshares”.
After removing the sword, the Catholic group assembled near the memorial, to celebrate Mass with a visiting priest.
In court, an impact statement written by RSL Queensland’s state president Stewart Cameron described “the attack” on the cross as causing great offence and outrage amongst the ex-services community.
“The memorial was erected by the community to ensure that the selflessness and courage of those who served this country is forever remembered and respected by society,” the statement said.
Jim Dowling defended the group’s action on Ash Wednesday, “a day when Christians traditionally repent their sins”.
“We thought that was an appropriate day to repent of Christian war-making … so we went there with that thought in mind,” he told the court.
Dowling said it was blasphemy for a sword to be attached to a cross, and he felt compelled to remove it.
During a first interview by police played in court, Jim Dowling said the men “felt called by God to do something, make a strong statement”.
“We didn’t set out to destroy or damage it (the cross), we wanted to transform it and improve it, which is what we did,” he said.
Chief magistrate Ray Rinaudo said he did not doubt the men believed what they were doing was right, but the law condemned destruction in public places.
“While we aspire to religious freedom, we must condemn actions where that is taken to the lengths of destroying public property,” he said.
Jim Dowling, described by the prosecutor as a “serial protester”, was handed a three-month wholly suspended jail sentence, ordered to serve 100 hours of community service and to pay restitution for half of the $17,812 damages bill.
Webb was ordered to complete 100 hours of community service and pay the remainder of the restitution.
Franz Dowling was fined $1000 but no conviction was recorded. Paine, who shot the protest action video and emailed a press release informing media, was convicted and fined $1500.