New Essendon CEO Andrew Thorburn resigns after church controversy

Andrew Thorburn has quit his role as chief executive officer of the Essendon Football Club barely 24 hours after his appointment.

The stunning turn of events comes after it was revealed he was chairman of a church organisation, City on a Hill, that has denounced homosexuality and likened abortion to the operation of concentration camps in sermons dating as far back as 2013.

Thorburn’s recruitment was initially described by Essendon president David Barham as “bold and decisive” but was met with vocal criticism from high-profile members, including Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who is an Essendon member.

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Speaking to reporters after Thorburn’s exit was made official, Barham said 57-year-old Thorburn was given a choice between retaining his role at the club or at the church, and he chose the church.

The Bombers president denounced the comments from the City on a Hill sermon as “horrible” and “not something that’s reflected in the values of the Essendon Football Club at all”.

Barham said he takes full responsibility for the bungled CEO hire, which follows a failed attempt at luring Alastair Clarkson to the club while still employing former head coach Ben Rutten, a move which had infuriated Essendon’s playing group.

“It’s difficult because in interview processes you’re not allowed to ask about people’s religious (beliefs), it’s against the law,” he told reporters on Tuesday evening.

“What we did as soon as we saw them was we acted. This morning I saw him (Thorburn) first thing and we spent most of the day talking and he decided (resigning) was what he would do.

“These comments were buried deep in sermons from years ago, so they weren’t as easily found.

“At the end of the day, I reference-checked Andrew thoroughly. I rang five incredibly high-profile people who had worked with him and worked for him, and I had no reason to think anything other than he was a suitable candidate.”

Thorburn had won the Essendon CEO job in part due to his work on the external review of the club, which has been led by consulting firm Ernst & Young. Barham was adamant Thorburn’s connections with the church had not compromised the review, which is close to being complete.

Thorburn was also on the six-person coaching sub-committee that appointed Brad Scott as Essendon’s new senior coach last week.

In a club statement, Barham said the views of the City on a Hill church were “in direct contradiction” to the views of the Essendon Football Club.

“Essendon is committed to providing an inclusive, diverse and a safe club, where everyone is welcome and respected,” he said in the statement on Tuesday afternoon.

“The board made clear that, despite these not being views that Andrew Thorburn has expressed personally and that were also made prior to him taking up his role as chairman, he couldn’t continue to serve in his dual roles at the Essendon Football Club and as chairman of City on a Hill.

“We are deeply committed to our values and support wholeheartedly the work of the AFL in continuing to stamp out any discrimination based on race, sex, religion, gender, sexual identity or orientation, or physical or mental disability.

“I want to stress that neither the board nor Andrew was aware of the comments from the 2013 sermon until we read about them this morning. I also want to stress that this is not about vilifying anyone for their personal religious beliefs, but about a clear conflict of interest with an organisation whose views do not align at all with our values as a safe, inclusive, diverse and welcoming club for our staff, our players, our members, our fans, our partners and the wider community.”

Essendon’s acting CEO Nick Ryan will continue in the role as the club embarks on a process to appoint its next full-time chief executive.

Thorburn claims ‘personal Christian faith not tolerated’

Thorburn released his own statement in the wake of his exit from Essendon being confirmed.

“Today it became clear to me that my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square, at least by some and perhaps by many,” the statement posted to his personal LinkedIn account read, in part.

“I was being required to compromise beyond a level that my conscience allowed. People should be able to hold different views on complex personal and moral matters, and be able to live and work together, even with those differences, and always with respect. Behaviour is the key. This is all an important part of a tolerant and diverse society.”

Thorburn said he was “saddened” by the events of Tuesday, and lamented the fact that he was put in a position to choose between the club and the church.

“Despite my own leadership record, within hours of my appointment being announced, the media and leaders of our community had spoken,” he said.

“They made it clear that my Christian faith and my association with a Church are unacceptable in our culture if you wish to hold a leadership position in society.

“This grieves me greatly – though not just for myself, but for our society overall. I believe we are poorer for the loss of our great freedoms of thought, conscience and belief that made for a truly diverse, just and respectful community.”

Andrews slams appointment of Essendon CEO

According to the City on a Hill website, Thorburn became a Christian in 2002 and has attended since 2014.

The City on a Hill website sheds light on the church’s beliefs regarding abortion, with one sermon published in 2016, reading: “We believe that we must be a voice for the voiceless, and stand for the rights of the unborn baby and be pro-life.

“Human life begins at conception. All women and men have intrinsic value and worth as images of God. Abortion denies the voice of the most vulnerable … 80 per cent of those who have aborted their child have regretted it.”

In another sermon on the site, it is stated: “Whereas today we look back at (sic) sadness and disgust over concentration camps, future generations will look back with sadness at the legal murder of hundreds of thousands of human beings every day through medicine and in the name of freedom.”

A further sermon on homosexuality reads: “Sex is designed for marriage, and marriage for fulfilling God’s mandate for humans to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. The Torah condemned the practice of homosexuality so that Israel would stand out among the nations.

Essendon president announces resignation of club CEO

“Through Christ, who fulfilled the law, we enter a new law of grace, where struggle is not a sin, but we are told to flee sexual immorality and glorify God with our bodies.

“The Bible never calls same-sex attraction a sin. Lust is a sin, sex outside of marriage is a sin, practising homosexuality is a sin, but same-sex attraction is not a sin.

“The Christian walk is one of struggle with sin yet in the gospel we can find forgiveness and grace. We ought to find our true love, satisfaction, and acceptance in Jesus.”

Premier blasts ‘absolutely appalling’ views

Speaking in a press conference on Tuesday, Andrews strongly denounced those views.

“Firstly, the appointment of a CEO to a football club is a matter for the board of that football club,” he said.

“Secondly, those views are absolutely appalling.

“I don’t support those views, that kind of intolerance, that kind of hatred, bigotry, is just wrong.

“Those sort of attitudes are simply wrong and to dress that up as anything other than bigotry is just obviously false.”

Andrews’ comments came soon after City of Port Melbourne Deputy Mayor Tim Baxter tweeted: “I’ve made the difficult decision to resign my Essendon FC membership, and those of my children, due to the Essendon board’s decision to appoint the chair of a homophobic and anti-health care church to the position of CEO.

“I urge anyone who cares about queer rights to resign also … While the decision to appoint Brad Scott as coach was, in my view, a good one, the decision to appoint Andrew Thorburn as CEO is spitting in the face of every queer Essendon member, as well as any member or supporter who supports women’s rights to reproductive healthcare … As a bisexual man I cannot feel welcome in this club. @essendonfc your decision, when the club has desperately needed a solid, uncontroversial path forward, has instead ripped the club back to the dark ages, and alienated your members.”

Speaking at the Crichton Medal ceremony on Monday night, Barham described Thorburn as a “man of great integrity and exceptional vision” prior to the CEO’s first official address to the club.

“His experience at being the CEO of the NAB, one of the country’s largest organisations and the AFL’s major sponsors will be invaluable as we further relationships with governments, the AFL, valued members and sponsors,” Barham said.

“To my knowledge no other AFL club has ever secured the services of an ASX-listed Top 10 company CEO to run its club.”

Thorburn served as chief executive of NAB from 2014 to 2019 and was forced to resign from his position at NAB due to findings made by the Royal Commission into misconduct in the banking industry in 2019.

ANDREW THORBURN’S FULL STATEMENT AFTER RESIGNATION

“Yesterday was one of the proudest days of my life. To be offered the role of CEO of the Essendon Football Club – who I have followed since I was a boy – was a profound honour. At last night’s Crichton medal, I could hardly contain my passion and wonder at the opportunity. I love the club, love the people, and was incredibly excited about the work ahead. I had seen a picture of a club that was not as broken as feared, and that with leadership and focus, could rebound strongly.

“However, today it became clear to me that my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square, at least by some and perhaps by many. I was being required to compromise beyond a level that my conscience allowed. People should be able to hold different views on complex personal and moral matters, and be able to live and work together, even with those differences, and always with respect. Behaviour is the key. This is all an important part of a tolerant and diverse society.

“Let me be clear – I love all people, and have always promoted and lived an inclusive, diverse, respectful and supportive workplace – where people are welcomed regardless of their culture, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation. I believe my record over a long period of time testifies to this.

“Despite my own leadership record, within hours of my appointment being announced, the media and leaders of our community had spoken. They made it clear that my Christian faith and my association with a Church are unacceptable in our culture if you wish to hold a leadership position in society.

“This grieves me greatly – though not just for myself, but for our society overall. I believe we are poorer for the loss of our great freedoms of thought, conscience and belief that made for a truly diverse, just and respectful community.

“My faith is central to who I am. Since coming to faith in Jesus 20 years ago, I have seen profound change in my life, and I believe God has made me a better husband, father, and friend. It has also helped me become a better leader. That is because at the centre of my faith is the belief that you should create a community and care for people, because they are created by and loved by God and have a deep intrinsic value.

“As it happens, I do sometimes disagree with things I hear in church – but I believe strongly in the right of people to say them, especially when taken in context. Reducing complex matters to a sentence is dangerous. Australia has a long tradition of diversity and religious freedom, and that must include preserving space for religious people to be able to express their religious beliefs.

“I am saddened by these events. I wish the Club success, and thank Dave Barham in particular for the opportunity he gave me. I hope the external review leads to great change. I am truly sorry that I will not be able to work with the whole Essendon team, and Brad Scott and Josh Mahoney in particular.”

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