Andrew Thorburn resigns as Essendon CEO after one day over links to controversial church

<span>Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

Andrew Thorburn has resigned as Essendon chief executive 24 hours after being appointed because his links to a church condemning homosexuality and abortion were in “direct contradiction” to the values of the AFL club.

The Bombers announced on Tuesday afternoon that Thorburn, despite not holding the same personal views as the City on the Hill movement for which he is chairman, felt he could not serve in both roles and had offered his resignation.

“As soon as the comments relating to a 2013 sermon from a pastor at the City of the Hill church came to light this morning, we acted immediately to clarify the publicly espoused views on the organisation’s official website, which are in direct contradiction to our values as a club,” the Essendon president, Dave Barham, said in a statement.

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“Essendon is committed to providing an inclusive, diverse and safe club, where everyone is welcome and respected.

“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 the Hill. The board respects Andrew’s decision.”

The acting chief executive, Nick Ryan, will continue in the role while the club commences the process of appointing a new one.

The Bombers’ announcement on Monday that Thorburn would succeed Xavier Campbell was met with an almost-immediate backlash over his position with City on a Hill, which has equated abortion with concentration camps and claims “practising homosexuality is a sin”.

On Tuesday, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, described those views as “absolutely appalling”, while the deputy mayor of the City of Port Phillip, Tim Baxter, said he would rescind his club membership because as “a bisexual man I cannot feel welcome in this club”.

A City on a Hill article from 2013, titled Surviving Same Sex Attraction as a Christian, advises those who “struggle with same-sex attraction” to “speak to a mature Christian whom you trust, so you can receive the support and accountability you will need in the long term to survive these temptations”.

Those views were reiterated in a 2016 sermon stating “practising homosexuality is a sin, but same-sex attraction is not a sin”.

Another sermon, published in 2013 and titled What Should Christians Think About Abortion, said: “Whereas today we look back at 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.”

The church reaffirmed this position in a 2018 sermon stating that “even women who have raised children conceived through their rape have not regretted aborting their child”.

Thorburn joined City on a Hill in 2014 and said some of the material on its website pre-dated his involvement.

“I’ve never heard these things expressed in my time, I’ve been on the board two years,” Thorburn told SEN on Tuesday morning.

“I’m not a pastor, my job in a governance role is to make sure it’s run well, I don’t always agree with what’s said. If we want a diverse society, it also means there’s going to be people with different views.”

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Essendon said in their statement that neither the board nor Thorburn were aware of the comments from the 2013 sermon until they read them on Tuesday morning.

“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,” Barham said on behalf of the football club.

Thorburn, a former National Australia Bank chief executive who resigned in 2019 after his leadership was criticised by the banking royal commission, had upon his appointment been praised by Barham as “a man of great integrity and exceptional vision”.

The Purple Bombers diversity and inclusion supporter group welcomed Tuesday evening’s news.

The president, Bindi Smith, said on Twitter: “Following community outcry and reflection by Essendon FC, we welcome the announcement that Thorburn will NOT be our CEO. Purple Bombers will continue to work alongside Essendon FC to advocate for our community and create a safe, inclusive place to come and support our beloved Bombers.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Thorburn said his faith had made him a better leader.

“My role as a CEO is to ensure the organisations I lead [and] I think my record stands for this, are inclusive and welcoming and caring. That makes us a more human organisation and makes us a higher-performing organisation,” he said.

“I haven’t been a perfect CEO, but my respect for people, my care, my love, my welcoming style – I welcome all those people. Look at my actions, and look at my words as a leader and the organisations I’ve created to enable safe, diverse workplaces.”

Asked how he would respond to a gay player challenging him on the church’s views, Thorburn said: “I would say thank you and I respect and care about you and you’re welcome in this organisation and I want to hear what you think and to ensure that you feel safe and can speak out. So I want people to know who I am and how I lead and how I engage, that’s what they should rely on.”