NSW government: defending the indefensible

July 19, 2008

The fact that the NSW Labor government's World Youth Day laws — which would have made "annoying" Catholic pilgrims during WYD activities a crime punishable by fines of up to $5500 — was a failed attempt to silence criticisms of the Catholic Church was brought home when WYD organiser Bishop Anthony Fisher effectively dismissed criticism of the church's handling of cases of child sexual abuse by clergy.

Responding in part to public criticisms by Andrew Foster, whose two daughters had been repeatedly abused by Catholic priest Father Kevin O'Donnell, Fisher said on July 16 that some victims were "crankily dwelling on old wounds". One of Foster's daughters committed suicide and the other was permanently disabled in a car accident after a long struggle with alcoholism.

Foster requested a formal apology from the church and a meeting with the pope, and insisted that the church ends its policy of covering up and resisting compensation claims by victims.

On July 19, the pope included in his address to pilgrims an apology to the victims of sexual abuse by clergy, however, individual victims and their families have not been allowed to meet with him. Foster said that the pope's apology was inadequate in the absence of serious action by the church to redress the wrongs and stop further abuse.

The NoToPope Coalition (NTPC), which successfully challenged the government's anti-free speech laws in the Federal Court (see article on page 3), focused its criticisms on the implementation in government policy of some of the more reactionary ideas espoused by the church hierarchy.

The NTPC especially targeted policies that limit information about, and access to, condoms, a particular problem for the Third World where HIV/AIDS funding from Western countries is increasingly dependent on agencies promoting abstinence rather than condom use as the main way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. Soubhi Iskander from the Sudanese Human Rights Association and a member of the NTPC explained, "The pope's policy on condoms is a death sentence for millions within Africa".

Many governments use conservative church policies to justify unjust laws and policies on reproductive and sexual rights. This is despite repeated survey results that show widespread public support, including among Catholics, for women's right to abortion, and equality for gays and lesbians, for example.

The July 15 Federal Court decision upheld people's right to publicly criticise the church and challenge bad laws. It was an important victory, not only for freedom of speech, but also in the battle to end the powerful influence of dangerous conservative ideological positions — justified on religious grounds — on public policy.

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