MPs from both sides back euthanasia reform

Parliamentarians from both sides of politics declared their support for voluntary euthanasia on Tuesday, following a Senate report that could pave the way for a free vote on national right-to-die laws.

Labor's deputy leader Tanya Plibersek and former Howard government minister Mal Brough were among MPs to add their voices to calls for dying with dignity reform.

Their comments follow the release of a multi-party Senate committee report on Monday that recommended party leaders allow MPs a free vote on euthanasia.

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, whose six members included three coalition Senators, recommended a conscience vote following an inquiry on the first proposals for national euthanasia laws, put forward by Greens senator Richard di Natale.

Senator di Natale's draft bill would make it legal for medical practitioners to help a terminally ill, mentally competent adult end their life.

Federal Parliament has been asked to consider the issue of euthanasia just once before. In 1996, it voted for a private member's bill introduced by Liberal frontbencher Kevin Andrews to overturn Northern Territory laws that legalised euthanasia. On that occasion, both major parties granted their MPs a free vote.

Whether coalition MPs would be granted a conscience vote on national dying-with-dignity laws remains to be seen.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in China attending the APEC summit, was not available to comment on the approach the Coalition would take to such a bill.

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Michael Keenan said:

"There is currently no legislation before the parliament on this matter. Should there be legislation presented in the future, it will be dealt with by the party room in the usual way."

Nationals Senator John Williams said while heopposed euthanasia, he supported a free vote.

"This is a contentious issue, a sensitive issue and a religious issue," he told Fairfax Media. "I personally would not support it, but I have no problem with a conscience vote."

Labor MPs automatically have a conscience vote on euthanasia.

Labor's deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said "I support voluntary euthanasia with appropriate regulation and safeguards," a view reinforced by her experience of watching her father Joseph die slowly and painfully from cancer in 2012.

Liberal MP Mal Brough, who voted against the Andrews bill in 1996, said while he had not seen the Di Natale bill, "I support the notion of dying with dignity."

A spokesman for the leader of the house, Christopher Pyne, said he did not believe euthanasia should be legal.

Nationals Senator Barry O'Sullivan, a member of the Senate committee that examined the Di Natale bill, said he was "seriously opposed" to euthanasia because he believed the state should not involve itself in matters of life and death.

"Once you legislate for voluntary euthanasia on certain terms, over time it stands to reason that these terms can be expanded or broadened. I think we should stay right out of the space," he said.

Liberal Democratic Party senator David Leyonhjelm said his party supported euthanasia for people of sound mind as long as their choice was totally voluntary.

"We take the view that if suicide is legal – and it is, and so it should be – it's not moral to deny people assistance to commit suicide just because they're too feeble to do it for themselves," he said.

"We just don't think the government has the right to tell you that you have to stay alive if you are determined not to stay alive. It's not the government's business," Senator Leyonhjelm said.

Senator di Natale will consider issues raised by the committee with a view to introducing an improved bill, co-sponsored by MPs from other parties, in the first half of 2015.


Right to die: Choosing an end to life

The desperation of the dying is something Melbourne woman Catherine Ringwood knows intimately. Much of her adult life has been spent in its company, first as a nurse then later as a counsellor for the pro-euthanasia organisation, Exit International.

It became personal 15 years ago when she was diagnosed at just 49 with leukaemia. Since then, Ringwood has fought hard for her life: chemotherapy, radiotherapy, then a mastectomy five years ago after an out of the blue breast cancer diagnosis and finally, gratefully, as a human guinea pig in a cancer drug trial.

The drugs aren’t working anymore and even though I am a positive person, I know I am pretty much out of medical answers. I feel some trepidation and obviously a great deal of sadness but I am also so glad I have thought deeply about how I want to die and had the conversation with those I love.
Catherine Ringwood

A month ago Ringwood, now 64, was told by her doctors at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre that the disease was back for good. "The drugs aren't working any more and even though I am a positive person, I know I am pretty much out of medical answers," she says. "I feel some trepidation and obviously a great deal of sadness but I am also so glad I have thought deeply about how I want to die and had the conversation with those I love.
Philip Nitschke with his 94-year-old mother, Gwen, who wants to die.

Philip Nitschke with his 94-year-old mother, Gwen, who wants to die.

"If I get to a point where I'm unable to walk, toilet myself, live independently then this would be unacceptable and I would choose to die."

Like many living with a terminal illness or with incurable suffering, maintaining control over their life – and death – is the most important thing.

Her decision to speak publicly about her own end of life plans is crazy-brave in the current climate.

Since April police have raided homes of Exit members in South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia, searching for the banned euthanasia drug, Nembutal. A few weeks ago, a Victorian couple had a surprise visit from two Australian Federal police officers after Customs intercepted a parcel from Thailand containing a banned drug.

"Let them put me in jail, a lot of people in Exit are frightened but not me – can you imagine? Terminally ill woman in jail for victimless crime. Let them try," Ringwood says. Even so, her "action plan" is a secret and she makes it clear, she isn't about to jeopardise that.

"I have the 'information' I need to make my own end of life choice and that's what is keeping me sane right now," Ringwood says. "It would be a major catastrophe if that was taken away.

"Having a plan means that one day, I can give my hematologist a hug and thank him. I've never discussed this with my doctors though, because I am frightened they will say I'm depressed, and feel its one more thing they have to try and fix."

Information, knowledge, action plan, peaceful pill are all euphemisms used by scared, often terminally ill or elderly but sometimes perfectly well people as code for Nembutal. It is the holy grail of the voluntary euthanasia movement used here by vets to put down animals and by legal euthanasia programs in Europe to end the lives of people. It's the drug that turns otherwise law-abiding people into drug smugglers, death tourists, law breakers.

At the beginning of the 21st century, advances in medical technology have made it possible to maintain life where it was previously impossible. But those advances have pushed us into new medical, moral and ethical territory. With the use of sophisticated life support systems, is life being sustained or is death being deferred?

It is an issue many liken to the abortion debate of the 1960s and one which the medical profession, the church, hospitals, nursing homes, and parliaments as well as the broader community, is being forced to confront.

All agree the rights of the dying is the hot ethical debate of the times and will only intensify as the pro-rights baby boomer generation finds itself facing death.

There have been attempts at law reform in every state and territory bar Queensland. In 1996, Australia became, briefly the first jurisdiction in the world to legalise euthanasia for the terminally ill. It was overturned nine months later by the Howard government.

Now, a Greens-sponsored draft dying with dignity bill is winding its way through the committee process of the federal Parliament. It is the first federal attempt at legislation. One of its architects is South Australian GP turned senator Richard Di Natale. He says the time has come for an honest national conversation on end of life choices.

"Look, we know its happening in an unregulated space behind closed doors so there is a strong argument to say lets do it openly and try and break down some of the taboos around death and dying," Di Natale says.

Nearly two decades of reporting from the frontlines of the euthanasia debate has taught me that fear of dying, not fear of death, is the issue that motivates ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Stashed bottles of barbiturates, clandestine trips to dodgy Mexican border towns, failed suicide attempts, money lost in scam internet deals.

Fear of pain, but also the indignity of being trapped in a body which no longer functions but where the brain is as active as ever, can transform the most law abiding and conservative citizens into fugitives.

Not all people interviewed for this story were prepared to be identified. They don't want to risk having their drugs found, scared relatives alerted or their doctors tipped off.

One couple - we'll call them Carol and Bill - are in their 60s and in good health, and say they recently imported cyanide from Thailand after researching the subject carefully.

This is a new and alarming development in the euthanasia drug black market. Testing showed the drug was not pure and so Carol and Bill, like informed consumers, complained to the supplier and another package was sent. They say they are being responsible by planning for their future and liken it to writing an advance care directive or taking out life insurance.

"We're not alone, many of our friends feel the same way," Carol says. "It's our generation I guess, we're not used to having to put up with pain, we are used to choice. Its interesting how many people have made their plans, equipped themselves and now can get on with their lives."

Her own mother committed suicide by drinking Nembutal just before her 90th birthday. "She was not sick, she was not depressed, she just decided it was time to die. It was not a secret, we all knew her feelings because she valued life, she had meditated on this decision for a very long time. It was a textbook case of rational suicide."

But Carol's mother died alone. She rang her daughter after she had swallowed the medicine but no one was home. "She left a message on the answering machine saying she was sorry, she was tired and it was time to go. She was protecting us to the end by not involving us. I just wish she hadn't had to go through that last hour alone."

Earlier this year a fascinating correspondence took place between the former chief minister of the Northern Territory and passionate voluntary euthanasia supporter, Marshall Perron, and the South Australian coroner, Mark Johns.

Perron wrote to all Australian coroners seeking their views on what he termed "an unrecognised phenomenon in Australia ... the growing incidence of rational suicide by the elderly and the terminally and hopelessly ill". He was trying to gather some facts to support his contention that too many ill people are choosing to end their life prematurely and alone while they are still physically or mentally able.

"There is anecdotal evidence that such disguised deaths occur regularly..." he wrote.

Only Johns replied. "Much of what you say is quite correct and accords with my own experience," he said. " I agree that these deaths are a sad reflection on our society and the choices that many elderly people face...

"Whilst many coroners might privately agree that voluntary euthanasia ought to be available, coroners, like other members of the judiciary, should not involve themselves in political debates that are as hotly contested as that one.

"I do agree that the public is generally unaware. They rely on the people they elect to lead them to inform them of such matters and instigate debate."

Dr Rodney Syme has just come from the bedside of a terminally ill man who took his life the night before. Syme offers few details because he is aware that the police might turn up asking impossible questions of a grieving wife.

"I was there because I'd offered to support this person and to make sure the process went OK. We had a long conversation for an hour and half, going over it all again and then he took the medication and it was all over in about 20 minutes. I spent another three quarters of an hour with the wife talking over what had happened and she offered me a glass of scotch and I had it."

Suicide is not a crime in Australia but assisting someone to die is. Is just being present a felony? "The police have told me its not but aiding and abetting, for example handing someone a drug to take, is illegal," Syme says.

Personally, he has been goading police to arrest him for years. He admitted giving Nembutal to former Victorian journalist Steve Guest in 2005 while he was dying of esophageal cancer but the police have said there is not enough evidence to press charges.

Dying with Dignity Victoria – Syme is vice president – represents the mainstream "physician assisted dying" side of the debate which is the position the Greens draft bill espouses. They want law reform so that doctors who currently work in the murky grey zone of "terminal sedation" can practice without fear of prosecution. And the terminally ill and chronically suffering can have a peaceful, painless death at a time of their choosing.

"Medical assistance at the end of a person's life is just good palliative care," Syme says. "It's not illegal to commit suicide, to refuse medical treatment including refusing artificial food and fluids, to ask for medical treatment to be withdrawn – there is only this missing bit at the end – to allow people a dignified death with assistance by a doctor."

Gwen Nitschke wants to die but the very last person who can help her is her son, Philip Nitschke, the world's most controversial voluntary euthanasia advocate and, currently, a suspended doctor fighting for his medical registration and reputation.

It's deeply ironic that the 94-year-old, who has lived in a nursing home in Adelaide for the past six years and is still sharp as a tack, wakes up every morning and announces to the world that she wishes she was dead. Her son, who has written the book on ways to die as well as being the first doctor in the world to practice legal physician-assisted dying, cannot help her.

Gwen is not terminally ill, she is like so many elderly Australians, slowly dying. She can't move about without using a walking frame or wheelchair and she is lonely; living to nearly 100 means she has watched most of her friends go first.

"I am tired and I just want this to end," she says in a phone interview the week before her son's appeal against his suspension.

"I wish I'd done something earlier to help send me on my way but I left my run too late."

Nitschke says his mother feels stranded. "The weekly visits out to the nursing home are invariably difficult, stressful and hard going for her and us. Waiting is a form of suffering and that's what she is doing. I feel quite sad that I can't give her the drugs, I feel upset by her situation. She looks at me each time and says the same thing. 'It's just my luck to have you as a son'."


Righting a travesty for the terminally ill


Today, The Age calls on Federal Parliament to recognise in law the right of terminally ill people to choose, under rigorously regulated circumstances, the timing and manner of their death. In coming hours, the cross-party Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee is expected to report on such a legislative proposal by Greens senator Richard Di Natale. Throughout this week we will be publishing, across our digital platforms and in our newspaper, stories, interviews and arguments to ventilate the case for change, and we invite our readers to participate in the debate in the pages of the paper and online.

The committee may well raise a small number of concerns, but we believe, as other nations have shown, it is eminently possible to produce a law with adequate safeguards. And we believe the moment has arrived for our lawmakers to respect a position surveys have long shown is supported by as many as eight in 10 of our citizens.

We hold that life is inestimably precious and should be protected. But we recognise there are many terminally ill people who suffer dreadfully. In such cases, we share the view of Dr Rodney Syme, one of the leading proponents for physician-assisted death and a man who openly admits to having helped terminally ill people die by giving them the means and knowledge to end their suffering. He is doing so for Peter Short, a Melbourne man close to death who has been campaigning for the right to choose and who is one of the people who inspired Senator Di Natale's bill. A video interview with Mr Short, who testified before the Senate committee, is part of our coverage this week.

Dr Syme's argument, based on decades of experience, is compelling: dying may be associated with excruciating suffering, and there may be a crescendo of suffering as death draws nigh; a doctor's duty is to relieve suffering; some suffering will only be relieved by death; a doctor's duty is to respect a patient's autonomy; some patients rationally and persistently request assistance to die; and, palliative care cannot relieve all the pain and suffering of dying patients. Palliative support is central to our advocacy – most people who have the option of physician-assisted death do not take it, but as Dr Syme, Mr Short and many others attest, those who do have that option immediately benefit because it alleviates fear and anxiety.

Some argue that people might unduly make such a final decision because they are depressed or feel they are a burden to others, and that unscrupulous relatives might seek to manipulate a patient. Overseas experience suggests these concerns are misplaced. Another issue the committee report might raise is definitional boundaries. What should be the definition of terminal, for example? We believe settling this is also readily within the capacity of our lawmakers.

As we have stressed in the past, we do not support voluntary euthanasia advocate Dr Philip Nitschke, because through his organisation, Exit International, he aids people who are not terminally ill to die by suicide, and we are concerned he is fuelling inappropriate demand – and an online black market – for a particular drug being used to induce death. It is in the public interest to pass a law that permits medical practitioners such as Dr Syme to offer peace to terminally ill patients but prevents those like Dr Nitschke from facilitating the death of people who should instead receive treatment.

The time has come for Australia's political leaders to not only grant a conscience vote, but to urge their colleagues to advance our civilisation by passing well-honed legislation. This issue concerns all humanity. It transcends party politics, and it behoves our elected representatives to show courage and decency by delivering an enlightened, compassionate change.


Victorian Secular Lobby and the 2014 State Election

Election 2014

The Victorian Secular Lobby is running a public information campaign during the 2014 State Election. Do you support the separation of Church and State? Then please donate to our campaign! You can either use Paypal (above) or contact us for other methods at

We wish to highlight those issues that have come up the current and previous legislature that indicate the dedication of candidates in this coming election to ensure the principle of freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

This includes treating religious organisations the same as non-religious organisations and leaving self-regarding issues to the decision of the individual conscience.

Crowdfunding Targets and Recognition

George Holyoake

We're a small organisation and as a result we have modest targets as follows.

$500. Production of 5000 DL campaign pamphlets.
$1000. Production of 5000 DL campaign pamphlets.
$3000. Extended social media campaign.

The level that you can donate will receive the following recognition. Distributors will receive an equivalent recognition of 250 leaflets for $25.

$1. A thank you email from the Victorian Secular Lobby.
$10. As above, plus recognition on our Victorian Election 2014 page (anonymous if desired).
$50 As above, but highlighted on the website.
$100. As above, Secular Justice Warrior! Framed certificate from the VSL for your contribution.
$500. As above, plus a “George Holyoake” trophy

We are also looking for volunteers to assist in the campaign; please email

Issues of Concern

Special Religious Instruction. Special religious instruction is defined as: "instruction provided by churches and other religious groups and based on distinctive religious tenets and beliefs". Access Ministries conduct 96% of classes. Is not taught by teachers (instructors can receive as little as one day's training), and does not teach general religious education, i.e., it is instruction, not education. It also is publically funded.

Equal Opportunity Act. The Act of 2010 provided a more limited level of special religious exceptions exemptions from equal opportunity, limiting it positions that were directly related to the conduct of the religious activity. Now religious bodies and religious schools can discriminate on the basis of a person's religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, martial status, parental status or gender identity
where the discrimination conforms to the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion.

Abortion Reform Act. Following the Abortion Law Reform Act of 2008, the performance of an abortion by a qualified person was removed from the Crimes Act. Medical practitioners and nurses who have a conscientious objection to abortion must inform the patient with information about a medical practitioner who does not have any such objection. Medical practitioners and nurses have a duty to perform or assist in performing an emergency abortion if the pregnant woman's life is in danger. Some politicians have indicated that they wish to overturn these reproductive rights.

Racial and Religious Tolerance Act of 2001. This seeks to promote racial and religious tolerance in a multicultural democracy by prohibiting
the vilification of persons on the basis of their 'race' or their religious belief and activity. However the intentions do not match the content. The legislation prohibits "conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons", regardless of their veracity. It would be better to extend defamation clauses to allow class actions against untrue statements, whilst removing the clauses that prohibit regardless of veracity.

Party Positions

Greens: Opposes public funding of special religious instruction, Supports Equal Opportunity Act and inherent requirements exemptions. Oppose veracity limits in Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. Oppose conscientious objection to referrals and duty of care.

Labor: Introduced and supported special religious instruction, but policy committee is opposed, and State Conference supports public education system that is "free, compulsory and secular". Supports Equal Opportunity Act inherent requirements exemptions, but subjected issue to a conscience vote. Supports and introduced veracity limits in Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. Supports conscience vote on objection to referrals and duty of care.

Liberals: Supports special religious instruction, Opposes Equal Opportunity Act inherent requirements exemptions. Supports introduced veracity limits in Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. Supports conscience vote on objection to referrals and duty of care.

Nationals: Supports special religious instruction, Opposes Equal Opportunity Act inherent requirements exemptions. Supports introduced veracity limits in Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. Supports conscience vote on objection to referrals and duty of care.

"Conscience" Votes

Conscience votes often can be assessed by the degree that a politician is prepared to impose their conscience (and religious beliefs) over the rest of society. It rarely is based on a post­metaphysical moral norm, or an evidence­-based ethical position. The last parliament had four major conscience votes issues reach the Legislative Council (Abortion Law Reform, Assisted Reproductive Treatment, IVF Eggs and Research, Equal Opportunity Act).

The consistently worst MPs, who voted against all four (or five for MLC), initiatives and who are standing in the upcoming election are:

MLAs: Gary Blackwood (Lib), Neale Burgess (Lib), Robert Clark (Lib), Peter Crisp (Nat), Martin Dixon (Lib), Christine Fyffe (Lib), David Hodgett (Lib), Terence Mulder (Lib), Russell Northe (Nat), Michael O'Brien (Lib), and Peter Ryan (Nat).
MLCs: Richard Dalla­Riva (Lib), Damian Drum (Nat), Bernie Finn (Lib), Inga Peulich (Lib)

We have a collection of MP voting records on conscience issues from the 2006-2010 parliament, which covers the Abortion Law Reform Bill, 11 Sept 2008, ART-IVF & Surrogacy: Assisted Reproductive Treatment Bill, Oct 9 2008,
IVF Eggs and research: Infertility Treatment Amendment Bill, 18 April 2007, Equal Opportunity Bill, 2010 and, in the Legislative Council, Euthanasia: Medical Treatment (Physician Assisted Dying) Bill, 10 Sept 2008.

Special mention goes to Geoff Shaw, Ind., for arguing consistently holding anti­secular positions and would certainly vote against all reforms above if given the opportunity. He has argued in favour of religious­ based discrimination, and has described the abortion law reform as among the worst in world, and gave rise to the mocking meme on "tummy eggs".

In his maiden speech to the Victorian parliament, he acknowledged "the original owner of the land on which we stand—God, the Creator, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Bible."

Other Surveys

The Progressive Atheists ran a survey of all candidates over ten questions. Some key points; (a) the Liberals and National Party candidates did not respond (b) The ALP responses were split in favour and opposed to Special Religious Instruction, School Chaplains, Church Property Trusts, but strongly in favour of abortion rights legislation, voluntary euthanasia, and removal of religious exemptions from the anti-discrimination legislation.

The Rationalist Society also conducted a survey of candidates on the questions of abolition of Special Religious Instruction, to allow non-religious School Chaplains, the redirection of funding currently provided to Access Ministries, and the introduction of professional ethics and values classes. The results overwhelmingly indicated support for the abolition of such classes, the allowance for secular chaplains, redirection of funds provided to Access Ministries, and the provision of professional ethics and values classes.

Interestingly, the parties most against general religious education conducted by professional teachers were the Australian Christians and the Rise Up Australia Party.


What We Did

The Victorian Secular Lobby held a meeting on October 4th, identifying the major issues in the upcoming state election and reviewing the voting record of members of parliament on conscience votes and policy statements from the major parties. The major issues identified for the State election were Special Religious Instruction, the Equal Opportunity Act exemptions, the Abortion Reform Act, and the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act.

A campaign was decided that would target highlight these issues and target the worst MPs in terms of their voting record and public statements. Additional funds raised would be used for social media advertising. A staggered set of recognition, up to an including certificates for being "Secular Justice Warriors" and a "George Holyoake Trophy" were offered. This was expanded during the campaign to include assistance as well as financial donations.

A fundraising campaign was conducted in the last three weeks of the election from nine contributors which raised $1000. Ten thousand DL cardstock leaflets were produced, of which eight thousand five hundred were distributed by ten people in the last week of the campaign, and three days of Google Ads were run. They leaflets were distributed in the Frankston, Kew, Malvern, Preston, Essendon, Footscray, Prahran, and Richmond - especially after it was recognised that many of the main theocratic MPs were in safe and regional seats.


Several of the "worst" MPs were retiring. Of those that were not, all suffered swings against them and all except one suffered swings greater than the state average, and it seems that at least one (Geoff Shaw) is almost certain to be defeated whilst another (Russell Northe) maintains a thin lead. There is some evidence that the incoming Labor government may be better on secular issues than the outgoing Coalition government; it has not given strong commitments to Special Religious Instruction, will not be amending the decriminalisation of abortion, and will be providing greater steps towards voluntary euthanasia.

On the other side of the equation it seems possible that the Liberal opposition will be selecting on of the worst MPs as their leader. This will represent another significant lurch in a party which was prepared to preference fundamentalist religious political parties such as Rise Up over more secular parties such as the Greens.

Whilst counting continues, it seems that Rachel Carling-Jenkins of the DLP has taken a seat in the Legislative Council. She is notable for taking a very strong anti-abortion stance, and opposes the removal of exemptions for religious organisations in the Equal Opportunity Act. On the other hand, it seems likely that one, if not two, members of the Australian Sex Party have been elected to Council. This Party has shown strong support for the separation of religious laws from civil laws.

What We Did Right

Conducting the campaign was the right decision. Whilst it is difficult to determine what direct effect the campaign had, it was certainly part of an ongoing contribution to raising secular matters as important, and involved our members in practical, on-the-ground activity. Our fundraising reached its major target, and the overwhelming majority of our leaflets were distributed and were well received, especially by secular religious individuals.

Our campaign dovetailed very well with groups like the Progressive Atheists and the Rationalist Society who conducted surveys on candidates on issues of secular interest. Of interesting note was the least secular religious parties where the ones most opposed to general religious education.

What We Did Wrong

As our first major campaign it was inevitable that a few mistakes would be made. The most important was leaving the campaign too late; we should have started very shortly after the original meeting, that way we could have fundraised more and distributed more. We spent too much time seeking skilled graphical artists to assist in the leaflet when a plainer design proved just as effective. The expenditure of funds on Google Ads was not particularly cost-effective, illustrating that once again the best campaign is word-of-mouth and volunteered social media distribution.

What We Still Need To Do

Our awards and notifications still need to go out. A meeting highlighting a secular agenda programme for the new government and meeting with new MPs needs to be held.

Election Material

All Election Campaign Material on this website is authorised by Lev Lafayette on behalf of the Victorian Secular Lobby Inc., 169 Wiltshire Drive, Kew, Victoria, 3101

Education Religious differences - Church may quit school religion class

Benjamin Preiss

The Uniting Church will withdraw from religious instruction in state schools unless the group responsible for the controversial program improves instructor training and abandons compulsory volunteer payments.

Uniting Church moderator Dan Wootton said church members held “deep concerns” about Access Ministries’ policies and practices.

The Uniting Church also wants Access Ministries to give member churches more say in the policy and direction of the group.

Access Ministries runs Christian Special Religious Instruction (SRI) on behalf of 12 denominations, including the Uniting Church.

The Uniting Church has issued a series of requests to Access Ministries and will withdraw as a supporting church from July 2015 unless it is satisfied with “evidence of a positive response”. It has given Access Ministries eight months to provide “positive formal responses” to the requests.

The resolution on religious instruction was adopted at a Uniting Church Synod meeting at La Trobe University [metropolitan Melbourne] this week.

“It was a careful and considered debate,” Mr Wootton said.

“I’m hopeful this is an opportunity to refresh the relationship that we have with Access Ministries.”

The Uniting Church has also taken issue with volunteers being asked to contribute financially to the religious instruction program in addition to donating their time as instructors.

Access Ministries’ acting chief executive Dawn Penney said the group was committed to working with all its supporting churches.

“We hold regular meetings with the heads of all supporting churches and have scheduled further discussions with the members nominated by them to our council,” she said.

Ms Penney said meetings between the Uniting Church, its review group and Access Ministries had been positive and she was confident there was a “clear way forward”.

“Improving the training of and support for our SRI instructors is a key priority for Access Ministries and the input of theologians from all supporting churches should and does form a background for all our training.”

She said Access Ministries’ leadership would continue to “engage with all members” about training, curriculum development and ensuring the financial sustainability of the religious instruction program.

The Uniting Church wants more “transparent communications” with Access Ministries. It also called for more consultation on religious instruction materials, which should be “theologically broad”.

The Uniting Church has confirmed it contributed about $40,000 a year in funding for the religious instruction program.

The resolution came after a three-year investigation by a Uniting Church task group that examined governance, religious instruction program materials and communication by Access Ministries.

Last year, the Uniting Church called for the Christian instruction curriculum to be “urgently updated”.

It said there was a “definite slant” towards biblical literalism in the material and complaints were often raised by denominational partners who were offended by the material’s content.

The Uniting Church also resolved to “actively work” for the inclusion of general religious education in schools.


Radical group is targeting local youth

Cameron Houston [and] David Wroe

Several senior Muslim figures have reported concerns to the Australian Federal Police and Victoria Police about al-Furqan and its recruitment of alienated young men in Melbourne’s south--eastern suburbs.

According to one Muslim leader, the radical Islamic centre targeted disaffected young men at Hallam mosque, where they often held meetings on Sundays and extolled the virtues of jihad.

“They say you can’t watch television, you can’t listen to music, and the women must cover their faces. They change their minds, they change the culture of these young people. We are concerned about our community and it is dangerous for Australia,” the Muslim leader said.

Al-Furqan also attempted to recruit new members from local gymnasiums and Islamic bookshops, according to the source, who first raised concerns with law enforcement agencies almost three years ago.

He said few people in Melbourne’s Muslim community were willing to speak publicly about the controversial group, amid fears of reprisal attacks in Melbourne and against family members in the Middle East.

“Please don’t mention my name: these people will come for me if you do,” he said.

The brewing worry from leaders about losing disaffected young men to radicalisation comes amid new information on young terror suspect Numan Haider, 18, who was shot dead after stabbing two policemen in Endeavour Hills on Tuesday [23 September] night.

A senior security source said Mr Haider had recently applied for a new passport, indicating he planned to travel overseas.

Fairfax Media has been told Numan Haider’s passport had already expired when ASIO put a cancellation notice on the passport amid fears he meant to go to Syria or Iraq to fight with extremists.

While Mr Haider’s terrorism links were of growing concern to authorities, there appear to have been triggers in the immediate lead-up to the fatal meeting outside the police station on Tuesday night.

One of these is believed to have been the discovery that his passport was cancelled when he went to apply for a new one.

Mr Haider’s room was also reportedly searched by police on the day of his death.

One security source said he ap-peared to have flown into a “murderous rage” on the evening of the attack.

He was known to have been in touch with Australian followers of the Islamic State group who are fighting in the Middle East. These may have included the notorious Khaled Sharrouf, who made world headlines when he had his young son pose for a photo with a severed head in Syria.

One Australian fighter in Syria with Islamic State who goes by the name of Abu Khaled al-Cambodi - a reference to his Cambodian ancestry - took to Twitter to praise Mr Haider.

“May Allah Swt accept my dear brother Nouman efforts!” he wrote. “He strived hard for Hijrah [migration], was stopped but still he rushed towards what he wanted!”

Fairfax Media also understands that monitoring of Mr Haider’s internet surfing showed he had searched for Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s travel plans in Victoria but that there was no concrete threat to the Prime Minister or other political leaders. Mr Haider had also searched for information on previous high-profile terrorism plots in Australia, such as the conspiracy to attack Holsworthy Army barracks in Sydney.

An Afghan Endeavour Hills resident whose house was raided as part of counter-terrorism operations in 2012, because he prayed at the al-Furqan Islamic Information Centre in Springvale, said he was not surprised Mr Haider was linked to the same centre.

He said a Muslim friend with whom he had attended secondary school in Dandenong changed dramatically after regularly attending the prayer and lecture sessions at the centre.

“He used to be one of the boys, liked to drink, smoke, go out,” the man, who did not wish to be named, said. “A couple of years later I saw him and he had been growing his beard and saying things like that music was [forbidden]. It was definitely because of al-Furqan, he never went anywhere else.”

Police confirmed new information on Thursday [25 September] that Mr Haider had “face-to-face” conversations with several other people shortly before the attack with investigators, still determining whether others were waiting for him or had dropped him off.

Friends of the former Lyndale Secondary College student painted a different picture of the young Afghan.

Chris Owen, 19, knew Mr Haider through mutual friends who met at Narre Warren’s Fountain Gate shopping centre last year.

Mr Owen said Mr Haider appeared deeply devoted to his family and his faith, but “didn’t seem like he was an extremist”.

“He was a good dude, a really nice guy. He would always greet me with a handshake and a smile,” Mr Owen said.

“What’s going through the grapevine is he was getting a hard time from police and lost his passport be-cause a mosque he was going to that was
under suspicion. Although I can’t forgive his actions, it seems like he was oppressed.”

Mr Haider’s family home, about five minutes’ drive from the scene of his death, continued to be a meeting place for his relatives and friends on Thursday who came laden with home-cooked meals.

With Tammy Mills, Nino Bucci, Nick Toscano and Yolanda Redrup


Full disclosure finally

In sharing her story before a royal commission, sex abuse survivor Beth Heinrich hopes to find freedom from the past. Amanda Gearing reports.

For the better part of two decades, Anglican church leaders "passed by on the other side of the road" when child sexual abuse survivor Beth Heinrich appealed to them for justice.

But one bishop from their flock will stand by her side today. His presence, Heinrich says, will give her the strength to tell her whole story, for the first time, to a private session of the Royal Commission into Institu­tional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Melbourne.

Geelong-based Bishop Peter Danaher expects there will be opposition to his supportive stance from within the church, but he knows it is the right thing to do.

"There will be people who will be absolutely horrified that I have done this," he said. "I believe in my own conscience that I need to be there with Beth."

Rather than emotional scars, Hein­rich still has open wounds from the abuse in the 1950s that, she says, des­troyed her career prospects and left her alienated from her children.

Indeed Heinrich, who now lives in rural Victoria, says she wears a mouth guard almost continuously, to prevent the tension in her jaw from destroying her teeth. She attributes this tension to anger over the abuse, plus the dam­age done by church authorities when she disclosed the abuse in 1995.

Heinrich's victimisation by a priest and later bishop, Donald Shearman, first came to public attention in 2002, when then governor-general Peter Hollingworth told the ABC's Australi­an Story that the relationship - between a young priest and a teenage girl - was "not sex abuse".

"There was no suggestion of rape or anything like that, quite the contrary," he said. "My information is that it was rather the other way round."

Hollingworth resigned from his vice-regal office in 2003, after the find­ings of an independent Anglican in­quiry into the Brisbane diocese were released.

Also after the inquiry, the diocese charged Shearman under canon law with maintaining a sexual relationship with a child when he was warden of a student hostel and assistant priest in the New South Wales town of Forbes. In 2004 he was found guilty and deposed from holy orders.

Although Heinrich was the key wit­ness in the case to remove Shearman from the priesthood, the unresolved process left her feeling incomplete. Slabs of her statement were redacted by church lawyers. She received no apology from the offender; and no compensation for the offences.

"They used me and chucked me out," she says.

It is chiefly for this reason that she is so grateful for the opportunity to speak at today's hearing. She wants to tell her story without censorship.

A 300-page dossier of 70 documents prepared by Monash University's Ad­junct Professor Chris Goddard will set out the ebb and flow of her battle for justice, which has had minor victories along the way. Although the Brisbane diocese did not pay Heinrich compens­ation, in 2005 the Bathurst diocese (which includes the parish of Forbes where the child sexual offences oc­curred) paid her $100,000.

Heinrich says the amount was inad­equate considering the offences began when she was a child in Shearman's care and that she suffered two further episodes of abuse as an adult when Shearman was in a pastoral position and committed sexual misconduct in the 1970s and 1980s.

But Heinrich says that it was the church's removal of slabs of her evid­ence (ostensibly to protect Shear­man's wife from further hurt) that has most revented her from full recovery. It was, she says, his cruel comments about his wife that initially made the teenage Heinrich feel sympathy for Shearman and his need for a young companion.

Her own childhood on her parents' wheat and sheep property in central New South Wales had been secure and happy. At 14 her parents had to send her to Forbes to attend secondary school. There she lived at St John's hostel, where the Reverend Donald Shearman and his wife Fay were the warden and matron in charge of 40 teenage boys and girls.

Shearman's fondness for Beth was obvious. He danced with her at socials and gave her gifts of chocolate, money and alcohol - a prayer book, a pearl necklace and a gold cross.

In her second and third years at the hostel, he had sex with her, she says, in the Shearmans' private quarters on his fox skin rug on the floor and in their marital bed. To convince her she was old enough to have sex, he told her their relationship was like Romeo and Juliet.

The sexual relationship continued for more than 18 months until one day when Shearman summarily expelled Beth from the hostel, summoning her father
to take her home in disgrace, allegedly for being promiscuous with boys - a claim Beth emphatically denies.

Once home on her parents' prop­erty, she received a letter from Shear­man asking her to be patient and keep busy, as it would take some time for him to "work things out" so they could be married and work together for God.

When that did not happen, a broken­-hearted Beth married a local farmer and had five children. She says her husband was a threatening alcoholic. Two decades passed, and Heinrich sunk into depression, believing God was punishing her. Eventually she asked Shearman to help her and her children to escape from the marriage. By then a bishop, Shearman rekindled a sexual relationship with her.

"My darling Beth," his many hand­written love letters begin. They speak of his yearning for her, retell the pedes­trian details of his life and diocesan duties, and share his plans for them to serve God together as a married couple.

Leading a double life, the bishop paid for a unit for Heinrich in Ballina, at the northern extent of his diocese of Grafton, giving him an excuse to travel often to the farthest-flung parish. He sent her the fox skin rug. At the same time he was recognised by the Queen, who invited him to London to be induc­ted as an OBE at Buckingham Palace.

While in England, the surreptitious sexual relationship came unstuck. Fay Shearman collected the mail one day, read a letter from Heinrich, and wrote a message to her husband on the front of the envelope: "Opened this by mis­take, darling - am very disturbed by it - feel quite sick. I love you too. Fay."

That night Shearman wrote to Hein­rich: "I feel so guilty, as of course I am. I doubt that she [Fay] will be able to keep this to herself and this thing I dreaded most of all is now about a certainty. That is that I should bring scandal on the church and allow the devil to take advantage of my selfish­ness and my wrong doing."

The next day he wrote again, ac­knowledging the hypocrisy of his beha­viour: "I have erred - sinned - against God - against you - against Fay and my family and against the church of which I am an apostle and therefore a pro­tector of its faith and order and moral­ity. I have failed you all and for that I am truly, truly sorry."

Still, Shearman continued writing to Heinrich, and rekindled the adulter­ous relationship again in the early 1980s, before leaving his wife and mov­ing to Wagga Wagga to live with her.

When Grafton diocese staff tracked him down, the dean (now Bishop) Ric­hard Hurford chartered a plane to Wagga Wagga, collected the bishop and flew with him back to Grafton.

In the 1990s, Heinrich asked Shear­man for help when her son was dying of leukaemia. He started writing again, and sent her things for the home he planned for them to share. After almost 40 years of believing his pledge to marry her, Heinrich's faith in his promises finally gave out. She confron­ted him by phone in 1994, when he finally told her, "I'm too old for you now".

Heinrich reasoned, at last, that he had always been too old for her. He had used his spiritual power and authority as a priest and hostel warden to betray her innocence - and to hold her captive for most of her life. She put pen to paper in 1995, writing to his superior in the Brisbane diocese, the then archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth, setting out Shearman's offences against her as a child and his abuse of her over subsequent decades.

She wanted Shearman to admit he had lied to her parents in 1956, when he accused her of promiscuity - falsely blackening her name and destroying her aspirations of attending university and becoming a teacher.

Shearman refused to sign the apology Heinrich drafted. Archbishop Hollingworth then wrote to her saying the two accounts of the abuse had "a very wide discrepancy", and that Shearman's ministry was "much valued. Hollingworth warned her not to sue the "struggling" dioceses of Bathurst and Grafton, and refused to remove Shearman from officiating at church services.

"He called me a liar," Heinrich says simply.

Bishop Danaher says church hier­archies that have placed clergy above other people - "on such a high pedes­tal" - have made it difficult for victims to name clerical offenders. Of Hollingworth's letter, his appraisal is scathing.

"The reply he gave was quite wrong. That was his downfall," Danaher said. "I think the way he dealt with it was abominable."

The letter was indeed a blow to Heinrich. She recoiled from the church. She finally reported the early sexual abuse to NSW police in 1996, but Shearman could not be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations on sexual crimes in the 1950s.

"I believe God thinks with absolute pain about what has been happening in the church. God weeps. God's heart is broken." - Bishop Peter Danaher

It was not until 2001 that Heinrich wrote again, this time to several arch­bishops and a dozen bishops around the country. She felt unheard, but in 2002 a media storm erupted over widespread child sexual abuse in the Anglican Church. Heinrich broke her silence in public, revealing that Hollingworth, by then governor-general, had heard a bishop admit to sex offences with a child and had al­lowed him to continue preaching.

The case was one of several ex­amined by an independent Anglican Board of Inquiry into the Brisbane dio­cese. Shearman was defrocked.

But still Heinrich could not find peace, not without the hearing to which she was entitled under the Bris­bane diocese's sexual abuse complaint protocol, a hearing she was repeatedly denied by the church.

Heinrich hopes publicity about her appearance at the royal commis­sion will inspire others who have been treated similarly to come for­ward and tell their story now.

"I'm sure I'm not the only one who has been mistreated," she says. "There are other people who have run away. Not everyone is as strong as I am."

Fairfax Media sought comment from Donald Shearman, who lives at a north Brisbane beachside retirement resort in Deception Bay. He declined to be interviewed. However, speaking through an intermediary, Shearman, now 88, has agreed to Heinrich's re­quest for a face-to-face apology. No date or location has yet been arranged.

As he steps into the royal commis­sion today, Danaher is mindful of the damage done to the church by its treatment of abuse victims.

"I believe God thinks with absolute pain about what has been happening in the church. God weeps," he said. "God's heart is broken."

Yet in a sign of positive institutional change, Danaher has won the endorse­ment of Australia's Anglican Primate, Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier, who told Fairfax Media he was "very pleased that an Anglican bishop could offer help and comfort to a victim of another Anglican bishop".

After 19 years of struggling for justice, Heinrich is simply happy that the royal commission will hear her story.

"It's marvellous," she says. "I want the royal commission to know what Shearman said and did. I want them to know what the church did. I will have the satisfaction that my evidence will not be censored. And that they will believe me.

"I won't personally gain anything by doing this, but I feel a duty to help the royal commission to understand the insidious nature of abuse."


We are being terrorised, say Muslims

Michael Koziol [and] Leila Abdallah

[In Australia] A car has been damaged and daubed with offensive comments, threatening letters have been sent, and women have been abused in the street.

A backlash of hate crimes against the Muslim community in the wake of the police raids last week has also sparked a rash of social media comments such as “This is how they should deal with them”, “Behead them all”, “Give them a taste of their own medicine for a change”, and “We just need to blow up Parramatta n Bankstown”.

“It is not OK to go Muslim-bashing.” ? Joseph Wakim

One of the founders of the Australian Arabic Council and human rights activist Joseph Wakim said: “Everyone should remember that no faith tells you to harm innocent people. It is not open season on Muslims. It is not OK to go Muslim-bashing.

“Ironically, the raids were about stopping people feared to be terrorists, yet it is the Muslim people who are being terrorised.”

Mr Wakim, a former Victorian Multicultural Affairs Commissioner, has reminded Australians to learn from history and not to make the same mistakes, in particular by treating one group as “collectively guilty”.

Anti-Muslim sentiment has been felt around the country, with people reporting graffiti on mosques and attacks on homes. Threatening letters have been sent to businesses, bookshops and religious leaders.

The Australian National Imams Council (ANIC) has expressed anger that one of its most senior members, an assistant to the Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, was pulled up at Sydney airport on Thursday [18 September] on the way to the Haj, a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

The imam, who met Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis recently, was stopped at the boarding gate, stripped of his mobile phone and iPad, and kept in a room for two hours without explanation, the general manager of ANIC, Samir Bennegadi, said.

Mr Bennegadi said the imam was treated in an unprofessional manner and he wondered that if this could happen to one of the most senior imams in Australia, what could happen to the rest of the Muslim population, “especially during this time, the Haj, we have hundreds of people leaving Australia every day?”

Rebecca Kay, the secretary of Salamcare, a community services group, said the community also feared being the targets of a raid.

“I know some women who have slept in their headscarves just in case,” she said.

Ms Kay is collating reports of hate crimes including harassment, abuse or being targeted, and will be presenting the information to the Human Rights Commission.

“We had some Aussie ladies standing making gun movements with their fingers towards some Muslim ladies,” she said.


No evidence of media prejudice against Catholicism

Claims that Fairfax and the ABC are picking on the Catholic Church are baffling.


Did you know Fairfax and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation are involved in a concerted attack on religious freedom in general, and the Catholic Church in particular?

You didn't? Well, Sen­ator George Brandis thinks you should.

Two weeks ago, the federal Attorney-General delivered a lec­ture on religious freedom to the Law School of the University of Notre Dame in Sydney. Freedom of religion is too often ignored, he complained, when human rights and freedoms are discussed and defended. He then launched into an extraordinary attack on Fairfax Media and the ABC.

It is worth quoting at some length:

"In fact, not only has reli­gious freedom been neglected, it has actually been the subject of open attack from those who domin­ated much of our political discourse, particularly in the national broadcaster and the Fairfax media. Almost invariably, their tar­gets have been the Christian churches, and in particular the Catholic Church, and people of Jewish faith. Indeed, so deaf have we become to attacks upon reli­gious liberty, so accepting have we been of the open scorn with which their tenets, their liturgy, their customs, their clergy and their congregations have been derided, that the great Dyson Heydon, delivering the Acton Lecture in April of this year, was moved to describe anti-Catholicism in mod­ern Australia as 'the racism of the intellectuals'."

Did Brandis offer his listeners a single example of this onslaught against religious freedom? Did he quote one program on the ABC, or one article in a Fairfax newspaper, that treated Catholic or Jewish tenets, liturgy and congregations with scorn? No, he did not; not one; which prompts me to wonder what the hell he was talking about.

Perhaps "the great" Dyson Heydon, AC, QC, lately of the High Court of Australia, can enlighten us. His Acton Lecture consisted mainly of an account of the attack on the Catholic Church in 19th-century Germany led by Chancel­lor Otto von Bismarck, the so-called Kulturkampf [culture struggle].

Towards the end of his lecture, briefly, Heydon mentioned modern Australia. "Now there may be a new anti-Catholic movement, particularly among the intellectuals. . . It is in­tolerant. It is hypocritical. It fails to recognise the extraordinary con­tribution of Australian Catholicism to education, to charitable relief, to the running of hospitals, to social progress of all kinds, to political life, and indeed to the life of the nation as a whole."

Like Brandis, Heydon saw no need to bore his listeners with ac­tual instances or evidence.

After playing some long extracts from Senator Brandis's lecture on his Religion and Ethics Report, the ABC's Andrew West turned to that classic "anti-Catholic" intellectual, David Marr, for a "response". Marr said he "supposed" Brandis was referring to the way Fairfax and ABC journalists had covered the issue of child abuse.

But is this really what Brandis was referring to? Was he really claiming that the sustained criticism in the media of the way the Catholic Church, and other religious institutions, have dealt with both the victims and the perpetrators of child abuse - criti­cism that has been so amply justi­fied by the revelations of the current royal commission - consti­tuted a sustained and unjustified attack on the tenets, the liturgy, the customs, the clergy and the congregations of the Catholic Church (and, for that matter, on the Jewish faith)?

Does that critical journalism constitute what Heydon chose to call "the racism of the intellectu­als"? It doesn't seem tenable. Yet, if Brandis and Heydon were not talk­ing about the coverage of child abuse, what on earth were they talking about?

After all, Australian Catholics are doing pretty well at the mo­ment. In a Liberal-National Party Coalition government, the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General, the Treasurer and some five other cabinet ministers are Catholics.

The Catholic Church still seems to wield enormous influence in the Australian Labor Party and the wider labour move­ment. Overwhelmingly popular so­cial measures, from same-sex marriage to voluntary euthanasia, have been blocked in the Federal Parliament, largely thanks to the opposition of Christian, and especially Catholic, union leaders and parliamentarians of all parties. This is not a church that, to outside eyes, is suffering from persecution or loss of political clout.

But if Marr is right, and Brandis and Heydon are actually talking about the reportage and comment­ary surrounding child abuse, that would be even more troubling. Cer­tainly, investigative journalism by the likes of the Newcastle Herald's Joanne McCarthy and ABC Lateline's Suzanne Smith, among many others, led directly to the Gillard government's decision to set up the royal commission. Should those reporters instead have turned a blind eye to the perpetrat­ors and their protectors in the Catholic Church, out of respect for "the extraordinary contribution of Australian Catholicism"? Of course not.

It is shocking and unacceptable that the nation's senior law officer should be accusing two of its main media organisations of conducting a systematic campaign against re­ligious freedom, and that one of its most respected former High Court judges should be hurling around phrases such as "the racism of the intellectuals", both without offer­ing a skerrick of evidence or justi­fication. Gentlemen, I challenge you to put up, or back down.

Jonathan Holmes is an Age columnist and a former presenter of the ABC's Media Watch program.


Church’s investigator grilled on independence

Cameron Houston [and] Jane Lee

The Catholic Church’s independent commissioner was unable to explain how he received confidential information from a victim of serial paedophile priest Kevin O’Donnell, or why it was passed on to the church’s lawyers in an apparent breach of confidentiality.

The royal commission also raised concerns about the independence of Peter O’Callaghan, QC, who has investigated allegations of clerical abuse for the past 18 years under the church’s controversial Melbourne Response.

The church’s law firm, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, was also questioned over its handling of files and sensitive information from three separate arms of the Melbourne Response, which claim to be independent of each other.

Corrs Chambers Westgarth partner Richard Leder denied any confidentiality had been compromised in his role as lawyer for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Melbourne Response, which he helped establish in 1996.

But royal commission chairman Justice Peter McLellan appeared to be unconvinced.

“You must have Chinese walls inside your head,” he said.

Mr Leder was heckled by several victims attending the royal commission on Wednesday [20 August] when asked why complainants had been forced to
waive their common law rights in order to receive ex gratia payments of up to $50,000 under the Melbourne Response.

Mr Leder insisted the payments gave Victims “finality”, despite acknowledging they could have re-ceived significantly higher compensation if they had successfully sued the church.


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