Page 1, 28th May 1999

28th May 1999
Page 1
Page 1, 28th May 1999 — Church divided over support for addicts

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Locations: Sydney


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Church divided over support for addicts

Simon Caldwell

reports on a controversial dilemma for the Church in Australia THE CATHOLIC Church in Australia is divided over a controversial ecumenical initiative to help heroin users to inject in safety.

The Tolerance Room, or TRoom project, is a haven in Kings Cross, Sydney's red light district, providing clean equipment for addicts (who provide their own drugs). It costs A$25,000 a month to run and employs health workers to supervise injections and to help anyone who collapses and needs resuscitation.

Based in the Wayside Chapel of the Uniting Church — an amalgamation of the Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist churches — it is supported by the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales.

But the initiative is illegal — and gambles on the concept of Church sanctuary (not yet recognised in Australia) as a defence against fines of A$2,200 and two years in jail for aiding and abetting the administration of a prohibited drug.

While it has been criticised by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, who claims it gives the wrong messages about society's attitude to drugs, it has met with a mixed response from the Catholic Church.

Fr Brian Lucas, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Sydney, the see of the Australian Cardinal, Edward Clancy, told The Catholic Herald no "major statement" had been issued either for or against it. But other influential Catholics, such as Fr Stephen Sinn SJ, who has worked with the homeless in inner-city Sydney for 20 years, said it was a "genuine response" to a mounting problem, but added it would only have his support if it was approved by the government.

"People don't realise how hard it is for addicts to get to the point that they want to stop," Fr Sinn told The Catholic Weekly in Sydney. "But we only need to think about how hard it is to stop our own obsessions — food or smoking.

"No-one wants these people around. Everything is done to prevent them finding a place where they can inject. They have to find somewhere so they'll be in our car parks or in our toilets.

"The problem needs to be addressed. And if not in this way, then what way? People who have been criticising it need to say what they would do. We are told we should have more rehab, more detox, and more prevention. But it isn't working."

Among those to criticise the initiative is Bishop Patrick Power, secretary of the Australian bishops' conference committee for family life, who was also unhappy that it "seems to be illegal".

He said: "Even though it was motivated by good intentions, reasoning that it is better to inject in a safe environment, I would be happier if it were done within the law, rather than outside it.

"I would be concerned whether the purpose is to help people come through the addiction or to keep them on the same path."

He was also worried about the abuse of sanctuary, which he said was reserved for people to escape persecution.

The New South Wales Parliament last week recommended the establishment of havens where drug users could inject under supervision.

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