The Uniting Church in Australia intends to run a state-sanctioned, medically-supervised room to allow drug addicts to inject themselves with heroin after the Vatican told Catholic nuns who were preparing to run the trial project to pull out.
The injecting room will be located in Kings Cross, Sydney's main red-light district.
Harry Herbert, executive director of the Uniting Church's Board for Social Responsibility in the state of New South Wales (NSW), said November 29: "The Uniting Church believes it is a Christian responsibility to care for those in need, and that includes illicit drug users."
However, the decision was vigorously criticized by Uniting Church conservatives. Sydney's Wesley Mission, one of the church's most prominent agencies, said the Board for Social Responsibility had "opted for a path of 'foolish compassion'."
But there was strong encouragement from the New South Wales state government, which decided to support the establishment of a trial injecting room, operated by a non-governmental organization, after the idea was discussed at the "drug summit" of NSW political and community leaders in May.
NSW government minister John Della Bosca welcomed the church's decision, which also had the unanimous support of the Uniting Church's state synod committee. Della Bosca described the church as "the dark horse" in the field of possible operators of the room.
The Uniting Church stepped in after an order of Catholic nuns, the Sisters of Charity, was told by the Vatican in late October to cancel its proposal to run the injecting room. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Edward Clancy, said at the time: "It's a question of unacceptable co-operation in wrongdoing.''
But Sister Mary Cresp, executive director of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes, which represents 10,000 Catholic priests, brothers and nuns, released a statement supporting the Sisters of Charity in "their courageous decision to operate a safe injecting service" and shared with them "their disappointment that they have been asked by the Vatican to withdraw from this project."
The University of NSW then took over the project, but late in November the university also withdrew, saying that its staff members who were on the trial's evaluation panel should not also be involved in running the project itself.
However, the university will support the Uniting Church in the venture.
Herbert told a press conference November 29, that "an injecting room needs to be trialed [tested] and evaluated."
Herbert added: "The work that was undertaken by Reverend Ray Richmond from the Wayside Chapel in having this matter put firmly on the agenda of the Drug Summit should not now be allowed to lapse." He was referring to an illegal injecting room run in the weeks before the Drug Summit by the Wayside Chapel, also part of the Uniting Church and well-known throughout Australia for its ministry to Kings Cross's street people.
Herbert also told reporters: "We know that not all members of our church and not all members of the community will support us in this matter ... We hope that our critics will give us a break, and let the trial proceed away from controversy."
However a prominent conservative Uniting Church clergyman, Dr Gordon Moyes, leader of the Wesley Mission, predicted an outcry from church congregations. He said in a statement last week that the decision to negotiate with the NSW government over the trial was "taken in secrecy and without consultation with congregations."
"The desire to make it easier, cheaper, cleaner and healthier for people to continue to inject drugs does not take into account the impact of drugs on the lives of people injecting them, their families and the community at large," he said.
About half the annual deaths by drug overdose in Australia?an estimated 600 in a country of 18 million people?occur in New South Wales, the most populous state, and especially in Sydney, its capital. No part of the country allows the provision of heroin to addicts or legal injecting rooms, although needle-exchange programs to stop the use of infected needles are common, and many informal, illegal, safe injecting rooms have reportedly operated at different times.
The Uniting Church was formed in 1977 as a union of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches and is the country's third-biggest Christian denomination, with 300,000 members and a total of 1.3 million Australians professing an association with the Uniting Church.
Copyright © 1999 Ecumenical News International. Used With Permission.
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