ACT priests, police, government at odds over COVID-19 religious exemptions
The police have warned Catholic priests they are breaking the law by celebrating their regular Mass, even with very reduced numbers, social distancing and masks.
According to one priest, officers came up to him after the service on Wednesday and told him the Mass did not conform to COVID regulations.
The priest said a second church was also visited by officers on Sunday.
The Vicar General of the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Father Tony Percy, called the police interpretation of the COVID lockdown rules “draconian”.
In what has become a spat, with the priest accusing the government of not consulting “faith communities”, he has now written to the ACT government on behalf of the Catholic Church in Canberra “expressing concern at police visitation to a number of churches in the archdiocese in recent days”.
Under ACT rules, a religious service can be conducted if it is “time-critical”, so funerals (which obviously can’t be delayed) can be held with 20 people, and weddings (which are also deemed by the ACT government and police as “time-critical”) can be held with 10 people. But not regular Mass.
ACT Policing said it was a matter for the ACT government. The ACT government wrote to Father Percy saying that Mass was not “time critical”.
“Examples of time critical gatherings or ceremonies include providing the last rites or baptism before the end of life, or a particular religious ceremony such as a bar mitzvah where the ceremony must be held on a 13th birthday,” the official on the Chief Medical Officer’s staff wrote.
Father Percy replied, correcting what he believed to be errors and inconsistencies: “In the Catholic Church, last rites are not conducted in Church, but usually hospitals. The same can be said of baptisms before the end of life.
“Furthermore, weddings are not time critical by any means, with many of them being deferred, but are permitted under your directives.”
He regretted that the government “has not consulted with faith communities”, and hoped it would in future.
“The gathering for Mass is always time-critical because of spiritual and psychological human needs,” the priest said.
He and other priests in Canberra have been celebrating Mass with very small groups of people and keeping all the rules about masks, social distancing and hand-sanitiser. They believed by limiting numbers to 10 they were within the rules.
Father Percy argues Mass is an essential event, particularly for those living alone.
He said many in his flock had family overseas whom they have been unable to visit for at least the 18 months of the pandemic. They were stressed and drew great comfort from going to Mass.
Because of its psychological help, Father Percy believed Mass should be viewed by the regulators as a “time-critical religious ceremony” and therefore permitted.
“The contribution that these gatherings make to people’s mental health should not be underestimated,” he said.
He is also annoyed the restrictions on churches, which are often big enough to hold hundreds of people, seem to be far tighter than they are on other smaller places like shops.
“It’s infinitely safer to gather with people that you know who are vaccinated in a building designed for 400 people than it is going shopping anywhere in Canberra,” Father Percy said.
He has written to the ACT’s chief health officer Dr Kerryn Coleman expressing his unhappiness about the police visits and the way the rules are being applied.
“When gathering for these Masses, parishioners are gathering in a church with capacity for at least 400 people. They are, therefore, at least 10 square metres apart – far in excess of those who shop in supermarkets or are gathering in parks for sports or other sanctioned government activities,” the letter says.
Republished with permission. First published in the Canberra Times 18 September, 2021