A Catholic priest in Australia has been leading efforts to eliminate the “gay panic” defense in his state. The “gay panic” defense, which allows defendants to claim that a victim’s sexual advances motivated a criminal violence, is responsible for letting two men escape murder charges in a 2008 killing.
Fr. Paul Kelly launched an online petition in 2012 to repeal the “gay panic” defense law, which is still allowed in the states of Queensland and South Australia. In that petition, which now has nearly 248,000 signatures, Kelly explained his powerful reason for being involved:
“I’m a Catholic Priest and 8 years ago a man called Wayne Ruks was bashed to death in my Brisbane churchyard. Unbelievably, his killer’s convictions were downgraded to manslaughter, using ‘gay panic’ as a defence. . .
“I’ve made it my mission to see this revolting law abolished – it belongs in the dark ages. I have no words to describe how offensive, harmful and dangerous it is that two of our governments uphold that a person can be panicked enough by gay people to justify murder.”
Wayne Ruks was killed by John Meerdink and Jason Andrew Pearce in July 2008, his body found at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Maryborough. Extensive video evidence revealed the assailants beat Ruks for fifteen minutes, leaving him to die from internal bleeding. They avoided murder charges by claiming Ruks made sexual advances on them.
Father Kelly renewed efforts around the petition because the “leisurely pace” of change had been so slow. He told News.com.au that eliminating this legal issue is “such a no brainer. . .It should’ve changed with one signature, not [240,000].”
Thanks to the efforts of Fr. Kelly and others, Australian government officials have finally promised to act. Premier of South Australia Jay Weatherill replied to the petition, describing the “gay panic” defense as an “outdated and offensive notion.” He promised legal reforms to remove it. Yvette D’Ath, attorney-general for Queensland whose government promised to eliminate the defense in 2015, said change was forthcoming so that the state’s criminal code would not be perceived to “condone violence against the gay community, or indeed any community.”
Fr. Kelly’s activism show how Catholic thought can help bring about justice for LGBT people. Unfortunately, not all church leaders in Australia are standing with the LGBT community, though. The nation’s bishops have chosen the occasion of upcoming elections to reiterate their opposition to marriage equality proposals.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) released a two-page statement in advance of federal elections to be held July 2. The statement included two paragraphs about marriage that imply expanded LGBT rights would victimize marriage and family in the “throwaway culture” criticized by Pope Francis. The bishops wrote that political decisions can end up “undermining marriage” and, alluding to a proposed plebiscite on marriage equality, said future decisions could further undermine marriage:
“Support for marriage and the family does not look a big vote-winner, so that even the most basic human institution, upon which the health of a society depends, can become part of the throwaway culture or at best an optional extra.”
These remarks intensify the Australian bishops’ collective opposition to marriage equality, as political reporter James Massola wrote in the Brisbane Times:
“The remarks about same-sex marriage are significantly stronger than in the 2013 statement – which simply stated there ‘must be legal recognition of the unique nature of marriage between a man and a woman’ and 2010, when the issue was not mentioned and underscores concern in the Church.”
Whichever party wins in the July elections, it appears marriage equality is an inevitability for Australia. The nation’s residents overwhelmingly support it, with recent polls showing approval ratings above 60%. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Catholic supportive of LGBT rights, said a plebiscite on the issue first proposed by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a Catholic who opposed marriage equality, would proceed if his Liberal party is re-elected. The opposition Labor party has promised to pass marriage equality in its first hundred days.
In a final related note, a discrimination complaint against the Australian bishops over an anti-marriage equality booklet they published last year has been withdrawn. Transgender advocate and politician Martine Delaney voluntary withdrew her complaint against ACBC and Archbishop Julius Porteous of Hobart after mediation efforts by the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner in Tasmania ended in futility. She explained to 9 News:
” ‘My primary reason [for withdrawing the complaint] is the tribunal process is a very long and drawn out process and during that time the message of this booklet is going to continue to be spread. . .My intention was to force (the church) to understand the gravity of their actions, but they refuse to do so and the damage has been done.’ “
The booklet, titled “Don’t Mess with Marriage,” was released last year to widespread criticism. In the Diocese of Hobart schoolchildren were controversially used as couriers to bring it to their parents. LGBT advocate Michael Bayly even called booklet and its dissemination a “new low” for the Australian bishops.
Australia’s bishops should reconsider how invested they will be in opposing the seemingly inevitable passage of marriage equality when real and pressing issues of justice beckon. They could learn well from Fr. Paul Kelly’s example, and focus instead on how they can help protect the lives and well-being of sexually and gender diverse people.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry
August 17, 2012: “Australian Priest Meets with Attorney General to End ‘Gay Panic’ Defense”
January 26, 2012: “News Notes: January 26, 2012”
January 2, 2012: “Catholic Priest Speaks Out for Equality in the Law”