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Updated: Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney condemns violent protests at St Michael’s, Belfield

Belfield Parish Priest Fr Andrew Benton said the event preceding a violent protest on 21 March was not intended to be a political forum

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A composite photo taken from video footage, showing police and protests outside St Michael’s, Belfield. Photo: Twitter

Updated 30/03/2023

The parish priest of St Michael’s Belfield has condemned a violent protest involving more than 500 people which engulfed the streets outside his parish on 21 March, saying he would never have allowed the event to go ahead if he knew “it would end up like that.”

Fr Andrew Benton said at no point was the meeting intended to be a political event, but was rather a forum for families to hear about proposed government changes involving Catholic schools.

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The forum featured a number of speakers, including One Nation leader Mark Latham, a vocal critic of gender diversity in schools, and manager of Catholic identity at Sydney Catholic Schools (SCS) Robert Haddad.

“It was not a political event, and I can’t stress that any more plainly,” Fr Benton told The Catholic Weekly.

“It was a forum arranged by parishioners, for parishioners, as a discussion on parental rights over children in the face of the whole gender dysphoria issue.

“There was also a talk on the government’s plans to try and take away religious freedoms from religious schools, which includes the freedom for a Catholic school to select a teacher who would teach only the Catholic religion.

“They were the general topics for the night but unfortunately all the other stuff crowded it out.

“We had no idea that was going to happen, we condemn it completely and I wouldn’t have let it go on had I have known any of that was going to happen.

“There was a panel of speakers, not just Mark Latham. Robert Haddad gave a detailed rundown of what the government is planning to do in terms of parental rights and limiting freedoms in religious schools, as well as two other people who also spoke about these issues.

“Unfortunately, what went on outside was regrettable and there was fault on both sides.

“The protestors were very provocative and they desecrated a crucifix, while those who created the violence had no connection at all with the parish.”

Mr Haddad, who spoke to the 350 people gathered in the parish hall, said the event “was a story of two contrasts.”

“The forum itself, featuring Mark Latham and others, was a magnificent event, focussing on the threats to parental rights and the freedom of religious institutions to employ and teach religious education,” he said.

“The official organisers were impeccable in how they conducted the event in the parish hall and how they exhorted all those in attendance beforehand to be prayerful and peaceful throughout.

“The deplorable conduct of others that occurred outside the church and school grounds was unauthorised and contrary to the publicly expressed wishes of the organisers.

“Those responsible should feel the full weight of the law for their scandalous behaviour.”

A spokesperson for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney has also condemned the violence, saying it was “incompatible with the Gospel and never acceptable.”

Footage posted on social media showed police trying to disperse the angry crowd of over 500, which assembled in response to 15 protesters from the “community action for rainbow rights” group.

The public order and riot squad were called, as bottles, rocks and punches were allegedly thrown.

One officer was injured after being struck on the hand and taken to hospital in a stable condition.

Police confirmed that three people had been arrested following the protest.

A 34-year-old man was arrested and taken to Campsie Police Station.

He was charged with encourage the commission of crimes and was given conditional bail to appear before Bankstown Local Court on 11 April.

A 41-year-old man was also arrested and charged with common assault and will appear before Bankstown Local Court on 30 May.

A third man aged 42 from Moorebank was also arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer and granted conditional bail and due to appear in court on April 11.

Mr Latham, campaigning in Cessnock on 22 March, told journalists that he addressed important issues during the two-hour political event, including religious freedom, parental rights, school education and protecting non-government schools from what he called “alphabet activism”, and had not seen any trouble.

A vocal critic of gender diversity in schools, Mr Latham said he had been advised by police not to attend the meeting after the crowds gathered outside.

Pulling out of the talk would have been a “denial of democracy,” he said.

“A police officer said I should not speak and go home, and I said ‘One Nation does not participate in cancel culture, there’s no way four days before an election a One Nation leader is going to be cancelled because some trans activists threaten to blockade a road and the entry to a church’,” he said.

“It’s a sacred right of our democracy that you can speak to what was a peaceful meeting inside the hall, to the mums and grandmothers and others, and as I said to him: the police had not been inside the hall and didn’t know the sort of people I had met who I would have been letting down.

“The meeting was conducted successfully, we provided information, had feedback, and everyone dispersed peacefully including myself.

“The police officer was telling me something that was anti-democratic, it should be the role of the NSW Police to defend the rights of candidates running in a democratic election to exercise their free speech and I did.

“I was speaking on important issues including religious rights, parental rights, the so-called transgender issues, and I had unlike the police, spoken to the families already assembled in the hall and made a judgment subsequently proved 100 per cent accurate that we should have the meeting and not cancel it because protestors turned up trying to close us down.

“One Nation does not surrender to cancel culture, or censorship or to protestors who are trying to stop people getting into their place of worship and last night I did not surrender.”

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