Auxiliary Bishop Danny Meagher has urged members of the legal profession to never lose sight of justice and mercy in their work, at an annual Mass to mark the start of the Law Term.
Bishop Meagher was speaking at the Annual Red Mass on 31 January , which has been celebrated every year at St Mary’s Cathedral since 1931, including at the height of the Second World War.
The Mass is organised each year by the St Thomas More Society, a fellowship of Catholic lawyers, inspired by the great 16th century English martyr who himself was a lawyer, judge and member of parliament.
This year the Mass was mainly watched by over 700 people via livestreaming due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In his homily, Bishop Meagher reflected upon his own background having worked as a solicitor for a large Sydney firm for three years before deciding to enter the seminary.
“The problem I experienced as a solicitor was that we were much occupied by our timesheets, budgets and careers. I had always loved God and as fine as my fellow solicitors were, the prevailing ethic at work was work. So I felt divided and in the end I followed by heart and I went to the seminary at Manly in 1989”, he explained.
Bishop Meagher said his relatively short legal career had left him with a stronger commitment to serving the disadvantaged.
“Looking back on my time, there was only one transaction I was involved with that I think our firm should have had nothing to do with”, he said. “Our client was negotiating with the military junta in Burma. I think a solicitor could with integrity say no to working on such a transaction and I think the partners in the firm would be understanding. Indeed I think the whole firm might respectfully decline to be involved in a transaction that was manifestly not for the common good.
“I rarely went anywhere near the courts during my time as a solicitor. However I can’t help but think that with prudence, wisdom and a sharp intellect, a balance between mercy and justice could be found in most cases”, Bishop Meagher added.
The former lawyer drew parallels in his homily between the ministry of a priest hearing penitents in the sacrament of confession and that of a judge delivering a court verdict.
“In the confessional, priests act in some way judicially to assess whether there exists true sorrow and to determine a way forward for the penitent. Ultimately this is about being a good shepherd and a loving father and we priests need all the wisdom, prudence and intellect we have to be good confessors”, Bishop Meagher explained.
“Likewise, this applies to the courts and these matters can’t be legislated in a way that one-size fits all, as is the case with mandatory sentencing”.
Amongst the small number of attendees at this year’s Red Mass were the NSW Attorney General, Mark Speakman, Labor MP Dr Hugh McDermott who both delivered readings at the Mass and veteran Christian Democrat MLC, Rev. Fred Nile.
A small group of cantors also sung at the Mass from St John’s College at the University of Sydney.
The President of the St Thomas More Society, Michael McAuley said Bishop Meagher’s message on the importance of family values and good ethics resonated with the lawyers at the Mass.
“In the big firms where solicitors are often expected to work unreasonable hours on a regular basis, often until late at night, that’s inconsistent with normal family relationships and being available to one’s spouse and children”, Mr McAuley said.
“As Catholic lawyers, we’re expected to make ethical choices in our work and the best lawyers are always the most ethical lawyers who do some pro-bono work from time to time”.
Mr McAuley said the COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty in the justice system and he hopes life can return to normal in 2022.
“It’s important for courts to return to normal operations as soon as possible. Cases need to be disposed of. People can’t be left around waiting for years to have their cases dealt with. They need to be dealt with quickly and not only the big commercial cases, but others involving individuals too”, he said.
“The risk is that there could be people sitting in gaol who shouldn’t be there because cases aren’t being dealt with. So it’s very important to get back to operating in a normal fashion”.