Catholics in Victoria are upset that Premier Daniel Andrews did not address the unequal treatment of churches in his revised plans to winding back restrictions announced on 18 October.
The easing in restrictions follows weeks of steady decline in the number of COVID cases in the state.
But while restaurants and cafes in regional Victoria are allowed 70 people outdoors and up to 40 people indoors, places of worship will remain closed and outdoor religious gatherings capped at 20 people plus one faith leader.
Minister for Health and Human Services Martin Foley on 19 October told media that “international and local evidence has made it really clear that faith communities are a particular risk group inside”.
Melbourne Archbishop Peter A Comensoli said he would “respectfully challenge” Minister Foley’s comments, saying there was a lack of transparency around the reasons for the health directives relating to churches.
“For three weeks now I’ve had direct conversations with both government authorities and with DHHS authorities including senior medical advisors,” the archbishop said. “They have never provided any evidence as to why there would be a difference and why religious groups are a particular risk group.
“The only information provided over these three weeks have been three examples overseas, not evidence, examples. One in Korea in the very early stages, one in France and in California in the United States.
“All of them were big ticket events, all very early stages of COVID and all in circumstances that were never the case here in Victoria.”
Minister Foley and Premier Andrews’s offices have not responded to The Catholic Weekly’s request for the evidence that faith communities were a greater transmission risk indoors than other indoor groups, or why services could not be held outdoors in greater numbers.
Archbishop Comensoli said that Victoria’s people of faith had been treated in a way that is “unfair and difficult for them”.
“I think a lot of people particularly within public health are putting forward proposals…in ways that are not transparent, there’s no reasoning offered for why there is the disparity between going to a pub and going to your church.
“And there seems to be no moving towards parity as each new stage comes on board.”
He later wrote that while churches may not be licensed premises, they are highly regulated spaces, especially during times of worship.
“For many of those who are affected, this is one of their principal opportunities for social interaction and personal activity. Why would pool water shared by 30 swimmers at a time be considered safer than baptism water poured over one infant child?
“Why would sitting down without a mask and socialising informally with up to 40 strangers inside an eatery be considered less risky than the formalised, masked and appropriately spaced gathering of a faith community?
“Why would public health advisers tell the government that religious worship is an inherently higher risk than other sectors?
“It is a relief for all of us that our places of sporting, hospitality and community gathering are being allowed to open. It is just that none of this passes the pub test (literally!) when it comes to places of worship remaining closed.”
Fr Marcus Goulding, an assistant priest in Melbourne’s outer western suburbs, said that the obvious snub to places of worship, which had shown that they could safely reopen after the first lockdown, was “deeply insulting”. “This is just mockery,” he said.
On Sunday Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli said he was “deeply shocked and disappointed” at the disparity imposed on people of faith.
It follows an online petition launched by two Melbourne Catholics, calling on the Government to reopen places of worship in a COVID-safe way. It has gained almost 14,000 signatures and was acknowledged in both houses of parliament.
In September, the Catholic bishops of Victoria wrote to Premier Andrews pointing out the unfairness and inconsistency in the numbers allowed for religious gatherings in comparison to other sectors under the state’s roadmap.
“In the most simple of measures, the current restrictions in regional Victoria literally fail the “pub test,” they said.
“If people of faith can gather in a restaurant or bar catering for a particular number of patrons (and remove their face covering), they ought to be able to put on their mask, cross the road and worship in their faith community with the same numbers, provided equivalent COVID-safe practices are in place.
Premier Andrews on 19 Monday reiterated his view that “a licensed, heavily-regulated environment like a café or a restaurant or a pub is very different what might happen indoors in a faith setting”.
“I’m not criticising His Grace for making comparisons,” he said. “There may be a way that those faith groups, not just the Catholic Church but the others, may be able to demonstrate that they can do this safely.
“I know they are obviously not happy with the answer they got.”