Vatican: Nuns and Heroin Don't Mix

VATICAN CITY—The Vatican has rejected plans for a “safe” injecting room for heroin addicts in a Sydney hospital under the supervision of the Sisters of Charity.

The sisters planned to set up the safe house in St. Vincent's Hospital in Kings Cross, a suburb of Sydney known for prostitution and drug use.

The so-called “shooting gallery” was supposed to give addicts a safe environment and clean needles while trying to keep them off the streets and weaning them off drugs. It had been approved by the New South Wales state government and police.

In an Oct. 28 statement, the order's president, Sister of Charity Annette Cunliffe, said she received notification from Sydney's Cardinal Edward Clancy that the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith viewed the drug plan as “not acceptable” and that the health service “must withdraw from the program.”

Cardinal Clancy had earlier sought direction from the congregation on the advisability of going ahead with the controversial initiative, announced on a trial basis in July by New South Wales Premier Bob Carr. The plan contemplated facilities at St. Vincent's for addicts to inject drugs in medically supervised surroundings in the hope that addicts could be attracted to treatment.

The chairman of the Sisters of Charity Health Service, Peter Joseph, said Oct. 28 the Vatican had identified two difficulties in its response: concern about the message that might be given to people outside Australia who were already disturbed by media reports of the Sydney initiative, and concern about the likely effectiveness of the injecting service and the message it might give about recreational drug use.

The Sisters of Charity said they accepted the Vatican ruling with “regret and disappointment.”

Cardinal Clancy later told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that the matter was a complex moral and theological issue. Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne praised the sisters' motives but said their compassion was misdirected. Archbishop Pell is a member of the doctrinal congregation.

“Our commitment to further research and strategies to combat drug addiction is strengthened by the fact that the Vatican's determination was based on practical concerns, rather than an in-principle objection,” said Sister Cunliffe.

Cardinal Clancy said the Vatican's letter had “indicated clearly enough … that morally it was unacceptable but, in any case, unacceptable on purely practical grounds.”

Personally, he said, he viewed the issue as one of “unacceptable cooperation in wrongdoing, but I acknowledge there are other very reputable people who hold the opposite view.

“I sought an authoritative determination of what is a very difficult question,” he said.