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Tackling the death penalty

CONFRONTING the Death Penalty – People, politics and principle gives Catholics and people of goodwill reasons of the head, heart and faith for opposing capital punishment.

The 45-page booklet features essays by Australian Catholic University adjunct professor and chair of Sydney archdiocese’s Justice and Peace Advisory Council Dr Michael Costigan; former Pentridge Prison chaplain Jesuit Father Peter Norden; lawyer Brian Deegan, whose son Joshua was killed in the Bali bombing in October, 2002; and Professor of International Law at the Australian National University and chair of the Committee of Management of the Australian Centre for Human Rights Professor Andrew Byrnes.

Brian Deegan brings the perspective of a man grappling with the issue at the deepest level.

He writes of the grief he still bears for his son Joshua, who was 22 when he died in the Bali bombing.

“Despite the passage of time I rarely sleep,” he said.

“Too often I spend the early hours of the morning walking, watching, waiting, praying that this is a nightmare from which, at some stage I must awake.

“Yet cold reality set in long ago. I know in my heart, at least in this life, I shall never again speak with my son.

“Never again shall I laugh with him, drink with him, discuss his future or watch him play football.

“Nor will I witness him marry, or father children.”

Brian Deegan, a former magistrate and member of the South Australian Police Tribunal from 1988-2004, is also a man with a deep conviction that the death penalty is wrong, even for those responsible for his son’s death.

In the lead-up to Amrosi being sentenced to death in 2003 for his part in the bombing that killed Joshua, Mr Deegan took many calls from people in the Australian media asking him if he had an opinion on Amrosi’s fate.

“I did. I held a very strong opinion, but was uncertain as to whether I should disclose it,” he said in the ACSJC paper.

He said he was opposed to capital punishment well before his son’s death.

“To adopt a different philosophy would have been opportunistic, hypocritical and vengeful,” he wrote.

“It would be a betrayal of a code of behaviour I have instilled in my children.”

After much soul searching and praying and visiting his son’s grave where they “talked for hours”, Mr Deegan decided to make his opinion public.

He wrote an article that was published in The Australian.

In the article he said: “The suggestions that Amrosi and his fellow evil-doers should face an Indonesian firing squad is unconscionable because that would make the punishment as barbaric as the crime.

“What the Bali bombers did to my child and to the hundreds of others defies description. But the October 12, 2002 terrorist attacks do not give anyone the right to repeat such a vile act …”

In the ACSJC paper, Dr Costigan examines the moral and historical dimensions of the death penalty, with particular examination of Catholic social teaching.

Fr Norden, as parish priest of St Ignatius’ Church in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, was outspoken on the death penalty when a former parishioner Van Tuong Nguyen was executed in Singapore in 2005.

He writes from that perspective in this paper.

Prof Byrnes explores the legal implications of the death penalty in Australia and overseas, including the attitudes of Australian police, governments and political parties.

ACSJC chairman Bishop Christopher Saunders sets the tone when he writes in the foreword that “the death penalty is incompatible with our shared belief in life as a precious gift from God”.

“This publication shows that the principles upon which we oppose capital punishment are such that no exceptions should be made at home or abroad,” he writes.

“All humans, not just Australians, are entitled to protection from the death penalty.”

Dr Costigan, a former executive secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Justice, Development, Ecology and Peace, continues the theme: “A fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching affirms that every human person has an essential and inalienable dignity deriving from the fact that we are all created in God’s image and that God intends our personal salvation and eternal happiness.

“That principle of human dignity applies in a special way to capital punishment …”

Dr Costigan highlighted Pope John Paul II’s opposition to capital punishment.

“Pope John Paul II applied Pope John XXIII’s teaching on the ‘universal, inviolable and inalienable’ dignity of the human person explicitly to capital punishment, declaring that Catholics have an ‘inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life’,” he said.

And that applies no matter how serious the crime, he said.

Dr Costigan said comments made by senior officials of the Holy See about the execution of the dictator Saddam Hussein amounted to condemnation of the use of the death penalty.

The launch of the paper was held at St Joseph’s Church, Corinda, where there has been a spirited campaign to save 21-year-old parishioner Scott Rush from the death penalty in Indonesia. He stands convicted of drug smuggling.

Fr Norden emphasised the importance of Australia being concerned about the death penalty everywhere, not just when it applies to Australian citizens.

“To express Australia’s policy firmly, clearly and consistently is not to undermine or compromise the sovereignty of other governments,” he said.

“Furthermore, we weaken our arguments when we campaign against the death penalty for Australians but stand by when citizens of other countries are executed.

“Certainly, it is critical to establish clearly the basis for the teaching of the Catholic Church in relation to the death penalty.

“That teaching has nothing to do with guilt or the innocence of the person concerned; it is now an absolute and clear teaching about the value and dignity of all human life.”

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