‘That’s my Catholicism’: Daniel Andrews embarks on theological debate with archbishop over Essendon furore

<span>Composite: AAP</span>
Composite: AAP

Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, has called on his own interpretation of Catholicism to reject accusations from the archbishop of Melbourne that he had stirred division in the community following the appointment of Essendon chief executive Andrew Thorburn.

Thorburn was appointed to the role on Monday but resigned a day later after sermons by the City on a Hill church, of which he is chairman, were made public.

The sermons likened abortion to concentration camps and included claims that “practising homosexuality is a sin” – views which Andrews said on Tuesday were “absolutely appalling”, “bigotry” and “intolerant”.

The archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, the state’s most senior Catholic, told the Herald Sun on Thursday the premier’s comments were harmful.

“Such language pitches some members of the community against others and contributes to an unhelpful spirit of division,” Comensoli.

“It leaves ordinary people of faith questioning if they can publicly hold their committed beliefs, or even to be able to exercise leadership and service in the community.”

Related: Andrew Thorburn had to choose between Essendon and his church – their values cannot be reconciled | Michael Bradley

Comensoli had earlier told 3AW he no longer feels welcome as an Essendon supporter and would seek to find a new football club.

At a press conference on Thursday in Melton in Melbourne’s west, Andrews spoke of how his own Catholic faith guided his actions in government.

“I’m not here to be having a debate with faith leaders but I will just say this: I am a Catholic. I send my kids to Catholic schools. My faith is important to me. It guides me every day,” he said, reeling off his government’s commitments to addressing issues such as family violence and homelessness.

“It also guides me in my sense of what is right and what is wrong, and if I can just say with utmost respect, calling out homophobia is not the problem. Homophobia is the problem.”

The premier said it was his passionate belief that all Victorians should be treated equally and fairly.

“For me, that’s my Catholicism. That’s my faith,” he said.

Andrews said he would be renewing his Essendon membership and reiterated he did not have a role in Thorburn’s appointment or resignation.

“Anyone who is a supporter who hasn’t become a member yet, please join. It’s a great footy club,” he said.

Both the federal and Victorian opposition leaders, Peter Dutton and Matthew Guy, have thrown their support behind Thorburn, and sought to characterise his resignation as a form of religious persecution.

Dutton said Thorburn should be reappointed to his position, despite the former NAB chief executive having been the one to resign.

The Essendon president, David Barham, said on Tuesday he had asked Thorburn to choose between the two leadership positions, at which point Thorburn offered his resignation.

On Wednesday evening, Thorburn said he had received “hundreds of messages of support”.

“Concerningly, many messages expressed genuine worry for jobs and employment prospects due simply to faith,” he said in a statement.

“It is troubling that faith or association with a church, mosque, synagogue or temple could render a person immediately unsuited to holding a particular role. That is a dangerous idea, one that will only reduce tolerance for others and diversity of thought and participation in our community and workplaces.”

The federal skills and training minister, Brendan O’Connor, said on Thursday he respected Essendon’s decision, but criticised the club for handling the matter “very badly”.

“There should have been due diligence before the appointment,” O’Connor told ABC Radio National.

“My personal view is, in 2022, in such positions, you would not expect an organisation to appoint someone to an executive position that’s contrary to the values that the body espouses.”

According to the 2021 census, Catholicism is Victoria’s largest religion, with more than 1.3 million residents – or 20% – identifying as Catholic.

However, the largest group of Victorians – 39% – said they had no religion, an increase of eight percentage points, or 650,000 people, since the 2016 census.

The City on a Hill movement is led by archdeacon Guy Mason, who is also a senior leader in the Anglican diocese of Melbourne.

The Anglican archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Philip Freier, issued a statement in support of both Thorburn and Mason on Tuesday.

• This article was amended on 6 October 2022 to correct the census statistics. The number of people professing no religion in Victoria increased by eight percentage points between 2016 and 2019, not 8% as originally stated.