Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne has urged Catholic schools to be sensitive and respectful to students who wish to bring a same-sex date to school formal events.
The Age newspaper in Melbourne reported on 22 January about a previously unreported case at the oldest girls’ secondary college in Victoria, the Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy, where a student started an online petition after she was told by the co-ordinator for Year 12 (the final year of secondary school) that she couldn't bring a female partner to the school formal.
In response to questions from the paper, Archbishop Hart said: "These are quite often emotional situations and it's very important that we always have respect for the dignity of the human being involved.
"Students in a secondary school are growing up and in developmental stages where relationships are more like strong friendships and are not usually permanent, they are not in a situation where they are committing.
"The Catholic Church respects any relationship but always sticks quite firmly with its teaching that a relationship in the eyes of the church is heterosexual, between a male and female, and that is something we would always stand by."
The petition received 1,250 signatures and hundreds of supportive comments, the paper said, prompting the school to change its stance to allow her to bring a female partner.
"I see no logical, just reason for this ban," the student, who has asked to remain anonymous, said. "The Academy's mission statement places great emphasis on social justice, equality and respect for all people."
The school principal, Sister Mary Moloney, said Academy was a progressive and modern Catholic school that dealt with any issue or concern with an open mind.
"The philosophy of allowing students to choose whomever they wish to accompany them to our school formal will continue into the future," she said.
Archbishop Hart said he appreciated the school's decision to permit the same-sex date, saying Academy shown "great sensitivity in what is an unusual scenario".
The Executive Director of Catholic Education Melbourne, Mr Stephen Elder, said such decisions were best dealt with by individual schools, where all local concerns and sensitivities could be taken into account.
"The autonomy provided to Catholic schools to act in the best interests of their students and families is one of the many elements that make Catholic education great," Mr Elder said.
Last year, Archbishop Hart, who is also President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, was criticised by a former Catholic teacher in the same paper. Dr Michael B. Kelly, a theologian and author of Seduced by Grace: contemporary spirituality, gay experience and Christian faith, accused Archbishop Hart of "burying" Not So Straight, a report by Jesuit Social Services aimed at helping teachers respond to the needs of gay teens in Catholic schools.
"The Jesuits' programs would not have solved everything, but they would have shown a church, and a hierarchy, that cared more for the mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health of young people than for rigid doctrinal purity," Dr Kelly wrote in The Age on 23 July 2015.
"These programs would have assured teachers that it was professionally safe for them to stand up for gay kids, that they had the church behind them if right-wing parents complained they were too gay-friendly, that the institution they worked for put children – and especially the most vulnerable children – at the heart of the Catholic educational mission, and that Catholic doctrine could only ever be authentic if it served their full flourishing."