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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Capacity crowd for Protest the Pope debate

All seats were taken at Wednesday’s debate arranged by the Protest the Pope campaign at Conway Hall. Along with the big audience was a large representation from the media who had come to hear Peter Tatchell and A.C. Grayling defend the motion “The Pope’s visit should not be a state visit” against Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh and Fr Christopher Jamison from Catholic Voices.

Doubt was cast by the proponents of the debate on the authenticity of the claims that the Vatican is a “state” or a nation or a country. The Vatican’s many sins were then listed by Peter Tatchell who afterwards said that it was wrong to give the honour of a state visit to someone who headed an organisation with such a record.

In response, Austen Ivereigh said that more than 170 countries had diplomatic relations with the Holy See (a concept which far pre-dates the Vatican City), therefore the Pope was, indeed, a head of state and entitled to the treatment that such a head of state deserved.

Emotional contributions were made on both sides from the audience, including one from Sue Cox, a survivor of clerical abuse who spoke eloquently and movingly about the pain and torture she had suffered throughout her life because of being raped and abused by a priest in her childhood.

A woman from the Catholic side said that her Church was not misogynistic as had been claimed, but it had permitted her to express her femininity and her womanhood in precisely the way she wanted.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society was mentioned critically on two occasions by Austen Ivereigh in his speech. Terry Sanderson replies:

It’s a sobering experience to see how easily ones words can be twisted and distorted by people who are determined to win an argument but don’t have a case.

At the Protest the Pope debate at Conway Hall on Wednesday, the Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh read out a piece that was purportedly written by me on my blog. It said:

“For too long the Jewish community behaved like an arrogant, unaccountable arm of the government and of the law aided at every turn by a fifth column of Jews whose primary, indeed seemingly only, loyalty is to their own kind. Having so comprehensively abused their place in the corridors of power, they now need to be banished from them.”

Mr Ivereigh admitted that I hadn’t written this – he had simply replaced references to ‘Catholics’ with ‘Jews’. Very effective, you might think. Until you read what I actually wrote in last week’s Newsline. (I don’t have a blog):

“For too long the [Catholic] Church has behaved like an arrogant, unaccountable arm of the government and of the law aided at every turn by a fifth column of Catholics whose primary, indeed seemingly only, loyalty is to their Church. Having so comprehensively abused its place in the corridors of power, it now needs to be banished from them. The Church must now confine itself to attend to its flock, and abide by the same law that everyone else is required to do.”

And then you have to look at the context in which I wrote that – a context from which Mr Ivereigh’s inaccurate extract was carefully removed.

I was talking about the case of Fr. Michael Chesney, who conspired with the IRA to blow up the village of Claudy in Northern Ireland in 1972. Nine people were killed. A report has revealed that the Church and the state had colluded to allow Chesney to escape punishment. My point was that in the 1970s the relationship between the Irish state and the Catholic Church was unhealthy.

None of that was clear in Mr Ivereigh’s very carefully contrived misrepresentation of my views.

Mr Ivereigh is head of an organisation called Catholic Voices, which seeks to counter critics of the pope during his visit to the UK. If the only way to counter our arguments is to distort what we say, misrepresent us and even lie about us, then maybe it is time Catholic Voices shut up.

One piece of misrepresentation Mr Ivereigh did not get away with on the night was over his answer to Peter Tatchell’s denouncing of the Vatican’s lies about condoms being pervious to HIV transmission, something the World Health Organisation had announced was untrue. Mr Ivereigh sought to make light of this by suggesting that in any organisation the size of the Vatican there is bound to be some “nutter”. In his intervention, Keith Porteous Wood pointed out that this nutter just happened to be the Head of the Pontifical Council of the Family (the late Cardinal Trujillo) and that he had uttered this lie repeatedly.

Read a full account of the debate from the New Humanist

See also: Legal expert says people have a right to arrest the pope

Published Fri, 03 Sep 2010