News | Sun, 15 Mar 2015
A Bill enabling local authorities in England to hold prayers as part of their official business and to "support or facilitate" religious events has cleared its latest hurdle and is set to become law.
News | Thu, 19 Mar 2015
An Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has ruled that political views constitute a "philosophical belief" under the Equality Act.
Opinion | Fri, 20 Mar 2015
An offensive street preacher has been charged for giving a "religiously aggravated" sermon, and was told by a police officer that he is not allowed to offend anyone. Benjamin Jones warns of the danger posed to our civil liberties if the state continues to police free expression.
There is a preacher in Taunton named Michael Overd who likes to spend his days in the town centre, denouncing the 'sin' of homosexuality, preaching the Gospel, and offering his critique of Islam and its prophet.
During one sermon, after complaints from passers-by, Mr Overd was given this chilling warning by a police officer: "If I hear one homophobic word out of your mouth here today, I will arrest you," the officer said.
The officer then explained to Overd that while he had the right to free speech, he was not to make comments which offended anyone.
Mr Overd's hobby has now resulted in his prosecution for causing "religiously aggravated" harassment, alarm or distress, and for using "threatening words." This is a heresy trial in which he stands accused of two modern thought-crimes: homophobia, the ugly manifestation of real bigotry, and 'Islamophobia', an empty neologism coined to suppress scrutiny of a religion which makes some large claims for itself.
In an unhappy turn of fate, the inquisition was presided over by Judge Shamim Qureshi, who happens to moonlight as a 'judge' for a UK sharia tribunal.
A whole string of witnesses to Overd's terrible 'crime' have come forward during the trial. One said, "I felt belittled." Another witness said that Mr Overd had made "defamatory comments" about the Prophet Mohammed. She said, "there was no mention of good" in the religion of Islam, as though crackpots have some BBC-like obligation to editorial balance in their ranting on street corners.
The court was told by one witness, "I am all for free speech but not at the expense of [belittling] someone."
A police officer told journalists: "I'd advise people that if they're offended to record any incident on their mobile phone and send it to us."
It seems almost futile to repeat this mantra, again, but I will add my voice to the chorus: you do not have a right to not be offended. This applies just as uncompromisingly if you are a Muslim upset about cartoons of Mohammed, or a gay person distressed by a street preacher claiming that your love life is 'sinful'.
We must be completely unambiguous and unrelenting in our defence of free speech: up to the point of defamation of living people, or incitement to violence, anything goes.
Even marginal speech, like the tedious example of someone shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre, must be protected or, at the very least, should never become a matter for courts and judges to decide upon. We do not need to reach for legislation every time we encounter something we don't like. It seems perfectly obvious that anyone who makes a habit of shouting "fire" where there is none, will very quickly come to be ignored, discredited and derided- which is exactly how I imagine most people deal with rude or irritating street preachers.
This is why we must hold our noses and defend the odious Mr. Overd with the same vigour and determination as Charlie Hebdo; it is why those European countries which have them must repeal their laws banning Holocaust denial; it is why student unions must stop their farcical incantation of 'safety' to prevent controversial speakers being given a platform. Any infringement on Mr. Overd's rights is an infringement on my rights, and an infringement on yours. Any additional prohibition on free speech makes it that much easier for Islamists to paint the West as hypocritical.
Unfortunately, that is clearly not how the state sees matters. The invidious decision to wade into the policing of ideas and the manner of their expression has produced an insoluble mass of contradictions.
The Orwellian prohibition on distressing 'public order' can be used just as easily to stop homophobes from making intolerant remarks in public, as it can be to obstruct criticism of Islam, or of any other religion. In Overd's case, both of these things are happening at once, and it is very, very alarming. The net result is appalling: whether to combat homophobia, or to silence criticism of Islam, freedoms are being abridged and curtailed.
There is something particularly jarring about 'witnesses' being called to testify in a British court because they heard a religious figure being insulted. It is as though we have already accepted the premise that criticising Mohammed is a cause for suspicion, and this assumption (coupled with the well-meaning doctrine of tolerance and the stultifying attitude that anything insulting or upsetting is to be avoided at almost any cost) is proving to be nearly ineradicable from our civil society.
The two principal accusations levelled against Mr Overd — who is our canary, testing the parameters of all of our freedoms — are that he was homophobic, and that he was 'Islamophobic'. These accusations have a perverse symmetry as most religions, needless to say including Islam, have an embarrassing wealth of homophobic injunctions and prohibitions.
If Judge Qureshi finds Mr Overd's comments, in which he was quoting from the Bible, to be criminal, then presumably a very great volume of the 'moral' teachings in the Koran and the Old Testament (for example) will likewise contain criminal content? Are we to ban religious scripture which goes much further than Mr. Overd did, and which actually calls for the capital punishment of homosexuals? If Overd is found guilty, what possible reason is there for not also banning the scripture which he articulates?
This is a preposterous situation. Regardless of their content, do we really want to live in a society where books are banned?
The answer to this mess, of course, is obvious. Free speech must be 'free' in the sense of meaning uninhibited, restricted only by prohibition on the incitement to violence or defamation. 'Free' however, is not to imply that speech does not have a cost for society: the price is paid in allowing Mr Overd to set out his stall, and so we take the inconsequential risk that people may be upset by what he says. We must be confident in our values, even if they are at times inconvenient to those of us who find Mr Overd's use of our shared rights to be distinctly unpleasant. Needless to say, there are people in recent months who have endured rather a lot more than discomfort to defend freedom of expression.
I doubt there will be a long queue of people declaring "je suis Michael Overd", but the principle at stake remains: any infringement on the free speech of one person, regardless of their substantive use of that right, is an infringement on the rights of every member of our society. Irrespective of whether Mr Overd is found 'guilty' or not, it is a scandal — and to our discredit — that questions of 'guilt' or 'innocence' came into any contact at all with our treatment of thought and expression.
Benjamin Jones is the NSS communications officer. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.
Opinion | Tue, 17 Mar 2015
Those who regard the imposition of religious values and practices in secular spaces as benign should be more aware of their privilege, argues Alastair Lichten.
You may regret clicking this link. If you did you may well have heard 10 seconds of silence. The recording is of the notorious Mosquito device. It sends a high pitched sound which can be painful to young people but is so high pitched that most aged over 25 can't even hear it. Some people (mostly over 25) like these devices because they deter young people from loitering in town centres. But really they, like deliberately uncomfortable benches, are an imposition of one group's values – that town centres are for shopping, not a public space for people to 'loiter'.
Secularism defends pluralism in the public sphere but resists the imposition of any particular set of values except those which are necessary to preserve the public space itself: human rights, equality, the rule of law. Secularism defends the right of street preachers and religious salesman to set out their stall in the public space, but not to monopolise it, to colonise it or to brand it as their own. Such an imposition is always implicitly or explicitly exclusionary and always undermines pluralism and ultimately the public space itself.
Sometimes when the message of exclusion is subtle enough those in a privileged position don't or can't notice it. On its lowest setting the Mosquito device can be so subtle that young people are not consciously aware of it. They may perceive it as a slight headache or feeling of vague unease. But its message is still the same, from the privileged to the marginalised: "don't feel comfortable, don't loiter, you are not welcome here."
A similar message is currently being sent out by a small group of religious enthusiasts in Parliament behind the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill – with the full support of the Department of Communities and Local Government.
The Bill, which is on course to soon receive Royal Assent, will allow a range of local authorities in England (from town councils to waste management authorities) to make religious observance (or observance connected with a philosophical belief) part of the official business of their meetings.
I bring up the Mosquito device as an illustration because saying that some people are negatively affected by its sound, that some are not and that some may even like it is not to pass any subjective or moral judgment on the sound itself. Describing the effect of a Mosquito device to those who can't hear is difficult. In such cases analogies can be useful: if people find one situation involving privilege/discrimination acceptable would they find a similar situation involving a different form of privilege/discrimination equally acceptable. If not why not?
Imagine you worked in an office with a bizarre ritual. Your working day is nine to five. But every Monday starts with a staff meeting beginning with five minutes of sexist jokes led by a friend of the boss. Would we find this acceptable?
Imagine that after years of putting up with this and attempting to persuade your colleagues to abandon the practice, you object and secure a court ruling that the practice must stop – only to find that a petulant group of sexist joke enthusiasts are unhappy with what they see as a challenge to their male privilege. They try everything they can to change the rules to allow the practice to continue.
You're told it's always been this way. You're told no one has complained before, which of course means no one has ever felt comfortable complaining. You're told by your boss that no one really minds – of course it's best to ask a man if anyone really minds, they're so much better able to judge these sorts of things. Or you're told that the only people who really mind just don't have a sense of humour, that they're intolerant and not the sort we want here anyway. You're told that this harmless tradition can't be the reason women and young people are so under-represented in this work place. If they are so intolerant that they can't put up with five minutes of sexist jokes once a week then maybe they're not the sort of person who's suited to the office.
You're told that the joke session is voluntary and that if you don't like it you can always just switch off for five minutes and if you have to be marked out as 'awkward' by excusing yourself… well that's just something you have to put up with to work here.
You point out that stopping the practice wouldn't restrict anyone's freedom; that staff can still get together before or after work to have as many sexist jokes as they want but that it's inappropriate to impose it in the workplace. You point out that many men and women find these jokes inappropriate in the work place – only to find that the staff newsletter is accusing you of leading an intolerant attack on men.
Would you feel that your work place treated you equally? Would you feel respected? Would you feel that your company was representative of society or its customers? Would you feel this imposition was fair or professional? Would you think it's just something harmless you should have to put up with?
Of course you wouldn't.
And yet with council prayers we find ourselves in an analogous situation, imposed not in the work place but in the chambers of local government. The issue is not gender privilege but religious privilege.
Communities Secretary and Minister for Faith Eric Pickles was upset by a 2012 High Court ruling that local councils had no statutory powers to summon councillors to prayer. He has given strong backing to the Bill, the latest legislative attempt to resurrect the practice. It's worth reflecting on these comments from the ruling:
"I do not think that the 1972 Act, dealing with the organisation, management and decision-making of local Councils, should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of Councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude or, even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected Councillors."
There's nothing anti-religious in this soaring municipal rhetoric. It conveys something about the values which underpin local democracy that the proponents of 'religious observances' seem to have missed.
We can point out how absurd it is to start council meetings with religious worship, or atheistic observances, when we don't start meetings like this in any other area of life. We could question the utility in joint waste authorities invoking Jehovah, or how much confidence a fire authority inspires when it needs to call on the guidance of the almighty before business.
But the Bill isn't really about that. It is about a religiously privileged out of touch minority wishing to assert their dominance. Secularist peers did well to ensure the provisions in this Bill were scrutinised and debated – but even after the Bill becomes law, it will remain our secular civic duty to resist the imposition of worship where it doesn't belong. In the public sphere, in local government, in civic life, adherence to particular religions or beliefs is not and cannot be the price of admission.
Opinion | Fri, 20 Mar 2015
Keith Porteous Wood argues that with the Church Commissioners sitting on a £4bn surplus, the Church of England should not be receiving additional public funds for fixing church roofs, and it should concede changes to the law on Chancel Repair Liability without compensation.
In this week's budget the Government allocated a further £40 million funding to support "vital" roof repairs in Listed Places of Worship over the next two years.
The lion's share of this money will go to the Church of England as it is responsible for maintaining 45% of the grade I listed buildings in the country and the majority of all parish churches are grade II or higher.
Few would feel that our finest architectural heritage should fall into terminal disrepair. An inevitable consequence of the continuing decline in church attendance is that there are far fewer in the congregations to shoulder the repair burden. When they are unable to do so, who else should pay and under what circumstances?
The stated purpose of the Church Commissioners is "to produce money to support the Church of England's work across the country", which surely should include such repairs.
The Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury has written to the Chancellor to make sure he is aware that the Commissioners' investments stand at over £6bn, around £4bn in excess of the amount required to meet the future obligations on clergy pensions", which is their other principal obligation.
He has also noted the state already contributes hugely to the upkeep of churches through gift aid worth some £84 million; the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme worth £42 million; the National Heritage Memorial Fund, currently funding repairs to Winchester Cathedral costing £14 million and of York Minster at £18.3 million; further grants to cathedrals recently announced worth £8 million; Heritage Lottery Fund grants to churches of £300 million in the 10 years to 2004, the lion's share to the Church of England; and the £15 million already announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for repairs to church roofs and rainwater pipes under the Listed Places of Worship Roof Repair Fund.
By making these payments, the Chancellor adds to the hardship caused by the huge cuts to public services already made and being contemplated, which is inexcusable given the Church has a surplus of £4bn in the kitty.
Meanwhile, the Church has expressed its unwillingness to concede any changes in the law on Chancel Repair Liability (CRL), under which landowners can still become liable to pay for repairs to an ancient Anglican church, even though this is not mentioned in the deeds.
The Church says it will only contemplate changes in return for Government compensation which neither Lord Avebury nor the National Secular Society believe is justifiable.
In his letter, Lord Avebury asked that any payments such as the £40 million allocated in the Budget, should be regarded as counting towards any future compensation, without conceding that any would be due.
This seems fair enough. Since the infamous Aston Cantlow case the Church has not been seeking to enforce the recovery of CRL through the courts, so that abolition would not diminish their likely future income, but they continue to insist that they would only agree to it if they are paid unspecified compensation.
It is surely incongruous for them to hold a financial Sword of Damocles over the heads of private householders when they are already receiving such large sums from the taxpayer.
The Children's Society's chief executive, Matthew Reed, said: "With extra money available to the Chancellor, it is hugely disappointing that the Government has yet again failed to make extra funding available to protect children from sexual abuse, and to create a register of missing children".
Opinion | Fri, 13 Mar 2015
NSS president Terry Sanderson challenges the notion that Christians are widely discriminated against in the workplace, and calls for fairness, justice and common sense.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has published the results of its research into the way religion is treated at work.
The report appears to proceed from the assumption that there is some kind of major problem in workplaces up and down the country, with conflict over personal beliefs a major issue for workers.
They seem to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the propaganda promoted by The Christian Legal Centre and the Christian Institute with their endless failed legal attacks on the equality law.
The EHRC has given undeserved traction to the claims that there is a widespread ban on wearing religious symbols, or that poor, put-upon Christians are being tormented and mocked all day long by their colleagues because they go to church. But these kinds of incidents are very rare and when they do occur, the Christian Legal Centre makes sure they are writ large in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.
The ultimate aim of the evangelicals in creating this mythology is to either have the equality legislation abolished completely or have it rewritten so that Christians are exempted from observing it, but still receive the full benefits of the protection it offers.
They want carte blanche in the workplace for the pious. They want the right to demand time off to observe their holy days, whatever the consequences for the business they work for. After all, as far as they're concerned, a person's "faith" trumps all other business considerations.
They want to refuse services to people of whom they don't approve (let's be honest, lesbian and gay people). They want to be free to proselytise and use the workplace as an extension of their church or mosque. They want prayer rooms and halal only canteen facilities. They want diversity policies rewritten so as to exclude gay people.
By giving credence to these ambitions through the publication of this report, the EHRC is endangering the whole concept of equality legislation. It has given the Mail and the Telegraph another opportunity to reinforce the idea that discrimination against Christians is widespread.
So, what is the real story of religion in the workplace? I can only tell of my own experience.
I worked for almost thirty years for a London borough which is one of the most diverse and multicultural in the country. As part of its policy of inclusion, the council drew its workforce from all sections of the community. This meant that in my decades working in a day centre for adults with profound learning disabilities, I met and worked with people from all over the world.
I loved it. I made good friends with people from Nicaragua, China, Russia, France, Italy, Germany, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Fiji and many more. Because I was working in the "caring sector" the sorts of people who were attracted to the job were generally kind, compassionate and concerned. They were also often very religious.
I worked with many black evangelical Christians who felt it was part of their religious calling to work in such a difficult and challenging environment, taking care of people who would otherwise be rejected by society. I found their religious enthusiasm quite perplexing – incomprehensible even – and they were equally totally flummoxed by my atheism. They had been, until then, totally enclosed in their happy-clappy community where the possibility of non-belief didn't seem to exist.
I didn't mind their constant discussion of the finer points of the Bible. I even helped one man write a sermon for his church, the first he had ever delivered.
Despite the occasional robust exchange of opinion, we got on with our work together in mutual respect. Humorous banter was never interpreted as "disrespect".
Then there was the Church of England vicar who came to work with us. He had decided to resign from his parish over the Church's liberalising approach to women. He was working at the centre from an agency, just as a social worker not as a clergyperson, needing to make some cash before he joined the Catholic "ordinariate".
I couldn't have disagreed with him more over his opinions, but strangely I quite liked him personally and we got on very well. Again, our discussions were frank, sometimes mocking, but both took it on the chin.
It would never have occurred to either of us to go complaining to the manager that our religious or non-religious approach to life was not being properly respected.
The only real problem I experienced over religion came from a cook, who was a devout Muslim, complete with moustacheless beard and traditional Pakistani clothing. It was his habit to play tapes of recitations from the Koran during meals – very LOUDLY.
I don't understand Arabic, so what was being recited meant nothing to me, but I had to complain because of the noise. Some of the people we were caring for were very sensitive to loud noise and trying to eat in a dining room where over-amplified chanting was being broadcast was becoming problematic.
I suppose he could have accused me of religious intolerance in making that complaint, but it was nothing to do with the man's religion, it was about the anti-social volume of his tape player.
I had another Pakistani colleague, someone I worked with for 20 years, who I liked very much, a woman who had become almost entirely westernised. One very hot summer's day she came to work wearing a short-sleeved blouse, like all the other women. But when the Muslim cook saw her he said that she was a disgrace to Islam for showing her arms in that way when there were men around.
She immediately put on a heavy cardigan, guilt-tripped into it by the po-faced Islamist in the kitchen. That annoyed me, but I realised it was her decision and said nothing.
This man was eventually fired from his job – not because he inappropriately intruded his religion into the workplace, but because he had been using the centre's telephone to call premium-rate pornographic phone lines. When the phone bill arrived, he had racked up hundreds of pounds at council tax-payers expense.
The workforce of our day centre was so diverse that the potential for religious conflict was enormous, but apart from these few small incidents there was general peace and harmony.
The workplace is a wonderful place to have your prejudices challenged, an opportunity to meet a wealth of different people and to learn to get along with those who have very different lives to your own.
I am not claiming here that workplace bullying, harassment and intimidation doesn't exist. I have seen enough of it in a long working career and I know that not all working environments are free from crude racism and prejudice.
But that is what the equality legislation is there for. It is to protect individuals from such nastiness, and if that nastiness is because of their religion (or their sexuality) then it needs to be challenged.
But protecting people from victimisation is not the same as protecting them from discussion and from their workmates challenges to opinions that they may find disagreeable (so long as it is reasonably expressed). It is not about giving one group of people special rights and privileges.
The evangelical Christians who have created this myth of widespread religious conflict in the workplace have done a good job in misleading us.
They have convinced a lot of people that if an employer insists that everyone in their workplace observes health and safety regulations (maybe involving the removal of jewellery) then Christians have been "persecuted".
Or that by asking them to do their job in its entirety – even if that means serving gay people or handling alcohol or pork products – they have subjected them to discrimination.
We will wait for the new guidance from the EHRC, but we hope that it will be based on fairness, justice and common sense – not on the dissembling demands of the Christian Legal Centre.
Opinion | Thu, 19 Mar 2015
As the full scale of the British Establishment's cover-up of child sex abuse becomes apparent, Alistair McBay argues it is time for the Crown Prosecution Service to make public its reasons for dropping the investigation into Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor 12 years ago.
It's hard to know where to begin in writing about the issue of child sex abuse in Britain. As Home Secretary Teresa May said earlier this month, the abuse is "woven, covertly, into the fabric of British society". She warned that "what the country doesn't yet appreciate is the true scale of that abuse" but might have added "or the scale of the cover-up."
The almost daily revelations suggest collusion between the various arms of the Establishment to protect the great and the good from investigation, either for abuse or for covering it up – police, priests, politicians and performers are all implicated one way or another. Beyond the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is another arm of law enforcement that has some questions to answer. First, in the light of all that has been revealed in the intervening 12 years, why did it instruct Sussex police to drop a 2003 investigation into the head of the Catholic Church in the UK? And second, why did the CPS decide that its reasons remain confidential?
This case related to decisions made by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor when he was a mere bishop in the Catholic diocese of Arundel and Brighton in Sussex between 1977 and 2000, and centred on how he handled allegations of child rape by priests and the notorious Father Michael Hill in particular. At the time, the chairman of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, which was dealing with a number of claims against various orders of the Catholic Church, called Murphy-O'Connor's role in the case "indefensible" and called for his resignation. According to a Catholic Herald report at the time, a CPS spokesman advised that the details of the advice given to Sussex police to abandon the case against the Cardinal were 'confidential'. The article also claims that the Cardinal was never formally contacted by the police during their investigation, although the police had contacted the CPS at least twice for formal advice on how to proceed.
So, in short, here was a situation in which a high-profile figure implicated in a child abuse scandal was never contacted by detectives over several months, during which the police were asking the CPS for guidance on how to proceed. Eventually the CPS instructed the police to drop the case and declared their reasons for this decision not open to public scrutiny.
By any measure this cannot now be a tenable position, given all the subsequent revelations of child rape on an industrial scale in religious institutions both Anglican and Catholic Church, and what is now being exposed by way of Establishment cover-up. There is also the related matter of a number of Sussex police officers being investigated for gross misconduct over investigations into a complaint about an assault by Savile in the early 1970s. It may or may not be relevant that Savile was a devout Catholic, but it would be no surprise to discover that such a public media figure had easy access to Catholic institutions there as elsewhere. Publicity pictures of Savile with leading cardinals and clerics are widely available to lend support to this view.
The same Catholic Herald report in 2003 claimed that a senior BBC Newsnight journalist had confessed the BBC was out to force the Cardinal's resignation over his handling of the Fr. Michael Hill case. Understandably keen to defend their leader, the paper cried witch-hunt, citing stories highly critical of the Cardinal on both BBC Newsnight and the R4 Today programme. It also had harsh words for coverage in the Times newspaper which had accused the Cardinal of moral failure and, most intriguingly, reported allegations of 'paedophile hotspots' in the Catholic Church in five Catholic dioceses including Arundel and Brighton. In that Times article Margaret Kennedy, founder of the victim support group Ministers and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS) said that questions had to be asked as to why sex abusers "migrated to specific hotspots in the West Midlands and South East where they obviously felt safe".
The reputation of Sussex as a paedophile hotspot now has further credence thanks to child sex abuse convictions in the overlapping Anglican diocese of Chichester and of the culture of cover-up that also existed in the Church of England. From the 1970s to the 1990s there were sporadic and low-profile investigations into allegations of sexual abuse by vicars there but none got as far as the courts. The breakthrough came with the 2008 conviction of Reverend Colin Pritchard, a Bexhill vicar who pleaded guilty to four counts of indecent assault on a child and three counts of gross indecency on a child. Another case involved Reverend Roy Cotton, who became a priest in Chichester after being convicted of a sexual offence against a child in 1953 for indecently exposing himself in the organ loft of a village church. Cotton died in 2006 and was never prosecuted for later offences but two of Cotton's victims have since spoken out about their prolonged abuse.
In 2011 Judge Butler-Sloss was commissioned to investigate the handling of child sex abuse reports about these Anglican vicars in the Diocese of Chichester but her report was subsequently found to contain inaccuracies and flaws in statements given to her by the Anglican administration. As we noted, Baroness Butler-Sloss appeared to have accepted at face value some of the evidence given to her by Anglican figures, and we postulated that perhaps she saw less need to corroborate their evidence because of their position in Church and society. Judge Butler-Sloss has already been forced to stand down from leading the current child abuse inquiry because of her attempt to prevent a senior Anglican bishop from being investigated, and the fact that her brother Sir Michael (later Lord) Havers was the Attorney-General in the Thatcher Government that is now heavily implicated in a high-level cover-up of child sex abuse.
Cardinal O'Connor appeared on a BBC Newsnight programme on Friday 6 December 2002 to claim that he had 'made mistakes' in his time in Sussex and had been on a 'learning curve' as to how to treat people who sexually abuse children. The full transcript is available here. Jeremy Paxman asked him:
"If the Sussex police who currently have the file still open, were to attempt to bring charges through the CPS on charges of something like criminal negligence, would you resign then?"
The Cardinal responded by saying:
"I would follow the law, and co-operate with the police and Crown Prosecution in every way that the law demands."
We now know that in the 1970s the Catholic Church opened a centre in the south of England caring specifically for priests with sexual problems, not least those who were sexually abusing children, and Murphy-O'Connor sent father Michael Hill there for treatment. It has also become common knowledge that the Catholic Church has been dealing with the problem of child sex abuse by clergy for centuries, and opened its first treatment centres in the US in the early 1900s to deal with these issues.
The Cardinal's assertions on that 2002 Newsnight programme now appear disingenuous and obfuscating, since he must have known that his Church had taken steps to contain and hide the problem long before his service as a bishop had commenced. The Cardinal has also claimed that there was huge ignorance in the 1970s of the compulsive nature of child abuse, yet his Church had by then at least 70 years of experience in treating abusive priests in dedicated facilities such as the one to which he sent Father Hill. Had the Church not been able to work out the compulsive nature of the problem of child sex abuse in all that time, given that it purports to speak with absolute authority on all other matters of a sexual nature?
Should we believe the Cardinal's protestations that he just 'made mistakes' over Fr Michael Hill as he claims? In fact the Cardinal had simply been following his Church's Canon Law on keeping clergy child sex abuse covered up in order to protect the reputation of the Church. Let's not forget child sex abuse is always a two-part scandal – first, the horrific abuse itself, in this case by Catholic clergy and religious orders; and second, its wilful cover-up, here enshrined in the Catholic Church's own Canon Law through the notorious Crimen Sollicitationis document which has been examined in a BBC documentary and condemned by one canon lawyer as
"an explicit written policy to cover up cases of child sexual abuse by the clergy to punish those who would call attention to these crimes by the churchmen."
This would explain why, in all his dealings with Father Hill, Murphy-O'Connor never considered contacting the police and asking them to investigate a crime. So I am inclined not to believe that the Cardinal's description of his actions as mere 'mistakes', as he was obeying orders under his Church's own law, which it considers has primacy over democratically derived secular law. The cover-up has been shown all over the world to be deliberate and mandated from the very centre of the Catholic Church. It's worth remembering that a contemporary of Cardinal O'Connor's, Scotland's Cardinal Winning, gained notoriety for claiming in 1994 that the Catholic Church had no responsibility or duty to inform the police when priests sexually abused children. We also know that the more recently disgraced Cardinal Keith O'Brien has been exposed for preventing an investigation into paedophile priests in Scotland, as well as for his own sexual misconduct.
All these subsequent revelations suggest the 'paedophile hotspot' theory alluded to by the Times and MACSAS in 2003 was not so wide of the mark. Both the Catholic and Anglican churches in Sussex in the latter half of the 20th century are heavily implicated in an astonishing number of child sex assaults and their cover-up.
So it is essential and timely for the Government inquiry led by Judge Lowell Goddard to ask the CPS why it decided not to pursue an investigation into the Cardinal's handling of the Fr Hill case, and why it wanted the reasons to be hidden from public view. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine in a Protestant monarchy with an established Protestant church, that ecumenical relations are not best served by having the police investigate the country's leading Catholic? And given what has been revealed about the Thatcher Government of the time and what it knew about high profile figures involved in abusing children, does it stretch the imagination that it joined in this cover-up to protect the reputation of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church? Was it just another attempt to keep the lid on the cases in which Establishment figures were complicit, whether as abusers or accessories? Do the CPS deliberations need to be kept under wraps even when the Cardinal asserts he would have co-operated fully with an investigation and had nothing to hide? Or was he simply excused the embarrassment of an investigation due to the unmerited deference to religion and unwarranted religious privilege?
In Sussex, as in the rest of the UK, there are victims who are owed answers. Judge Lowell Goddard should be looking for some of them from the CPS.
Alistair McBay is a member of the NSS Council. The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.
News | Thu, 05 Mar 2015
Secularist of the Year 2015 is shaping up to be a very exciting event, with attendees including Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling and last year's winner, Turkish opposition MP Safak Pavey.
Quotes of the Week
"Defending our secular public sphere is key to all our freedoms, not least those of moderate Muslims, being shoved by a Wahhabi extremism that purports to be the only true Islam towards isolation from mainstream society."
Janice Turner, Times.
"We'd never allow Marxist-Leninist schools to brainwash children so why do we give religions similar rights?"
David Aaronovitch, Times.