Thursday, 29 July 2010

Savage Punishment - 77 days on

Catholic Family News - 29.7.2010

Damian Thompson has taken up the story of the exiled members of the Birmingham Oratory in his Daily Telegraph blog 'Papal visit: where are the three 'disappeared' Oratorians, ask parishioners'.

He writes : 'Parishioners of the Birmingham Oratory have written an open letter to the Oratorian priest acting as the Vatican's delegate to the Congregation, asking about the fate of two priests and a brother who - though not accused or suspected of any sexual impropriety - were mysteriously sent into exile in May.

This is a complex business, but it strikes me that the Birmingham Oratory really needs to display some transparency now, rather than let the matter fester until Pope Benedict XVI visits them in September. As The Times reported on May 21, the then Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, Fr Paul Chavasse, had left his post amid allegations of a 'close but chaste' relationship with a young man. But he was not the only Oratorian forced to leave:

Father Philip Cleevely, Father Dermot Fenlon and Brother Lewis Berry have been told 'to spend time in prayer for an indefinite period' by Father Felix Seldon, the priest appointed to conduct an 'apostolic visitation'.

The Tablet reports today that Father Cleevely has gone to Pluscarden Abbey, Moray, Father Fenlan to Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, Leicestershire, and Brother Berry to somewhere in France.

But why were these three Oratorians given this savage punishment? Their supporters have been trying to find out, to no avail: all we have to go on are rumours about 'disputes over the beatification of Newman', which could mean anything. If these Birmingham Oratorians are innocent of wrongdoing, should they really be excluded from the greatest moment in the history of their Congregation?

I've just spoken to a senior (and non-partisan) lay Catholic who felt that this apparent injustice should be highlighted despite the dangers of rocking the boat so soon before the papal visit. So here is the open letter (Ed. published by CF NEWS on July 25th) . Time for some answers.
An Open Letter to Father Felix Selden CO, Delegate of the Apostolic See for the Confederation of the Oratory, from parishioners of the Birmingham Oratory and members of the National Association of Catholic families.

We are grateful to Father Felix Selden for having had the courtesy to reply to our letter of 1st July, in which we enquired about the return of Father Dermot Fenlon, Father Philip Cleevely and Brother Lewis Berry to the Birmingham Oratory. Unfortunately none of our questions were answered. His argument appears to be that as mere lay people, we have no right to know what is going on at the Birmingham Oratory. However we are parents, chosen by God to discharge the duty of protecting vulnerable young people in a society at war with our values. We have seen the inexplicable removal of two priests and a brother who have exerted themselves heroically in the defence of our Catholic families. Consequently, our family and others are now left much more vulnerable. I am afraid that is very much our business and indeed intimately affects our families: we have every right to a coherent explanation of what is going on, and an assurance that these priests and brother will be returned to their ministry with us forthwith.

Father Selden expresses concern that lay people are protesting the conduct of the Apostolic Visitation and suggests that this is creating scandal 'and might dangerously harm the Church and the Oratory of Birmingham'. It is very difficult to read this in any other way than as a veiled threat. Is there a threat here of direct action against the lay protestors, or indirect action against the two priests and brother concerned if the lay people cannot be silenced? We are bound to point out that the scandal was absolutely not of our own making. We will not easily forget the look of bewilderment on our children's faces when they heard from the pulpit the announcement of the expulsion of these three holy men with no explanation, and the difficult task we have (and continue to have) in trying to mitigate the enormous scandal that has been done to these little ones. There is a very ready remedy: bring back those of our good pastors who are innocent of any wrong doing (as we have been assured is the case with these three).

No threat will convince us as parents to remain silent: the threat from the immoral culture all around us, which in many sad cases has infiltrated the Catholic Church even to the extent of compromising some of her pastors, is far more deadly to us than anything that might be done to silence us. We love the Catholic Church very much but cannot elevate Church reputation and image above our children's moral safety. Our children's very souls are at stake and we will not be silence.

We ask once again: are these three holy men going to be returned to Cardinal Newman's Oratory where they belong or not? If they are to return, when will that be? [Telegraph]

In his SPUC Director's blog, John Smeaton picks up on Damian Thompso's Telegraph blog, noting that he had raised the question of the clerics' expulsion in a number posts 'as to whether their removal can be traced to the clear, coherent critique made by these Oratorians against the obvious and very serious dangers posed by the former government's sex and relationships education proposals contained within the Children, Schools and Families bill, a stance sharply at variance with Archbishop Nichols and the Catholic bishops' conference of England and Wales.

As I've said before: What on earth are Catholics and non-Catholics to make of the situation? On the one hand three staunch pro-life, pro-family advocates suffer apparently peremptory ecclesiastical injustice. On the other hand Archbishop Nichols, just a couple of months ago, was painting the previous government's intentions on sex and relationships education in an entirely positive light - when those intentions included continuing to enable the promotion and facilitation of abortion, contraception and homosexuality in schools, including Catholic schools. [SPUC] 1661.26