Sunday, 12 September 2010

Priest is excluded from the Birmingham Oratory

The Catholic Herald – Simon Caldwell – 10.9.2010 (not available online)

A priest at the church founded by Cardinal John Henry Newman has been effectively expelled from his community.

Fr Dermot Fenlon has been excluded from the Birmingham Oratory just weeks before Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Britain.

The Oratorian priest is the most senior of the so-called “Birmingham Three”, a group of two priests and a deacon sent on enforced retreat as part of ‘internal house-keeping’ by Church authorities in May from the community founded by Cardinal Newman in 1847.

While two of the three have accepted immediate postings abroad – and will miss Cardinal Newman’s beatification on September 19 – Fr Fenlon is understood to be refusing to agree to disciplinary moves against him.

Sources close to the Oratory have told The Catholic Herald that Fr Fenlon, 68, is now in the process of being “forcibly exclaustrated” for at least five years, when he will be 74, because he is objecting to the way he is being treated.

This means that although he technically remains a member of the Birmingham Oratory, he is exiled from his community in a move that will effectively retire him. He will not be allowed to return to the Oratory and must live elsewhere, although the Oratory remains responsible for his upkeep.

“He is going to be away for a very long time,” said one source. “But the Oratorians can’t just cut him off. They have to go on supporting him. The Oratory has a big problem. Where is he going to live? What is he going to do? The bishops will be reluctant to take him because of his situation”.

Under the Code of Canon Law, a priest cannot be exclaustrated for more than three years unless there is a “grave reason”. A prolonged period must also have either the direct approval of either the Holy See or the local bishop, who, in the case of Fr Fenlon, is Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham.

Yet no Church figure has publicly given any reason why Fr Fenlon has been subject to such severe canonical penalties in the first place.

They have insisted from the outset that the action against him and the other two – Fr Philip Cleevely and Br Lewis Berry – was medicinal rather than punitive and that it did not concern any sexual impropriety. Jack Valero, spokesman for the Birmingham Oratory, has said, however, that the suspensions were partly as a result of “doctrinal tensions” – though none of these existed among the Oratorians themselves. The decision to exclaustrate Fr Fenlon was taken by Fr Felix Selden, the Apostolic Visitor to the Order who carries the authority of the Holy See, who has made just three brief visits to Birmingham in the last year.

As public disquiet mounted over the treatment of the men, the Vatican is said to have requested a speedy resolution of the crisis ahead of the papal visit. Authorities then offered to treat the three leniently as long as they accept a period of exile, agree to statements distancing themselves from criticism of the way they have been treated and drop any appeals they have lodged against the visitation.

Fr Cleevely, former spokesman for the Cause for Canonisation of Cardinal Newman, has agreed to go to Canada and Rome to research the influence of Newman’s writings on the Second World War martyr St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), while Br Lewis has gone to South Africa to undertake pastoral work. Both have issued statements denouncing criticism of the visitation.

But Fr Fenlon has refused not to appeal against his suspension.

The move to censure him may shock worshipers in Birmingham who know Fr Fenlon for his piety and his loyalty to the teachings of the Church. He has been particularly committed to preaching the “theology of conscience” of Cardinal Newman, a subject which has also been a great inspiration to Pope Benedict and John Paul II.

Fr Fenlon becomes the second Oratorian to be exclaustrated in less than a year, the first being Fr Paul Chavasse, the Provost, who in December was ordered from the Oratory until later this month after he entered a “chaste but intense” relationship with a 20-year-old man who had been rejected as a candidate to the priesthood.

A campaign is underway to reinstate Fr Fenlon. It includes Irish journalist and author Ruth Dudley Edwards, who was at university with him, and Jakob Knab, a German historian who worked with the priest in establishing the influence of Newman’s theology of conscience on Sophie Scholl, a student beheaded in 1943 for urging her fellow Germans to rise up against “Nazi terror”.

Dr Dudley Edwards said that her friend, formerly a Cambridge University don, had given up a “glittering academic career” to serve God through ministering to parishioners in Birmingham while devoting himself intellectually to the study of Cardinal Newman.

She said: “Then – at 68 and in indifferent health – he was thrown out of his home of 20 years, exiled indefinitely, banned from the beatification ceremony that would have been the highpoint of his life and forbidden to defend himself, although his reputation was being trashed in the blogosphere by those who assume that such brutal treatment must imply some grave sin. This good and holy man has been treated cruelly and unjustly.”

The Birmingham Oratory has declined to comment on Fr Fenlon’s case but Mr Valero, writing in The Catholic Herald last month, said: “the matter was entirely to do with relations between members of the community… sometimes a period of separation is necessary to restore perspective and calm nerves.”