Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Birmingham Three Recap...

Catholic and Loving it blog (link) 20.9.2011

I don't know how many of you are new to events at the Birmingham Oratory in the run up to the Papal visit but it's been a while and it might help if I run through it all again.

It was back in May 2010 that The Tablet first carried the news that three Oratorians had been told to “spend time in prayer for an indefinite period by Fr Felix Selden, an apostolic visitor to the Oratory Congregation”. If the Tablet had stopped there that might have been the end of it - such things are an internal matter and helps nobody to speculate on blogs.

Except in this case it wasn't an internal matter, it ceased to be an internal matter when the spokesman for the Birmingham Oratory picked up the phone to The Tablet and named names. However much he might bleat now about privacy, it was the Birmingham Oratory spokesman and not a blogger who made it a matter of pubic record that Fr Philip Cleevely, Fr Dermot Fenlon and Brother Lewis Berry had been “ordered to go on retreat” by Fr Felix Selden. This is the ecclesiastical equivalent of announcing that somebody has been permanently suspended from work - a very public stain on the reputation of these three men and one which they were entirely unable to defend themselves due to the gagging order placed on them by the Oratory.

As the weeks turned in to months some suggested that whatever the three had done to deserve their exile, it must have been pretty serious. Rumours of bullying and possible sexual misconduct began to surface. Friends of the three men were so distressed at the way in which their reputations were being “trashed” that they began to campaign publicly that the three were known to be good holy men a blog was started and an open letter was sent to Fr Felix Selden.

To suggest that these friends and wellwishers were guilty of gossip is outrageous. It was gossip and rumour that they were seeking to dispel.

It was about this time that BBC West Midlands became interested and Oratory spokesman Jack Valero was quick to play things down... “it's just a time away to cool down” he said “they can come back soon and we can continue as normal”. Only a few weeks later Jack had changed his tune telling Radio Ulster that the three “are going to come back at some point, we don't know, it's not going to be soon”. This is the sort of transparency most people would associate with a brick wall.

To their credit, the Oratory did defend the three men and Ruth Dudley Edwards reported that Jack Valero had “confirmed unequivocally that the Three are entirely guiltless of any wrong-doing whatsoever”. Of course, this only begs the question – if they have done nothing wrong, why are they away? Why can they not come back? This soon became the central mystery of the Birmingham Three. Three men, declared innocent by an official spokesman for the Birmingham Oratory yet exiled from their home for months and looking increasingly likely to miss the beatification of their founder. Why had they been sent away in the first place?

More questions began to be asked, like why is the press officer for Opus Dei speaking for the Birmingham Oratory? Things did't get any less mysterious when it turned out that while Mr Valero is officially speaking for the Oratory he is actually being paid to do so by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales and reports to Archbishop Nichol's press secretary. Yet more questions were raised about the role of the mysterious Fr Gareth/Sebastian Jones...

Pressure was mounting, blog entries about The Birmingham Three were getting hits from Rome, I had been on the Radio and Ruth Dudley Edwards was writing in Standpoint magazine and had even got the story on TV. The same questions were repeatedly asked: If the three have done nothing wrong, why can't they come home?

Something had to be done and something was, I can't say exactly how much pressure Brother Lewis Berry was under when he agreed to spend next year at an Oratory in South Africa but it's very hard imagine he did so of his own free will. The youngest of the three had the most to lose and with his ordination hanging in the balance the press release in his name had all the credibility of a forced confession. Fr Philip Cleevely issued a remarkably similar press release about how happy he is to be spending the next year in Toronto. It would not be long until the men who Jack Valero said would be “back soon” announced plans to remain abroad permanently.

Which leaves Fr Dermot Fenlon, the last of the three. There has been no press release from Fr Fenlon, no statement that he is happy about being sent away from his home of twenty years at a days notice despite being 68 years of age. So Fr Fenlon has been well and truly stamped on, according to a report in the Catholic Herald Fr Fenlon is being “forcibly exclaustrated” for a period of five years. In the article Simon Caldwell writes that “Under the Code of Canon Law, a priest cannot be exclaustrated for more than three years unless there is a “grave reason” yet Fr Fenlon has officially done nothing wrong. Such a prolonged period must 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”.

And so the questions remain: If there has been no injustice, why not let the three speak to journalists and tell everbody how happy they are with the situation? If the three have done nothing wrong, why couldn't they be present for the beatification?

More than a year later - why is Fr Dermot Fenlon still in exile?