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Sunday 15 August 2010

Victims of the old authoritarian weapons

The 'Birmingham Three' have been victimised for resisting secularist threats, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

I try to be fair to the Roman Catholic Church, although I retired from it angrily at the age of 16. Yet I got over my anti-Catholic period, describe myself as a 'religion-friendly atheist', and in the UK, where I live, prize Roman Catholic opposition to evangelical secularists who regard hostility to, eg, unlimited abortion, stem-cell research and euthanasia as medieval and irrational.

Still, I haven't had that much I could agree on with Dermot Fenlon, a close friend at UCD and Cambridge University, a distinguished academic who became a priest of impeccable orthodoxy.

But I hate injustice, and Dermot has become a victim of a faction within his church which favours the old weapons of authoritarianism and concealment. When I read in late May that he had been ordered to a Trappist monastery, I was horrified.

For the last 20 years, Dermot has lived in the Birmingham Oratory founded by Cardinal Newman, nurturing his parishioners, continuing his Newman studies and praying so much he was known for his shiny trouser-knees. Problems hit the community when more than two years ago, the Provost, Father Paul Chavasse, took up the cause of a 20-year-old who had been turned down for the priesthood and developed with him what would be later described officially as "an intense but chaste relationship".

I'm as happy celebrating a civil partnership as a conventional wedding, but I find it completely reasonable that Oratory parishioners were scandalised by the Provost's friendship.

After a period of drift, late last year, the tiny community -- including Father Chavasse -- wrote to Rome to ask for help in dealing with what all agreed was a problem. Apart from anything else, the papal visit was being planned and the Pope was to beatify Newman and visit the Oratory.

Fast forward to late May, after an investigation led by the Viennese Father Felix Selden, the Apostolic Visitor of the Holy See, when it was announced in the press that Father Chavasse had taken himself away on retreat, but that "three members of the Birmingham Oratory have been ordered to go on retreat after disagreements with the rest of the community. Fr Philip Cleeveley, Fr Dermot Fenlon and Br Lewis Berry have been told to spend time in prayer for an indefinite period by Fr Felix Selden". They had been sent to monasteries respectively in Scotland, Leicestershire and France and gagged, as they still are.

What Father Selden had reckoned without was the blogosphere. By the time I heard what had happened to Dermot, speculation was rampant, much of it of the 'no-smoke-without-fire' variety. By the time he was permitted to go to the US to do some teaching, he found that there was a widespread belief that to have been punished with indefinite exile suggested 'The Birmingham Three', as they are known by sympathisers, were guilty of some terrible sexual sins. Yet on the blogs there were also many, many supporters who believe they have been victimised by the establishment for being forthright defenders of Catholic values in the face of secularist threats (Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, is not in favour of too much challenging of the state) and for having eloquently resisted attempts to co-opt Newman as a gay icon.

All three had been looking forward to the papal visit as the high point of their clerical careers, but although it appears that Father Chavasse will be back for it, the others will remain exiled: three Oratorians who are in complete theological harmony with Pope Benedict are being kept as far away from him as possible. Enquiries from the laity to Father Selden have resulted in a patronising brush-off: the official line is that they were a cause of disunity.

As I write, Brother Berry has been ordered to South Africa for at least a year and the Oratory spokesman tells me the other two await imminent sentence. Their defenders have formed an alliance that includes right-wing Catholics, people of other religions and none, and gays as well as straights, for from personal knowledge I can testify that there is nothing homophobic about Dermot Fenlon, who was much sought-after as a confessor.

For those interested, I recommend my modest blog on the Standpoint website and Facebook group 'Free the Birmingham Three'.

Sorry, Father Selden, Catholic totalitarianism has gone out of vogue. The laity no longer know their place.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards