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September 2010

Open Season

‘What Machiavellian moves lie behind the removal of three hard-working and much-loved clerics from the Birmingham Oratory just before the Pope’s visit?’

The Viennese Father Felix Selden has a splendid title: the Delegate of the Holy See for the Congregation of the Oratory. And what a jolly-looking chap he seems—ideal for the job of overseeing the 70-odd little communities worldwide of secular priests and lay brothers who strive to live simply and usefully according to the principles laid down by the 16th-century St Philip Neri. Yet what havoc he has wrought on the Birmingham Oratory in the year when the Pope is visiting to mark the beatification of Cardinal Newman, its founder in 1848. And how he has blighted the lives of Fathers Dermot Fenlon and Philip Cleevely and Brother Lewis Berry.

Selden came calling when the eight priests of the Oratory sought guidance from Rome to help them deal with the issue of their loved and trusted Provost, Father Paul Chavasse. He had formed what a spokesman would later describe coyly as an “intense but physically chaste friendship” with a handsome, gay 20-year-old who had been turned down for the priesthood.

Oratorians are traditionalists, doctrinally and liturgically. Birmingham’s Oratory was particularly noted for its deep commitment to the ideals expressed in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae: all sexual acts were sinful other than those within marriage. Yet the emphasis was on compassion, and Fenlon, whose 50-year-old friendship with me had survived my divorces, atheism and social libertarianism, had queues outside his confessional. Formerly a Cambridge don, he is also a respected Newman scholar. The Newman beatification and the visit to the Oratory by Pope Benedict would have been the most joyful event of his life.

Oratorians are enjoined to live in charity with each other, so the emphasis was on helping Chavasse resolve his problem. That in some quarters Newman was being represented as a gay icon who believed that individual conscience trumped church doctrine made the matter more urgent: Fenlon was one of three Oratorians particularly eloquent in defence of Newman’s chastity, heterosexuality and the orthodoxy of his faith.

Selden brought with him Father Ignatius Harrison, the Provost of the London (Brompton) Oratory, with Father Gareth Jones his bizarre choice as canonical adviser. As a cleric, Jones rarely stays long anywhere: in the Birmingham Oratory, he was twice a novice under Fenlon and was twice asked to leave because he did not fit in. In December 2009, it was announced that Chavasse had stepped down and had been asked by Selden to go to the US as a fund-raiser. Six months later, the Tablet announced: “Three members of the Birmingham Oratory have been ordered to go on retreat after disagreements with the rest of the community. Fr Philip Cleevely, Fr Dermot Fenlon and Br Lewis Berry have been told to spend time in prayer for an indefinite period by Fr Felix Selden.” Cleevely was sent to Scotland, Fenlon to a Trappist monastery. Berry has been transported to South Africa. All were forbidden to speak to the press.

As the story was picked up in the mainstream media but no explanations given except that it was “an internal matter”, the blogosphere and phones hummed with speculation. There were some who thought such a savage sentence implied homosexual activity at best, child molestation at worst. Others thought them homophobes. Others saw conspiracies. Selden’s local archbishop is Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who has mused publicly that the Church needs to “give more consideration to the quality of homosexual relationships”. This would be in line with the views of Archbishop Vincent Nichols, who does not rule out future Church recognition of gay unions. While the oratories are autonomous, archbishops matter. Did Archbishop Nichols, who found Fenlon intellectually challenging, want rid of a turbulent priest? Is Selden trying to remake the three English Oratories in the bland and politically-sensitive image of Oxford, which has provided Chavasse’s replacement?

Parishioners’ letters to Harrison went unanswered. Selden responded by telling them the laity should shut up. The Oratory spokesman is now Jack Valero, who led an Opus Dei charm offensive in response to The Da Vinci Code, but who could give few answers. He has told me that Chavasse will be back for the papal visit, but the others will not, since Selden’s report will not be ready. They have done nothing wrong, he insists, but Fenlon, now in America trying to find a temporary home, has found his reputation in tatters along with that of the Oratory.

Has no one grasped that one inference being taken from this mess is that the Birmingham Three are being punished for being whistleblowers? Has the Church learned nothing from the child-abuse scandals and the disastrous effects of a policy of silence and concealment? Truly, Father Selden is a worthy emissary of a Bourbon culture.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards