A Councillor of a local authority in a small seaside town complained to us about prayers being on the agenda of meetings. He thought that they were inappropriate, finding it both uncomfortable and offensive to sit through listening to his colleagues invoking a higher power to guide the Council in its deliberations. The only alternative which was almost as uncomfortable was to leave the chamber, without invitation from the chair, while they were taking place. Our councillor knows of prospective councillors were put off joining the Council, making it an ageing Christian clique less and less representative of the area it supposed to serve.

Keith Porteous WOOD

The complaint to the Society nearly got overlooked as being one of many individual complaints without apparent national implications. But it caught my eye and I set about finding out the prevalence of prayers being conducted during Council meetings. We used our members and supporters to carry out nationwide survey. To our astonishment, it transpired that the majority of councils at all levels conduct such prayers.

Our lawyers are convinced that the practice is unlawful. We contend it breaches of the Human Rights Act, constitutes unlawful religious discrimination, and the Council’s powers do not extend to conducting prayers.

Every attempt we made to convince the Council that they should curtail the practice was either ignored or rebuffed. And this was despite them previously been given advice that the practice was of questionable legality.

The NSS’s ruling body concluded that this was an important matter of principle. The performance of public duties is the very last place where religion should intrude.

We therefore applied to the High Court for them to consider this case. This led to welcome national publicity but our opponents claimed that we were picking on a small council. On this occasion it suited the press to portray us – please excuse the biblical reference – as the Goliath. But this argument no longer holds sway. Christians have rallied round to Council and secured indemnities against costs, we suspect ultimately funded by the well-endowed Christian Institute.

So, emboldened by their new fiends, the burghers of this seaside town, called Bideford, decided against backing down and stopping the prayers, but instead resolved to fight us in court. Their lawyers’ defence played down the detriment or discomfort to those councillors who wished not to pray. A key plank of their argument was that the decision to retain prayers had been decided democratically by the Council, and that we were simply bad losers. That argument conveniently fails to take into account that the Council is obliged to follow the law; and them voting to do something unlawful by a majority does not make it lawful.

One of our opponents’ most imaginative defences is that the holding of prayers contributes to “promotion of well-being” and “a sense of community and social cohesion”. They persist with this, despite the long-running acrimonious dispute over prayers itself being evidence of its falsity. Votes on the subject have showed the Council to be seriously split on the matter; it is not just our councillor who wishes to stop them. Councillors supporting prayer even rejected a peace making suggestion from “our” councillor – a period of silence.

Perhaps it is because we never had a complete revolution that the United Kingdom is the only Western democracy to grant seats in its legislature to clerics. And I suspect it is because of this that prayers still precede every sitting of Parliament.

This is relevant because our opponents mention Parliamentary prayer in their evidence. Yet I suspect even they realise that this is not cogent a legal argument. Parliament is not subject to the statutes which govern local authority behaviour. Prayers have been said for around 750 years in Parliament – long before modern human rights conventions were drawn up and which we believe are being breached.

The reference by our opponents to these prayers is more likely to be an attempt to guilt trip the judges into taking their side on the emotive grounds that at ruling in our favour might start to unravel traditions, including the establishment of the Church of England, that some Christians cherish.

The High Court has granted permission for the case to proceed and we await hearing date. We will keep you informed.

The Vatican and Child Abuse

Perhaps the highest profile that IHEU has on the international stage comes from the excellent work done at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Roy Brown, a former IHEU president – and as it happens also a National Secular Society life member – has led operations in Geneva many years. We all owe him an immense debt. I am proud to work on this team, but it faces formidable opponents. We are often pitching ourselves against some of the most powerful forces in the world. Sometimes, our opponents are the Organisation of Islamic Conference states.

But today I’m concentrating on a different opponent, just one member state called the Holy See. That is diplomatic speak for the Roman Catholic Church. It has a seat at the United Nations on the basis of its headquarters being in Vatican City State. It will not surprise you that opinions differ as to whether this tiny enclave within Rome constitutes a sovereign state in international law. But that is an argument for another day.

The resulting trinity of identities (RC Church, Vatican City State and Holy See) enables this last absolute monarchy in Europe to exercise awesome power with the minimum of accountability. It has probably the most extensive network of ambassadors (called papal nuncios) in the world.

As the breathtaking scale of the child abuse crisis within the Catholic Church became more apparent, I embarked on a study of the history of the crisis, the Church’s reaction to it and what sanctions exist to obtain justice – something that was obviously lacking. In the briefest terms, my conclusions were.

  1. the problem had been in place since the very start of the church, but did seem to be at its height in the second half of the 20th century;
  2. the church hierarchy were well aware of it;
  3. the hierarchy of the church contributed to the perpetuation of child abuse by moving known offenders to pastures new, by the culture of secrecy which protected them from secular justice and – until recently – from a public outcry for an end to the abuse.
  4. The abuse of victims has been compounded by their testimonies and denunciations being denied and repudiated. To this day, the Church goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid or minimise the payout of compensation, often imposing silence as a condition of payment.
  5. The church’s own justice system – Canon Law – is not just ineffective, it undermines secular law in this area.
  6. The cover up goes to the very top of the church hierarchy; the present Pope was appointed as chief enforcer as prefect of the CDF in November 1981. It is therefore unlikely that anyone knows more about child abuse in the Church than he does. It is widely thought that he has sought to perpetuate the secrecy.
  7. Although there is been some handwringing from the Pope, the attitude of the hierarchy has been one of damage limitation rather than a determination to clear out those who have either abused themselves, or been involved in mass cover-ups.

Cardinal Law was involved in cover-ups on a massive scale when he was Archbishop of Boston, one of the largest American dioceses. When Law came under serious fire, the previous Pope unwisely insisted he should not resign, but even this reigning pope had to back down in the face of public pressure – something rarely seen. The Church swiftly parachuted Law to the Vatican, conveniently beyond the jurisdiction of American courts. Far from being reprimanded, Law’s misbehaviour seems to have led to a significant increase in his status. He was allowed to conduct one of the Pope’s funeral masses, appointed to head a prestigious basilica in Rome, and allowed to retain his seat on the Pontifical Council of the Family.

Billions of dollars have been paid out as compensation in America, billions of Euros in tiny Ireland. Some very large scandals have erupted in a large number of other European countries, frequently involving those at the very top of the church. Cardinal Archbishop Groer of Vienna has been estimated to have been involved in 2,000 abuse cases personally, yet even though he had been exposed years before his death, he died a Cardinal. John Paul II ignored repeated pleas to bring Marcial Maciel to account for wholesale abuse in the legionaries of Christ cult he led from Mexico. At least Benedict moved to remove Maciel, but whether this was connected with the abuse, or simply to bring a wayward organisation under his personal control, we do not know.

It seems very unlikely that wholesale abuse has been confined to the areas revealed so far. It is well known that errant priests from the UK were whisked away to Africa. It is also likely that much more is to be revealed from South America and the Far East.

So, what have I done about it?

I soon discovered that the Church was over a decade overdue in mandatory reporting to the UN Committee. This led me to look at the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and draw up a list of other likely breaches. Once I established that there were quite a few, I put this in a report to the UN and spoke to it at the UN Human Rights Council in 2009. Had the Vatican ignored my attack, the matter may well have gone unreported. But instead they responded with a disingenuous and arrogant defence which caught the imagination of the world’s media.

Earlier this year (2011), I wrote a further report, but this time was able to cite UN jurist Geoffrey Robertson QC, as having validated my claims about breach of the Convention, concluding that six Articles had been broken. And despite their undertaking in 2009 that the grossly overdue reports “are being finalised as we speak”, they had still not and have still not appeared.

The Vatican learned from its painful lesson in 2009 and kept silent in Geneva when I once more attacked their abysmal record in 2011. But there was something about the demeanour of their representative that made me conclude that they realised they could no longer go on stonewalling.

Curiously though, just last month, for no apparent reason, the Vatican’s representative volunteered that the grossly overdue reports would soon be published. I accept it has not yet happened, but this does seem like progress. I think they know we will not allow them to continue to get away with this. I can assure you, and them, that there is much more in the pipeline.

No contemporary commentary on the Vatican and child abuse could be complete without considering the extraordinary but welcome address on the subject by the Irish Prime Minister to his Parliament on 20 July 2011. It was all the more astonishing because his party is linked with the EPP and the Christian Democrats and perhaps even more that he, identifying himself as a practising Catholic, chose to make the speech himself. Nor should we forget that he was talking about an organisation that is given special status in Ireland’s constitution and that, whether we like it or not, the Holy See is treated as a sovereign state.

The PM described the latest child abuse report (on the Diocese of Cloyne) as “heartbreaking”. It also “exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic [Ireland] as little as three years ago, not three decades ago.” He deplored this Vatican “intervention which contributed to the undermining of the child protection frameworks and guidelines of the Irish State and the Irish bishops”. [The Papal Nuncio, who could even face expulsion, maintains that this intervention] “could not be interpreted as an invitation to cover up abuse. Does the Vatican take us, the people of Ireland, for fools?” the fools? The Prime Minister added.

“In doing so, the report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection and elitism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were down-played or managed to uphold the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation.”

He continued: “The official church has disgraced itself in the handling of this, most serious of issues. It is absolutely disgusting and goes right to the top. The bishops, with the Vatican, played a major role in aggravating the level of abuse of children in Ireland.”

“There is no indication of any concern on the part of Vatican for the children who were abused. While the Vatican authorities might not have encouraged bishops to break the laws, they encouraged them to put the reputation of the church before the protection of children. They were more worried about embarrassment than the damage of abuse. In how many other dioceses did the Vatican interfere in the manner it did in Cloyne?”

Some time ago “The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said: ‘Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church’. As the Holy See prepares its considered response to the Cloyne Report, I want to make it clear, as [Prime Minister], that when it comes to the protection of the children of this State, the standards of conduct which the Church deems appropriate to itself cannot and will not be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic – not purely, or simply or otherwise, because children have to be and will be put first.

Abusers were allowed to use their status as clergy to carry out the most appalling crimes and the church’s leadership in the diocese and in Rome showed a callous disregard for safety and the rights of the most vulnerable members of its flock. This was done not simply to avoid scandal. It went much further and involved a wilful refusal to respect basic moral and legal responsibilities.”

“Bishop [of Cloyne] John Magee held Canon Law superior to the civil law of the land. That disposition directly led to the abuse of more children through not adhering to correct reporting procedures and, thereby, placed more children at risk.”

Perhaps most telling of all, is that totally discredited the Bishop of Cloyne was reported to be the “private secretary” and “close confidant” of “three popes”.

In the debate that followed there were even harsher words for the Vatican, and one deputy, Mick Wallace, said: “The Government must reassess the church-State relationship. The church has played too big a part in the fabric of the State. The sooner they are divided, the better for both parties.” He later told the BBC: “the Vatican has was hell bent on preventing the evidence, the truth, coming out … the Church has proven to be a cancer to Irish society”.

It seems we now have a generation of politicians in Ireland who are prepared to do what is necessary to break the stranglehold of the Church: a rewriting of the constitution to make clear that Ireland is an independent, democratic state that does not look to a theocratic outside institution for its policies.

After the speech given by Liz O’Donnell (Irish MP) in 2005, after the publication of the Ferns report, outlining that «the special relationship between the Catholic Church and the State must end», After the speech given by Ivana Bacik, Irish Senator, at the general assembly of Atheist Ireland in July 2010 explaining that «This is time to separate Church and State», more than ever this question is at the heart of the debate in Ireland.