Press Column

Sex everywhere this week: I donít think I have had so thick a file of church clippings since I started. Even the Guardian gave three whole pages of its tabloid section over to a religious sex scandal. You might think its readership was uninterested in such tittle tattle; but this was different and shocking: it was a scandal among vegetarians. The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order had been turned over by the indefatigable Madeleine Bunting. It is a strange group, which has been given a largely sympathetic hearing by journalists (including me) in the past. This is partly because Buddhism is desperately attractive to Westerners who want a "raw" spirituality, which comes without theology and feel that they can escape from the artificiality of Western traditions by taking Sanskrit names. One of the leader writers at the Independent was a sympathiser, if not a member. Another reason is that the members one meets are attractive: nice middle-class, educated men doing good work in prison chaplaincy and earnest little communes. They seem to like the press, rather than publicity. When Madeleine confronted the second in command of the group, he said "Thank God itís not the News of the World", a remark to warn any reporterís heart ó even those who work for the paper in question.

This did not save him from the pull quote "It was a petty totalitarian state, an Orwellian Albania, with its own Big Brother." The article focussed on the cases of three young men, one named, who had been sexually exploited in the group during the last twenty years. One had killed himself. Another was approached by the founder of the Order, who explained to him that his spiritual progress was blocked by anti-homosexual conditioning, and offered to help him over this difficulty with hands-on tuition. "If I protested, he would admonish men that I should not give in to my conditioning and allow it to inhibit the development of our spiritual friendship. Giving up the homosexual relationship would be like giving up Buddhism and the spiritual journey."

Instead, the young man gave a house to his teacher, and then their friendship petered out. Eventually he left the group: "He felt a great sense of failure and guilt about being a heterosexual. He blamed himself and became severely depressed."

It is a line to treasure. Apart from anything else, the young man seems to have taken a very roundabout spiritual journey to reach that sense of failure and guilt about heterosexual impulses which is the natural condition of most of the human race.

I almost wrote "all the human race" but then I remembered the inhabitants of Anglesey, and especially the throbbing country village of Benllech. On the day the verdict was announced, there were three full pages in the Express, two in the Daily Mail, five in the Sun. The only thing to beat "randy rector Clifford Williams" from the front page of the Daily Mail were the tangled confessions of Piers Merchant, the MP for Beckenham who had been videoed in bed with his mistress by the Sunday Mirror as a demonstration of the incorruptibility of the British press. The coverage all followed the route staked out, I think, by the Daily Mail in its coverage of the Rev Roger Holmes, who was also the unwitting pioneer who established that concealed video cameras have a place in every bedroom that the press finds interesting. The idea is to interview everyone who has ever slept with the vicar, and anyone who hasnít, and then print all their stories together so that readers can savour every aspect of the situation.

However, there are two details worth noting in the coverage of the Anglesey case. The first is that not all of it was prurient. Some of it was sympathetic to all the people involved. Notable here was Molly Parkinís story in the Mail on Sunday. It had an unbeatable perspective on the story: "More than a decade ago I had gone on a coach trip to Edinburgh with a gang of pals from my village to support the Welsh rugby team against Scotland. After a suitably Celtic celebration of my countryís victory I awoke dazed and confused to the sound of bells ringing for Mass. My companion of the night slipped out of bed and in struggled into his clerical robes. It was the gorgeous, young Irish Roman Catholic priest with whom I had had a deep and meaningful conversation the night before in the bar."

Beyond that, it reports a community that is not shocked or horrified, but rather grown-up in its attitude. "He is a womaniser through and through, but charming with it." one man tells her. "Everyone I speak to agrees that he would be irreplaceable in the hierarchy of compassion, tolerance and kindness towards the suffering in the parish. Not one of them wants to see him go."

The second detail, which goes some way to explain the ferocity of most of the tabloid coverage, comes form the Sunís leader on the subject. "The bishop of Bangor knew there was a problem for ten years. He acted only after a newspaper exposed the marriage-wrecking rector. Thank God he couldnít hide behind a privacy law."

This last sentence, underlined and in bold in the original, gives the game away. The unfortunate Mr Williams, and the still more unfortunate women who loved him, are in the punishment battalion which the newspapers are using to clear the minefield they strayed into after Dianaís death. These stories are given the full treatment as a way of checking whether the public really meant its great revulsion from intrusive journalism. If there is an explosion, well, we have learnt something, and the victims are disposable. If there is no explosion, then business will resume as usual.

Anna Blundy, a columnist in the Times Saturday magazine, has made a terrible discovery. She is to get married, which is, I suppose, a necessary preliminary to this yearís really fashionable columns, which are diaries of divorces (or, if youíre happily married, of deaths). "I have to become a Christian of some description before any of this happens and [my sisters] were both very shocked to hear that if you get christened (my sister Grace calls it christianed) that officially makes you a Christian."

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