The Press Saturday, December 26th 1998

I'm writing on December 21st, so I don't know if there will be a truce in the Abbey on Christmas Day, when the Dean, the Chapter, and the organist all emerge from their trenches to kick a football around in the snow while the sniping and shelling dies away. There might even be a pause in the distant regular crumps that come from Wapping when Christopher "Big Bertha" Morgan fires off another salvo  of shells stuffed with rusty nails, screws , assorted nuts and bolts any old scrap he can get hold of, really. But until then hostilities continue as usual. Dr Neary had a letter in Friday's Times explaining that the fundamental  reason he had launched his appeal was to clear his name of the imputation of dishonesty. This really is rather odd. I could have sworn that the purpose of his appeal was to get his job back; and, if possible, to arrange for the extradition of the hated generalissimo "Dean" Carr to face trial for his numerous crimes against humanity. Let us not forget what Lord Jauncey found.

"For some three and a half years, Dr and Mrs Neary ran a business whose principal earning assets were the lay vicars and choristers. … They used their position as Organist and Music Department secretary to make secret profit over a prolonged period and they entirely failed to inform the Abbey Authorities of what they were doing, notwithstanding the fact that there were ample opportunities to do so and no good reason for not doing so. … They disclosed to no one … that they and not the Abbey authorities were entering into some contracts on behalf of the choir. .. Dr Neary sought an increase in salary for Mrs Neary without mentioning that she was already receiving substantial sums by way of fixing fees."

I would have thought that the first task for Dr Neary was to explain where exactly in these actions we are to discover the honesty and propriety he so loudly protests. Even supposing that the Dean is a pompous dalek and that is very much what the Neary supporters' case comes down to I don't see that these character flaws justify the Nearys' behaviour or unjustify their sacking.

I had been going to devote this column to my usual regular round-up of next year's news, as revealed by the astrologers: Dr Carey's horoscope as cast by The People's Friend; what The Tatler foresees for Fr Michael Seed that sort of thing. I had even gone so far as to collect some horoscopes from Moscow. But this will have to wait, as there has been a completely unexpected rush of genuine news.

For a start there was the Noel Barry libel case. This was a suit brought by Cardinal Winning's pugnacious press officer and a friend of his, a 50-year-old school teacher, against the Scottish Sun, which had suggested they were enjoying an affair. Fr Barry claimed their relationship was an entirely innocent one. He admitted that he had fallen in love with a former nun, Caroline Brown (no relation), some years previously and even spent the night with her in a hotel in Preston (chosen as being a long way from Glasgow). But, he said, he had been unable to go through with it. Mrs Brown, giving evidence for the Sun, contradicted his account, and even produced a rather dreadful limerick he had written to celebrate their nights in Preston together. She had eventually tired of waiting for him to leave the priesthood and gone off and married someone else. Despite all this, he won his case, and 45,000 in damages (his lady friend got 120,000). It is always tricky to comment on the outcome of libel cases, but I was at the Tablet's Christmas party when the news came through, and people there were very impressed by the verdict.

Then there was the appearance of a kindly article in the Daily Mail about an ordinary  priest who had attempted suicide. Perhaps it was not necessary for the Rev. Christopher Newell suicide to go that far to attract the sympathy of the paper, but the result, a long feature by Clare Campbell, was extraordinarily moving without being melodramatic or even having a particularly happy ending. Mr Newell still hasn't returned to work, and suffers panic attacks if the phone rings. But he is to start looking after his childrne when his wife returns to work in the New Year.

The best Sunday paper news story came in the Sunday Telegraph which had got Dr Hope to attack the Dome. It has to be said that most of his article was the sort of sermonising piety which only Dr Edward Norman of the regular newspaper writers does well. But about three quarters of the way through, there was real meat, deserving of the splash on the front age. "We should use this Christmas to reflect poignantly on the truth of Christmas as it really is, before the millennium fever sets in." This seems to me the most extraordinary admission yet of the completely secular nature of the Millennium celebrations as they are planned in this country. I'm not saying he's wrong to admit this. There is nothing recognisably Christian or even religious in the Dome that I can detect. But it makes an interesting change of tack, for until now the official line has been to pretend that this is not the case.

Amidst all these fierce conflicts it would be easy to overlook the distant hail of bombs upon Iraq. As far as the secular press was concerned, this was a story with no religious angle at all; perhaps that's the moral we ought to be considering. Meryy Christmas. Let's hope next year is better.

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