Press Column Saturday 16 September 2000

Stand on the eleventh floor of the tower at Canary Wharf, in the spacious offices of the Daily Telegraph. Pick up a brick. Oh, all right, pick up a wet sponge instead; anyway, throw it at random in the hope if striking a "Roman Catholic journalist" and see who you hit. Charles Moore does not count. No: the likeliest targets are Christopher Howse and Damien Thompson: so which one of them was it who described the Tablet table as "a ghastly, incredibly smug collection of liberal Catholics."?

The quote comes in PJ Bonthrone's throbbing saga of everyday life in a fashionable West London parish about the expulsion of Fr Alan Ashton from St Francis of Assisi in Notting Hill, where he had been sent as the successor to Oliver McTernan. This story made the whole of the top of page three for the Daily Telegraph, stuffed as it was with shadowy villains: "influential liberals" who are "described by insiders" as "trendy and progressive" when not being ghastly and incredibly smug. I donít know who else you would expect to find in that area: the only poor people I can remember seeing near the church were the Filipino staff of neighbouring hotels. And it is curious that mong the regular worshippers they omitted one Daily Telegraph journalist of impeccably reactionary theology even if she did once do unpaid PR for Mgr Bruce Kent and CND.

Since the story was shared with the Catholic Herald, I take it as further evidence of the slow collapse of internal cohesion and loyalty within the Catholic intelligentsia, and a tribute to the fact that once you stop being a persecuted minority you can get on with persecuting each other. On strictly ecumenical grounds, any Anglican should welcome the extension of this sort of coverage to the Roman Catholic Church.

Of course, Notting Hill is not the only part of London where the simple customs of the natives strike outsiders as pretentious. Fridayís Telegraph had a wonderful feature on a witch from Crouch End, who looks down, from the heights around the Alexandra Palace, at her narrow-minded and provincial competition: The front door is opened by a blonde in her late thirties. She is wearing combat trousers and a pink shirt and has half a dozen silver rings dangling from each of her delicate ears. I examine her face closely but there isnít a wart in sight." So why isnít she a member of the congregation at St Francis of Assisi?

Instead she takes the reporter to Avebury, explaining as she goes that she is a very post-modern kind of witch: "If your boyfreind ran off with another woman, no, I wouldnít be able to put a spell on him. But I could get you to do some work on yourself so you could learn to let go." By this time you practically expect leading traditionalists to be wheeled on to denounce her, but no, she continues with her demythologising unchallenged. "I call people who like dressing up in robes and dancing round a fire Wannabe witches. They like the makebelieve and the drama but they donít do anything actually to help themselves or other people. Actually, theyíre just naff."

This blithe confidence contrasted with an extremely strange story from the Vatican, which cropped up in a couple of the broadsheets on Monday, about the Pope having to perfomr an exorcism on a teenage girl at one of his audiences. The story originated in the Rome newspaper Il Messagero which had it from an exorcist in the diocese of Rome, Fr Gabriele Amorth, who said the Vatican had attempted to cover up the affair and that it was the third exorcism of this pontificate. The cover-up allegation is odd, because the girl is meant to have started screaming at a general audience in St Peterís Square. "Suddenly the un-named 19-year-old girl form Monza began shouting Ďin a cavernous voice and as if in a fit of rageí Constrained by Vatican guards, she was said to have displayed Ďa super-human strength as she violently pushed them away,"

The Pope was informed and, after he had circled the Piazza in his Popemobile, he talked to her, exorcised her, and stayed with her for half an hour, according to the Telegraph. But the next day "The Devilís voice Ďsneeringly laughed from within herí at the Popeís failed attempt to drive him away." She is supposed to have been possessed since the age of twelve, after someone put a curse on her out of hatred for her parents, who had brought her to Rome in the hope that a papal blessing would help her condition.

Holidays are clearly good for Christopher Morgan. I am writing on Tuesday morning, while Cormac Murphy OíConnor is giving a press conference on child abuse; but the substance of it was all in the Sunday Times two days ago, with the announcement that there is to be a national inquiry into the way the church handles paedophile priests. The rest of the story was full of backing facts. We didnít learn who would chair the enquiry or who would be on it. None the less, it was a nice scoop, turning a whisper into a shout; and had a fair amount of important background detail including the news of an upcoming lawsuit in the diocese of Birmingham against a Catholic childrenís society.

In rather less sensational news, the Independent on Sunday reported that the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement has set up a commission which has discovered evidence of widespread homophobia in the Church of England. By this it means that some bishops try to sack priest who come out. But is the Independent on Sunday so fdifferent from all the other Sunday papers that its readers have no idea this happens? It seems to have been the outcome of a failed attempt to get anywhere near the truth of the story of Neal Follett, and included one of the saddest vox pops I have ever read. "Guests in dinner jackets arriving by shauffeur-driven limousine at the Berkeley Hotel, a few yards from St Paulís, han no idea of the scandal. Neither did the young man trying to sleep rough under a golf umbrella propped against the wall of the church. But we have half a page to fill somehow." Oh OK. I wrote the last sentence.

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