Press Column Saturday 26 August 2000

The feud between the Guardian and the Catholic Church is beginning to look like a real story, even if it is not really a contest between the newspaper and the Church, but a dispute between Catholics: that is what gives it the vigour and acrimony to which Anglicans are better accustomed in this country. Briefly, the back story is this: the Catholic Herald, has become convinced that the Guardian is ideologically opposed to Catholicism and runs stories to damage it. The op-ed page of the Guardian is home to a great deal of anti-Catholic ranting, from people like Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot. But this is a traditional part of their culture. No one is really harmed by these ritualistic displays of aggression. The real quarrel the Herald has is with the news pages, where the specialist correspondents have, for the last five years, been Catholics themselves, first Madeleine Bunting and now Stephen Bates. They have started to write about their own church with as little deference as Dr William Oddie brought to his own in the days when he was an Anglican, though they are professional and experienced journalists, as he then wasnít. Just as he once did, they believe the sentiments of ordinary decent believers are being perverted by authoritarian bishops, intolerant of dissent. Of course, there are minor differences. The Catholic Herald thinks Conservatives are being sold down the river by ideologically bankrupt liberals, and the Guardian thinks exactly the opposite is true. But these are trivial compared to the conviction that unites them in their grisly divorce: that they and they alone represent the true and best spirit of their church.

The two latest developments were a long profile of Thomas Winning in the Guardian and a story about the victims of child abuse planning to march on Westminster Cathedral which so enraged Charles Wookey, the Cardinalís chief fixer, that he rang Stephen Bates on his day off to remonstrate. So if you see a man shouting angrily about the Pope outside your local Tescoís he may not be a lunatic at all: just a religious affairs correspondent whose mobile phone has gone off unexpectedly. There was also a letter published from Kieron Conry at the Catholic Media Office pointing out that the modern Catholic church was eager to refer all complaints of abuse to outside professionals, sometimes even in preference to its own people. This in turn drew a letter from another Monsignor that started: "I am surprised by the attempts by spokesmen for the Roman Catholic church to defend the church's actions against priest paedophiles

"As child protection officer for the Catholic diocese of Portsmouth for five years, I met victims of abuse and their families - and my experience is different."

The Winning profile, by Gerald Seenan, the Scottish correspondent, painted an able cardinal "lawyerly, Ö forceful, and good with people"; but one who does not too finely discriminate between loyalty to the tribe, and to their football team, and to the teachings of the Pope. But there was a running undercurrent of dissent, not all of it anonymous, and the profile ended with one of his parish priests saying "Does he speak for me? No, he does not. He is, of course, entitled to these opinions, but they are not held by the Catholics I deal with day in, day out."

What is astonishing about this is not that there are Catholic priests who have a low opinion of their superiors, but that they are prepared to share this with the general public. The price of moving into the mainstream is that you get treated like any other mainstream organisation. This is going to be a painful lesson to learn, but not, perhaps, as painful as being brought up by Sister Alphonso, a Scottish nun who is facing 23 charges of cruelty to children at an orphanage she ran, one of which gave rise to a truly wonderful headline in the Daily Express: "Nun choked girl with Curly Wurly". Anne Montgomery, now 35, told a court in Aberdeen "I hate the doors and windows in my house being left open because I am scared Sister Alphonso will come in." She also described how her younger sister had been caught stealing sweets: "Sister Alphonso came into the room with a bag of sweets. She took a Curly Wurly out , got Gracieís head back and put the whole bar down her throat."

More from the home life of Anne Atkins in the Mail on Sunday: this time a rather confusing story of how her daughter Serena was suspected of being a victim of sexual abuse after a long period of bullying at school, and what was obviously a traumatic examination in hospital "Her screams could be heard two corridors away." The suspicions never went further than interrogation, but they made a long and juicy piece. This was not, I think , the same daughter as ran away from home aged twelve a couple of years ago but it may have been the one who, in an early Telegraph column, supplied "One of my most treasured images of childhood Ö our five-year-old lying in front of a fire reading a book about sex to her brother, aged four and two, and explaining it to them. The three of them had no shame, or embarrassment, or prurience, but a truly innocent interest and delight in the way the God and parents, make babies."

From the Times came the news that the latest must-have accessory is a "personal spiritual adviser". Noreen Taylor put the case in terms that come naturally to colour supplement readers: Many people in a modern service-oriented [no, not that kind of service] think that Ďchurchí is so nineteenth century. It involves being somewhere at the same time every Sunday, sticking to a schedule. It takes up time. I means meeting people you would rather not see. Itís also so unspecific, universalising rather than personalising the experience. Church is high street chain-store religion."

I canít work out whether this was meant to be ironic: certainly none of the people she interviewed were nearly so crass. They didnít understand they were in the business of supplying spirituality to customers too important to be bothered with merely human contact.

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