Press Column

If I were Stephen Bates, the religious affairs correspondent of the Guardian I would this morning be contemplating a long and happy retirement, paid for by the Catholic Herald, at least by its owner, Conrad Black, who can better afford it. Last week, the Guardian splashed on the news that the Roman Catholic Archbishop Ward of Cardiff had been forced from office after an audience with the Pope, under the headline "Sacked: the archbishop judged unfit for office." As far as anyone can see, and everyone believes, this was the plain truth. Ward had had to be dragged kicking and screaming to submit his resignation of the grounds of ill-health, and up until the last moment, his spin doctor, Peter Jennings, was telling anyone who’d believe him that he would be back in office by Christmas.

But putting the story in a headline drove the Catholic Herald into a fit. There is no love lost between the Herald and the Guardian in general, and between Stephen Bates and the Herald’s editor, William Oddie in particular. Oddie, who left the Church of England over women priests, regards himself as the defender of orthodoxy; Bates, a cradle Catholic, sees him as a jumped-up convert. In any case, the leader that Oddie wrote was quite extraordinary: "The Guardian … now surpassed even its own record for vindictiveness and mendacity. There is not one word of truth in Bates’ version of events

"Bates goes on to claim that the matter was discussed the following day at a meeting between the Pope and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor — in fact no such meeting took place. This account, in other words, is from beginning to end an unscrupulous fabrication." These are strong words, and Oddie claimed to me that he could justify every one of them. I can only suppose that his understanding of "justification" is more theological than legal. Certainly, some of friends are shocked by what he wrote; and according to the Catholic Media Office, the Pope and the Cardinal did meet the day after Ward resigned, though this was at a lunch for bishops at the synod and nothing on the subject of Ward may have been said. Nothing need have been said, really; for Ward had by then already submitted his resignation in writing, as Oddie told me — adding that the Archbishop hadn’t known for a week afterwards that it was going to be accepted.

Since he also called me a "silly idiot" for doubting the Archbishop’s word that no pressure had been exerted on him in Rome to resign I can only record, in my silly, idiotic way, that three people have told me that the audience with the Pope was only granted to Ward on condition that he brought his resignation letter with him. It is certainly true that earlier this year Cardinal Ree wrote to Ward with the Pope’s knowledge and approval asking that he step down. And Oddie rests his belief that Ward was not sacked on the belief that it is impossible to sack an Archbishop for what he did. "If you offer your resignation and that’s accepted, that’s not a sacking. A sacking is when someone doesn’t have the choice."

What makes this an extraordinary quibble is that Oddie believes that the Vatican had looked into the possibility of sacking him before deciding it couldn’t be done: "very good sources in Rome told us quite clearly that they had looked at the case against Ward and decided that there was no question that canon law would cover what he was accused of."

What Ward was accused of —because he had done it — was ordaining, employing and defending two paedophile priests, even though he had been specifically warned against ordaining one of them by a fellow bishop. Both men are now serving eight-year prison sentences. One can’t help feeling that even if this isn’t against the letter of Canon Law, it runs rather counter to the spirit; but Ward blames liberals, gays (in an interview with Oddie he described one of his dead priests as "a raving homosexual") and sections of the media.

Nowhere does Oddie explain why the should have been looking into the possibilities of forcing Ward out if they didn’t want to exert pressure on him to go; and, when I asked him why the Papal Nuncio had so well prepared for Ward’s resignation that his replacement (who must be approved by the Pope) was announced within a week, when the search typically takes months or years, he replied "the Nuncio wrongly informed Rome that he had resigned. The only way it could have happened is that Rome thought there was a sede vacante." When I suggested that this explanation was ridiculous, he replied "You're obviously not going to write a fair account either of the facts or of this conversation, so I've got a paper to get out, if you don't mind."

Stephen Bates is on holiday this week; and I shall be in America next week. But the story will still, no doubt, be running when I get home.

Meanwhile, there is still some evidence that the Guardian as a newspaper does have a hostiel attitude towards the Roman Catholic church. There was a story saying that Bishop Peter Smith, who has succeeded Archbishop Ward in Cardiff, had allowed a priest to celebrate in his cathedral, even though the man had been convicted in 1998 of trying to abduct two boys in Ely by posing as a tourist asking directions. There seems to have been no sexual element in the case, and the Nolan guidelines were apparently followed. So it’s a bit of a non-story. But the headline is definitely suspicious: "Convicted priest allowed to say mass."

Better news from Qatar and Bahrein, whence Dr Carey has returned without anyone discovering the dreadful secrets of his press officer. Jonathan Jennings, who now does the job, once made an honest living as a disk jockey in Qatar. He survived the incident when he played the Crown Prince a Dolly Parton track whose chorus, repeated six times, was about gathering round the family bible, but he was finally sacked — at least, he resigned without any pressure from the Pope — after playing a Muppets song on the radio. Miss Piggy, you see.

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