Press Column Saturday 31 March 2001

It had to come. Over the last three years, we have had the face of Jesus found in a cleaning lady’s duster, a steak and kidney pie ("Jesus Crust" said the Sun) and in a pattern on a newly plastered wall. Now it has finally appeared on a television screen: with this imprint of incontrovertible reality, it made all the broadsheet papers, most of which asked "Is this the face of Jesus?". I know that newspapers are written aimed at the attention span of a strap-hanging rushhour commuter, but even read over your neighbour’s shoulder, this is not a very hard question to answer. Harder is the problem of what was meant by the man who covered the story for BBC news online, when he wrote: "But the delicate, perhaps even equine, porcelain features of the Christ imagined by the likes of Caravaggio, El Greco and Rembrandt have little in common with the latest impression of what Jesus really looked like." Equine? Surely he should know that Jesus was, in his own way, primatial. It’s fairly obvious what is meant by "the likes of Caravaggio, El Greco, and Rembrandt" — it is "Dead painters who are not Picasso so they all paint alike". But "equine" defeats me. "epicene"? "eponymous"? He might just as well have meant "aquatic"?

The Roman Catholic church by contrast got called some accurate names. The first story to hit it was a genuine scandal, on several levels, excavated originally by the National Catholic Reporter in the USA. Their long and thorough report is worth reading on the web site. Even better were the leaked documents behind it, which are also available, in full, from the web site, and which offer the irreplaceable authority of primary sources. On the face of it, the scandal is clear: nuns in at least 24 countries, most of them in Africa, but including Ireland and the USA, have been pressured into supplying sexual services for priests. In Malawi, when the nuns’ orders complained, the Archbishops simply replaced the people who had complained. Nuns are apparently especially favoured in African countries because they are less likely to be infected with Aids than other sexual partner. Indeed they are much less likely to have the disease than Catholic priests. So that is a genuine scandal, which was confirmed when the Vatican announced that it was investigating the charges within days of the NCR’s story. But it does raise one question which seems to me to constitute a scandal of equal magnitude. The documents from which the NCR got its story are none of them later than 1994; and all are official reports to high-ranking Catholic bodies. Yet absolutely nothing was done for six years in which the problem can only have got worse. Only when the story was leaked was anything done, or at least set in motion. Presumably there will be nothing that happens as a result. If celibacy among the Catholic clergy is as much of a sham as the few available studies suggest it must be then a commission in Rome will have no impact on the situation in Africa, especially as it is now even more dangerous than it was then to sleep with anyone there who is not a nun.

Nor were they news in unofficial Catholic circles: a colleague of mine with good lines into Cafod and other Catholic operations in Africa told me any number of hair-raising stories on this subject after a trip round the continent in 1995. I remember one about an African Archbishop whose personal policy on Aids was to sleep with no woman who was not a virgin. The man who told me this was, and is, a first-class journalist, at the top of his profession. But he is also a loyal conscientious Catholic. That’s how he got the stories. Had he written about religion, which he does not, he might have published them. But in general there is a conspiracy of silence about all these things. The conservatives are in denial and the liberals are in despair. Perhaps John Cornwell’s next book, which is to be a brisk study of the Catholic crisis, will crack the subject open, or at least set it in context so that it becomes comprehensible.

The Independent had a leader blaming the whole thing on the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church, which ended "In a church with such an abusive notion of authority, it is small wonder that a culture of contempt transmits itself down to the grass-roots, and manifests itself in such stark and disquieting forms."

The other media difficulty for the Catholic Church was the release of its pre-election advice to voters. The one before made a perfectly comprehensible story. "Vote Labour", it said, in everything but words, though there was some provision made for Liberal Democrats. This one however, didn’t seem to be telling anyone how to vote on anything, perhaps because there are no policy differences between the parties on any of the issues that might matter to the Catholic church: they are all now equally opposed or indifferent to its teaching on everything from sexual morality to asylum seekers. So, though it said almost exactly the same about abortion and "life issues" as the previous one, the Times and other papers concluded that it must be saying "vote Widdecombe".

It must have added to the joys of Ian Paisley’s celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of his sect. They were held on Sunday in an ice hockey rink in Belfast and reported by the Daily Telegraph. It is difficult to imagine anywhere better suited to the spirit of Paisleyism, whose followers pursue the truth with the same homicidal zeal as ice hockey players bring to the pursuit of their puck. And — just like ice hockey players — the Paisleyites really do love the members of their own team. It’s only everyone else they hate. This crowd, 9,000 strong, brought its own food. In theory this was because he did not approve of the catering staff working on a Sunday; but I can think of other reasons since I happened to be wandering around Belfast myself in search of lunch that day: cooking your own food is a Paisleyite’s gesture of non-sectarianism, since (with few exceptions, none of them cheap) Catholic cuisine in Ulster is best described as sadism, while the Protestants go in for masochism.

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