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Press: An enemy hath spun this

18 January 2012

by Andrew Brown

Background: the Dean John story picked up in The Independent on Monday

Background: the Dean John story picked up in The Independent on Monday

THE TIMES has been plugging away for months now on stories about child abuse at Benedictine schools.

No one seems to have followed them up, and I am not quite sure why. It could be because of the paywall — how many people on other papers still read a physical Times? Or perhaps the whole story has just stopped seeming compelling. There is plenty of evid­ence now that Roman Catholic priests have been child-abusers, but still none that priests should be more given to paedophilia than members of other professions, or even secular teachers. As for the idea that the Roman Catholic Church should be uniquely guilty of covering things up: a successful cover-up is surely one which is not mentioned in the newspapers at all.

Many of the stories that The Times has dug up are old, and have lost impact because of this. Imagine the fuss if it had emerged while he was in office that Cardinal Hume moved a misbehaving priest out of the Ampleforth prep school and into a parish without telling the authorities.

OVER on The Guardian, Riazat Butt has finally left her post as religious-affairs correspondent, and has apparently announced on Facebook that she’s leaving the paper, too. We’re not friends there, or anywhere else; so I cannot confirm this with my own eyes.

I don’t have much charitable to say about her stint in the job, but that’s not all her fault. She deserves to be remembered for her imaginative coverage of the Greenbelt Festival, and for emailing a Vatican functionary with a request for an interview with the tagline that all her emails then had: “You’ve got to sin it to win it.”

For the moment, her place has been taken by David Shariatmadari, who worked on the paper’s belief website, and more recently on the general comment site. He has no experi­ence of news reporting, but is extremely clever and hard-working.

MEANWHILE, age and cunning scored a victory on the Sunday papers, where both Jonathan Petre in the Mail on Sunday and Kate Mansey in The Sunday Times had stories about the Dean of St Albans and the discrimination law. But what story was it, exactly?

The Sunday Times was in no doubt. Dr John was trying to sue himself into a job: “Britain’s most senior openly gay cleric is threatening to take legal action against the Church of England unless he is made a bishop.

“Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, who has twice been blocked from becoming a bishop, will sue the Church for discrimination under equality laws if he is not promoted.”

The Mail was subtly different. “A contro­versial gay dean has threatened to take the Church of England to court after he was blocked from becoming a bishop.

“The Very Revd Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, has instructed an eminent employ­ment lawyer to complain to church officials after being rejected for the role of Bishop of Southwark.”

But the headline had no such subtlety: “‘I’ll sue Church of England if it bars me from being bishop,’ says gay dean.” Right at the bottom of the Mail’s story was the line that “one source said Dr John suggested he would drop his legal threat if he felt he would not be ruled out for future posts.”

Of course, a huge amount turns on whether this source was a friend or enemy of Dr John, because the Sunday Times story and the Mail on Sunday’s headline both invite the riposte that they got from George Pit­cher on the Mail’s web­site.

He wasted no time on the ball, and went straight for the man: “We’re forced to ask how seriously we’re likely to take him as a bishop if we har­bour the sus­picion that he won his post, even by sugges­tion, because he’d declared that if he wasn’t de­livered such-and-such a bish­opric then he’d sue.”

But is that really why Dr John was discus­sing legal action? It is clearly true that Alison Downie has been corresponding with church legal authorities on his behalf. But friends — real friends — of his, and allies, too, suggest that what he was trying to do instead was to ensure that civil partnerships are not in themselves a bar to promotion. That is just as upsetting to conservative Evangelicals as if he were actuated by personal ambition.

It is actually much more difficult for the Archbishop of Canterbury to handle, and much more appealing to public opinion. One begins to see why the story might have emerged from his enemies with the spin that it had.

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