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Press: Christians don’t need Facebook to hurl insults

05 July 2019


Steve Bannon at a press conference in Rome, in March

Steve Bannon at a press conference in Rome, in March

BUZZFEED News carried an illuminating account of a bust-up in the network of right-wing Americans and their Vatican allies: “An influential conservative cardinal with ties to Steve Bannon called their relationship quits on Tuesday. The news followed a report that stated that Bannon endorses allowing priests to marry and that he believes a majority of clergy members in the Vatican are gay.”

Cardinal Raymond Burke — for it is he — has resigned from the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, which has long been the Bannonist redoubt in the Vatican, after discovering that Bannon planned to make a film about Frédéric Martel’s book on gay men in the Vatican, In the Closet: Power, homosexuality, hypocrisy (Books, 17 May).

Martel told BuzzFeed that Bannon wanted to film his book, and that, at a lunch that they had had in Paris, “it was suggested that Bannon’s allies in Rome were probably gay, and Bannon agreed that was likely true. Martel said that Bannon endorsed allowing priests to marry and other changes to the church’s sexual doctrine so that the church can focus on ‘the important issue: China, Islam, immigration and so on’.”

I know that I bang on about the internal politics of the Roman Catholic Church, but this is because I agree with Bannon about the importance of these issues, and it really matters whether the Church on the ground follows him or Pope Francis, whose views are diametrically opposed.

BACK in this country, the astonishing coincidence of the Church’s launching “social-media community guidelines” on the same day as the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) reopened meant that there was far more reporting of what the Archbishop of Canterbury said in an interview with a senior executive of Facebook than what was said at the inquiry.

But the Daily Mail did both stories: on IICSA, it reported, at some length, Fiona Scolding QC, the counsel to the inquiry: “A culture of ‘excessive deference’ towards church leaders and a lack of training about child protection meant some clergy who were accused of abuse were allowed to keep their jobs and even promoted. Victims who made complaints were discredited or belittled by congregations and religious leaders who prized the reputation of the Church over the need to protect children or punish offenders.”

On the Facebook story, the 400 comments below the line proved exactly how right the Archbishop had been to identify and condemn the ways in which people behave. Of course, this has not been news for at least 20 years. Christians have been behaving abominably to one another online since long before Facebook was invented.

ALTHOUGH Private Eye picked up a little on the story about the Revd Jonathan Fletcher (News, 28 June), it did not have half the vivid and damning detail — the naked massages and beatings on bare bottoms — of the Church Times’s treatment.

As someone who was beaten quite a lot with gym shoes as a schoolboy, I have to say that the experience never appeared to me as “a light-hearted forfeit”, in Mr Fletcher’s phrase; nor was it intended to. It is another illustration of the extraordinary cultural isolation of the Iwerne culture that this worked — apparently — as a means of self-deception for Mr Fletcher.

FINALLY, another piece of journalistic criticism: the former Independent on Sunday executive Brian Cathcart, and the journalist Paddy French, have published a devastating take-down of The Times’s coverage of some Muslim stories. I should say that Mr Cathcart is a friend of mine, if not a close one.

Cathcart and French’s report, Unmasked, goes back, forensically, over three front-page stories published in The Times by Andrew Norfolk, the award-winning exposer of the Rotherham scandal. At the time, this column dealt a bit with one of them, the so-called “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care” story about Tower Hamlets (Press, 1 September 2017). The other two passed me by.

In a blog summarising the report, Mr Cathcart writes: “Our analysis of Norfolk’s methods indicates that important facts were omitted or marginalised, untrustworthy or inadequate witnesses were relied on, quotations were taken out of context, expert testimony was ignored — and there were clearly shortcomings in verification.” There is a great deal of evidence to back up all these assertions.

The Times responded with an indignant editorial: “This is a mischievous and ideologically motivated attempt to smear a reporter long recognised as one of the bravest and most scrupulous in his field. . . Though the authors hedge their invective with caveats, the intent is clear. It is to deter and hamstring journalists from investigating controversial stories.”

But this really won’t do. The criticism of Norfolk in all these cases is not that he investigated the stories, but that he did not investigate them enough. It is one of the secrets of the job that half the calls you need to make produce facts wholly destructive of your beautiful story.

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