Newsline – 18th March 2011

Newsline is the weekly newsletter from the National Secular Society.  Every week we collate the stories and issues or most importance to our members and offer reportage and insight.  Our audio edition takes the main stories and offers them in an easy-to-listen podcast, available online and via iTunes subscription (for free).

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In this week’s Newsline

  • NSS Director slams Vatican failures over child abuse at UN Human Rights Council
  • Crucifix case overturned by Human Rights Court
  • Pope’s visit debt: now overdue
  • Lib Dems and “unjustified” discrimination
  • Christian insistence on church service wrecks Welsh Assembly opening plans
  • Catholic adoption service still trying to gain exemption from discrimination law
  • Muslim Council of Britain out of favour again – but taxpayers’ money keeps flowing to promote religion

 

NSS Director slams Vatican failures over child abuse at UN Human Rights Council

The NSS’s Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood make a forthright attack on the Catholic Church’s deplorable record on child abuse at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday 15 March.

Keith was acting in the capacity of international representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which does a great deal of excellent work at the UN on a wide variety of areas, for example on children’s and women’s rights and freedom of expression.

Keith pointed out to the plenary session of the Council that Geoffrey Robertson QC’s book The Case of the Pope alleged that the Church had broken six Articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, thus confirming the accusations that Keith had previously made at the UN – in September 2009 and March 2010.

Keith called attention to the fact that when he made similar accusations at the Council on 22 September 2009, the Papal Nuncio did not deny them, but had claimed that a report, then twelve years overdue, was being “finalised as we speak”. It still remains to be filed. Among other “justifications”, the nuncio informed the Council that as many as 5% of Catholic clergy could be involved. (If true, that would equate to approximately 20,000 clergy involved in child abuse). He added that offenders can be dismissed under Canon Law.

Keith reported some key points from Robertson’s book, including his withering analysis of why the abuse continued unabated. Keith repeated Robertson’s conviction that “the scourge of child abuse within the Church itself had for many years gone unpunished as a result of the procedural deficiencies of Canon Law, the selfish desire to protect the Church from scandal by harbouring and trafficking paedophile priests, and the negligent supervision of bishops by the Holy See through its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith office, headed for the previous two decades by Cardinal Ratzinger.”

Keith said he half expected to be called to order during his speech, or at least have the representative of the Holy See or some compliant Catholic country make an objection. He thought the most likely triggers were him naming Cardinal Ratzinger and repeating Robertson’s conclusion: “The Holy See’s grave and extensive breaches of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its contempt for its reporting obligations over the past thirteen years, should … justify its expulsion.”

Fortunately, he was not interrupted and the chair later said in response to a member state’s objection to another NGOs intervention that, in effect, sometimes it was only the NGOs who were prepared to confront member states with uncomfortable material.

For good measure, Keith drew attention to two “smoking gun” letters which have recently come to light, written by the senior members of the Church’s hierarchy. One was from Rome to the Bishop of Tucson and the other was from the Papal Nuncio to the bishops of Ireland. One, for example, contains the damning phrase “under no condition whatever ought the [personnel] files be surrendered to any lawyer or judge whatsoever”. Their crucial significance is that they point the finger directly at the Vatican as the source of instructions to cover up abuse by priests. This is in stark contrast to the Vatican’s standard rebuttal in which they seek to blame local bishops.

The UN itself did not escape unscathed from Keith’s intervention. He drew the Council’s attention to another target of Robertson’s criticism: “It is a serious reflection on the competence and resolve of the ‘eighteen experts of high moral standing’ who have been elected to the Committee on the Rights of the Child that they have done and said nothing about the Vatican’s thirteen-year failure to deliver a report, during the period when widespread child abuse by its priests has been extensively publicized.”

Keith concluded by calling once more upon the Human Rights Council and the Committee on the Rights of the Child to hold the Holy See to account for:

  • its breach of its obligations under the CRC;
  • its disregard for its duty of care to the abused children;
  • its systematic cover-up of thousands of cases of abuse; and
  • its failure to adequately control those put in positions of trust with children.

The written report can be found on the NSS website. www.secularism.org.uk

 

Crucifix case overturned by Human Rights Court

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has overturned a previous judgment that Italy had violated the rights of non-believing parents by displaying crucifixes in school classrooms.

Present as the ruling was the Finnish-born Italian citizen who first brought up the case against crosses in her two sons’ classrooms 10 years ago, Sonia Lautsi. In November 2009, the ECHR said the display of crosses in Italian schools violated children’s and parents’ freedom of belief, prompting Rome to request that the matter be referred to the court’s appeal body, the Grand Chamber.

The Grand Chamber authorized written observations from 10 non-governmental bodies, including Human Rights Watch, Interrights, the Italian Christian Workers Association and the Central Committee of German Catholics.

In addition, 33 members of the European Parliament, which has no link to the ECHR, were for the first time ever given permission to intervene.

The Grand Chamber only rarely agrees to hear appeals and only on matters deemed of particular significance throughout the Council of Europe’s 47 member states.

In the 2009 decision, the Strasbourg court unanimously upheld an application from Lautsi, stressing that parents must be allowed to educate their children as they see fit.

It said children were entitled to freedom of religion and said that although “encouraging” for some pupils, the crucifix could be “emotionally disturbing for pupils of other religions or those who profess no religion”.

It said the state has an obligation “to refrain from imposing beliefs, even indirectly, in places where persons are dependent on it or in places where they are particularly vulnerable”.

But arguing against the court’s comments, the Italian government’s representative Nicola Lettieri said crucifixes in Italian classrooms are “a passive symbol that bear no relationship to the actual teaching, which is secular”.

He said there was “no indoctrination” involved and said the cross did not deprive parents of the right to raise their children as they saw fit.

The jurist representing the 10 Council of Europe members supporting Italy, Joseph Weiler, said that “Italy without the crucifix would no longer be Italy”.

“The crucifix is both a national and a religious symbol,” he said, suggesting that religious references and symbols are pervasive in Europe and do not necessarily connote faith.

Crucifixes are a fixture in Italian public buildings although the postwar Constitution ordered a separation of Church and State, and Catholicism ceased to be Italy’s state religion in 1984.

Two Fascist-era decrees from 1924 and 1928, which were never repealed, are usually used to justify their status, although a 2007 education ministry directive also recommended they be displayed in schools.

Lautsi started her legal battle in 2001 when her sons were aged 11 and 13, and it reached Italy’s Constitutional Court in 2004.

However, the Constitutional Court declined to rule on the matter, pointing out the crucifix provisions stemmed from secondary decrees predating the constitution, rather than parliament-made law currently on the Italian statute books.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said:

“This is a severe blow to the concept of state neutrality in relation to religion, and to secularism. It flies in the face of Europe’s increasing plurality and diversity and risks damaging the court’s previous reputation of treating all citizen’s equally.

“No state in Europe is any longer monocultural. Globalisation has ensured that many religions now flourish throughout Europe and huge proportions of the population have no religion at all. We all have to somehow coexist peacefully. But conflict over religion is rising throughout the EU and it will not be helped by allowing states to give this kind of privilege to one particular denomination of one particular religion. In the light of this, the Grand Chamber judgment must be seen deeply unhelpful and regressive.

“Thanks to this judgment the Catholic Church retains a privileged position in the state, despite Italy’s secular constitution. This cannot be fair or just in a country of many religions and none.

“Although we would have preferred if the Grand Chamber had upheld the original judgment, the Court of Human Rights has repeatedly noted in its judgments that the Convention on Human Rights is a living instrument that evolves as time goes on and that secularism and an attitude of neutrality towards religion on the part of the state are in keeping with the values of the Convention. Accordingly, in the longer term, we are confident that our view that the use of the state education system to promote a particular religion amounts to a violation of parental rights and to a breach of the values of tolerance and neutrality, will prevail. We also note that the Court specifically distinguished between the passive presence of symbols such as crucifxes and activities such as school prayer which represent a much more significant violation of Convention rights.”

 

Pope’s visit debt: now overdue

According to a Government response to a parliamentary question from NSS honorary associate Baroness Turner of Camden, the Catholic Church has not yet paid the £6.3 million it owes the British taxpayer for debts incurred during the visit of the pope last September.

The Church had promised to pay the money back by 1 March, but responding to Baroness Turner, the Foreign and Commonwealth Minister Lord Howell of Guildford, said his office sent the invoice to the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales on 25 February 2011. “We expect to receive the funds in due course,” he said. The NSS is monitoring the situation and will ask for a subsequent question to be tabled if the money is not paid in good time.

Meanwhile, a Freedom of Information request to the Metropolitan police by NSS council member Dennis Penaluna has revealed that the London force spent an estimated £1.7 million on the “policing operation” during the pope’s visit. (Although the police admit that this amount may increase).

The Met was also asked how much it spent on surveillance helicopters and replied “approximately £4,840”, a figure which was greeted with some scepticism by Mr Penaluna. The full costs will be revealed in the annual report of the Metropolitan Police Authority.

 

Lib Dems and “unjustified” discrimination

At its spring conference in Sheffield, the Liberal Democrat Party passed a policy statement on Community Futures which promised that if religious organisations were handed public services to run, they would not be permitted to discriminate in employment or service provision.

This is something that the NSS has been demanding for the past decade.

The clause reads: “Ensuring that public services are delivered without unjustified discrimination against service-users or employees, by amending equalities legislation to narrow the exemption granted to organisations with a religious ethos , and in the interim requiring public sector commissioners to include non-discrimination clauses in their contracts with providers.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said:

“No doubt there will be much arguing about what constitutes ‘unjustified’ discrimination, with some religious groups – such as Catholic Care (see report below) – insisting that even though they use public money they should be able to enforce Catholic doctrine in service provision. As far as such organisations are concerned, any discrimination they consider suits their ‘religious conscience’ is justifiable.”

Christian insistence on church service wrecks Welsh Assembly opening plans

Plans for a multi-cultural celebration to mark the Queen’s opening of the new Welsh Assembly term in June have fallen into disarray because of a religious row.

A proposal was in place for the celebration to take place on 6 June, a day before the official opening of the fourth Assembly. But Assembly Members (AMs) have fallen out over how prominent a role Christianity should play. In past years, the celebration has taken the form of a “multi cultural service” in a church, but this year it is proposed to make it a “ceremony” at Cardiff Bay’s Wales Millennium Centre.

The plans included an afternoon of “performances representing the diversity of the modern Wales”, followed by an hour-long event including “contributions from faith and cultural groups”.

But the plans have now been withdrawn after the four Assembly Commissioners who make decisions on the running of the Senedd couldn’t agree on its form. One of the Commissioners is NSS honorary associate Lorraine Barrett – who was in favour of the new format. But she was opposed by Chris Franks of Plaid Cymru who said the event should “more reflect the fact of the historical position of Christianity in Wales”, while William Graham (Conservative) said that he would only accept a “service” and not a “celebration”.

“The last three occasions we had a multi-faith service,” he said. “I see no good reason to depart from that. What we are being offered is a celebration, not a service.”

Ms Barrett said:

“I felt it was very narrow to want to hold a celebration in a place of worship, because it would have excluded a lot of people from being able to join in in a more informal way. I felt that the opportunity for churches to celebrate the Assembly through their prayers on that weekend was to be welcomed. I hope that this event can be rescued. I’m not sure how, but I hope very much we can find a way through this because it has to be an inclusive event for everyone.”

Plans will now be reconsidered.

 

Catholic adoption service still trying to gain exemption from discrimination law

The Charity Commission has defended its decision not to allow the charity Catholic Care to prevent gay people from using its adoption service, at a charity tribunal hearing.

During the hearing, which finished last Friday, the Commission argued it would be a “serious and demeaning act of discrimination” for the charity to restrict its adoption services to heterosexual, married couples.

The charity appealed to the tribunal to quash the Commission’s ruling, made in August last year, that it could not change its objects to prevent same-sex couples from using its adoption service. Catholic Care argued that failing to change its objects would force it to close its adoption service because it would lose its funding from the Catholic Church.

The Commission’s barrister, Emma Dixon, said at the hearing: “The exclusion of same-sex couples is a particularly serious and indeed a demeaning act of discrimination. Weighty reasons would be needed to justify discrimination on the grounds of sexuality.”

Dixon said religious belief was not a justification for restricting its services to heterosexual couples.

“The Charity Commission was right to conclude that there were no substantially weighty reasons to justify the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples,” she said.

Christopher McCall QC, the barrister acting on behalf of the charity, argued that section 193 of the Equalities Act 2010 allowed organisations to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality if this was “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

He said the charity accepted that discrimination was “detrimental in itself”, but that its only alternative was to close its adoption service, which would be a bigger loss to the community.

“This service can only be provided on the grounds that it is not open to all,” he said. “It is beside the point to argue that it would be better for all to be able to access the service, because that couldn’t happen. We are not proposing any more discrimination than is necessary. What is section 193 for if not this?”

In response to McCall, Dixon said: “There is no evidence as to whether donors would give if the service was open. They haven’t tried. Section 193 would apply if there was a rational link between the restriction and the charity’s aim, and that is what is missing here. The fact that the charity might close is not a justification for discriminating.”

Alison McKenna, principal judge of the charity tribunal, said it would make its decision in about a month.

 

Muslim Council of Britain out of favour again – but taxpayers’ money keeps flowing to promote religion

Andrew Griffiths, Conservative MP for Burton and Uttoxeter asked in parliament last week what individual payments the Department for Communities and Local Government had made to (a) the Muslim Council of Britain and (b) its associated bodies in each of the last three years; and for what purpose in each case.

Andrew Stunell, Minister at the DCLG said it had provided £2,500 to the Muslim Council of Britain for a guest table at the council leadership dinner held on 22 February 2010. DCLG has not provided any further funding to the Muslim Council of Britain for the organisation to undertake work or projects.

Mr Stunnell said: “For an interim period, funding for the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) was routed through the council as one of MINAB’s founding members as MINAB had not then acquired independent charitable status, and as a result did not have its own bank account. Funding for MINAB was made directly to them as soon as they became an independent organisation. The funding was to support them to improve standards in mosques (£116,000 in 2008–09 and £58,000 in 2009–10).

  • “Muslim Council of Britain has a large and wide ranging national membership of organisations that are affiliated to it. Of these, DCLG has funded the following organisations through the Community Leadership Fund:
  • “Muslim Youth Helpline: £30,650 (2008–09), £61,888 (2009–10), £64,767 (2010–11) to build their capacity to extend the reach of their support services to vulnerable young people,
  • “Karimia Institute: £67,180 (2008–09), £50,000 (2009–10), £50,000 (2010–11) for youth leadership training.
  • “Islamic Society of Britain: £20,000 (2008–09) for developing the Islamic Awareness Week website to promote positive understanding of Islam to other communities.
  • “Young Muslims UK: £20,000 (2008–09), £5,000 (2009–10) to promote talent among young Muslims
  • “Muslim Aid: £5,000 (2009–10) for part-sponsorship of Muslim Aid’s 25th Anniversary.”

 

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