Newsline – 1st April 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

  • Gideons stopped from handing out Bibles in schools
  • Ending of transport subsidies outrages religious
  • Vatican disappointed by lack of enthusiasm for beatification
  • Pope is further out of step with American Catholics
  • Survivors Voice Europe launched in London
  • UN and defamation of religion
  • French secularism debate


Gideons Stopped From Handing Out Bibles In Schools

Fundamentalist Christians are furious about being banned from two schools in East Staffordshire.

The Gideons, a proselytising sect famous for leaving Bibles in hotel rooms, have been handing Bibles to young children during school assemblies but have now been denied entry to Abbot Beyne School in Winshill and Paget High School in Branston. John Taylor High School, in Barton under Needwood, has also ended the “tradition” of handing out Bibles to first-year pupils.

According to the Burton News, Gideons supporter Barry Martin fumed: “We live in a Christian country. I think that if the Gideons want to offer Bibles to children then they should be allowed to do so. Banning them is not right because these schools are trying to silence Christianity and we must fight to defend it. Christians make this world a better place.”

Maggie Tate, deputy head teacher of Abbot Beyne School, said:

“The reason we stopped the Gideons coming in is that we are a comprehensive multi-faith school. We felt it was inappropriate to allow one faith group to distribute material in school.”

She said all Abbot Beyne pupils were given moral-themed assemblies and that the school had the highest proportion of pupils in Staffordshire sitting GCSEs in religious education.

Paget High School head teacher Don Smith said:

“As a non-denominational school we do not allow any religious groups to come in and give out literature. If we allowed the Gideons into school then we would have to allow other groups too. While we teach pupils about different religions, we do not want people coming in to the school and pushing their own religious views.”

Last week the NSS received an email from an angry parent who said that her nine-year old son had been given a Gideon Bible at school and told it was the “most important book you will ever read – far more important that any science book.”

Ending of transport subsidies outrages religious

Catholic parents in Hampshire, Durham, West Sussex and Suffolk are protesting because they will have to pay the transport costs of their children to go to religious schools as local authorities cut back on subsidies. One mother, Helen Tyler in Hampshire, has branded the plans “discriminatory”, complaining that he will be forced to pay more than £2,000 over 12 months to send her daughter and three sons to their nearest Catholic secondary school — Oaklands in Waterlooville — compared with the £380 she paid this year.

Her children are among 808 who benefit from subsidised travel to faith schools, which the council wants to scrap to make £325,000 savings. Mrs Tyler claimed: ‘We are being discriminated against because of our faith.”

County education boss Cllr Roy Perry said the council had to make £20m savings out of the children’s service budget. He said: ‘This proposal is not intended to be discriminatory – some people would argue giving extra benefits to faith school pupils to get heavily subsidised travel to a school far away from their home is an additional benefit and at taxpayers’ expense. However, I have to stress proposals are still under consultation and all views will be taken into account.’ Consultation ends on 8 April.”

As Durham County Council also moves towards removing the subsidies, Maria Matthews, headteacher at St Bede’s Catholic School, in Lanchester, has written to parents calling for urgent action. The proposals were “largely prejudicial against Catholic families”, she wrote, adding: “St Bede’s must not become a school for families who can afford the bus fare.”

Durham County Council, which faces cuts of £125m over four years, wants to cut £5.5m from its home-to-school and college transport budget, including more than £1m from faith school transport. Council chiefs are proposing to axe such free transport from September next year, except where legal requirements exist (for the children of less well-off families, for example). The Consultation closes on Tuesday, 10 May.

West Sussex council is also proposing to cut transport subsidies to faith schools and is presently consulting on the matter. So is Suffolk County Council where a protest group called Parents Against Public Transport Cuts has been formed. One member, Eleanor Davison, whose three daughters attend St Louis Middle School, said:

“These proposed cuts and additional charges effectively put a stop to parental choice for those of a lower or lower-middle income. Those who send their children to the Roman Catholic schools in Bury usually have very strong religious reasons for doing so. Many families will be unable to afford to send their children to their nearest faith school.”

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

“Cries of discrimination are misplaced when you consider that these subsidies are a privilege reserved for religious people alone and are of questionable legality. Apparently not satisfied with the provision of segregated schooling at taxpayers’ expense, these vested interests think we should also pay huge amounts to transport the children large distances to get to them. The ending of this scandalous discrimination is long overdue. It is just a shame that it took a financial crisis to bring it about.”

Vatican disappointed by lack of enthusiasm for beatification

After the over-the-top coverage of the pope’s visit to the UK last year, the BBC has surprised the Vatican by declining to give wall-to-wall coverage of the “beatification” ceremony of the previous pontiff, John Paul II. The ceremony, on May 1, will only be covered by BBC News and Radio 4’s Sunday programme, which will broadcast its edition from St Peter’s Square before the service begins.

Similarly, Sky News — which also gave hours of ludicrously fawning coverage to the pope’s visit — said that it would have a crew present in Rome, but the amount of time it gave to the event would depend on other news that day.

There is little interest among Catholics for the “beatification” ceremony. The Vatican has downsized the event from its original prediction of 2.5 million attendees to 300,000.

Even Polish tour operators are reporting problems finding customers interested in going to the Vatican, for what is regarded as a major step in the canonisation process of the Polish Pope.

“We still have many vacancies,” says Agata Mueck from Orlando Travel, quoted in the Metro daily, which offers a 6-day trip to Rome in an air-conditioned coach.

“Nobody has contacted us yet about the trip to the Vatican. We’ll wait until 5 April and if we don’t find any clients, we’ll cancel the reservation in a hotel near Rome,” says Artur Krowiak from Barthur.

Churches, which also are also organising beatification trips, have not managed to attract many people, either. Priests from St. James the Apostle Church in the eastern city of Lublin admit that only a half of the coach heading to Rome for a 6-day trip will be filled.

Pope is further out of step with American Catholics

Two polls in America illustrate just how out of step the Catholic Church is with the people it purports to represent – at least in the USA. The polls show that Catholics are significantly more supportive of gay rights than even the population at large.

One was for the Washington Post-ABC News and the other was from the Public Religion Research Institute which showed a more comprehensive portrait of Catholic attitudes on gay and lesbian issues.

Protection of gay people against workplace discrimination is favoured by 73 percent of Catholics, versus 68 percent of the general public. Gays serving openly in the military got support from 63 percent of Catholics compared with 58 percent of the general public. And adoption by same-sex couples was given a nod by 60 percent of Catholics, but only 53 percent of the general public.

There are two more significant data points from the PRRI report.

A majority of Catholics (56%) believe that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex is not a sin. Among the general population, less than half (46%) believe it is not a sin (PRRI, Religion & Politics Tracking Survey, October 2010).

Catholics overwhelmingly reject the idea that sexual orientation can be changed. 69% of Catholics disagree that homosexual orientation can be changed; and 23% believe that it can be changed.”

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life noted that Catholics have been the “biggest losers” in the American religious market place. More than 1-in-10 Americans are former Catholics, and approximately half of all former Catholics remain unaffiliated with any faith. Among this group, majorities said they moved away from their former faith because they stopped believing in Catholicism’s teachings overall (65 percent) or became dissatisfied with Catholic teachings about abortion and homosexuality (56 percent).

Dr. Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America, summed up the future options for the Catholic Church hierarchy on the heels of these findings. As a practical matter, winning over rank and file Catholics to official church teachings seems highly improbable, he said; rather, “the question facing the American bishops, who oppose same-sex marriage on doctrinal grounds, is how they will choose to address this momentum.”

Meanwhile, the liberal Catholic group Catholics for Choice, based in Washington DC, has gathered data about Catholic attitudes to social issues from various polls and studies and brought them together in a booklet called “Catholics and Choice” (pdf). The headlines are:

  • Number of Catholic women who use a form of contraception banned by the Vatican: 98%
  • Sexually active Catholic women who use Vatican-approved method as primary contraceptive: less than 2%
  • Catholics who approve of abortion when the woman’s health is endangered: 86%
  • Catholics who approve of abortion if pregnancy is result of rape: 78%
  • Catholics make up 27% of the US population. The percentage of women having an abortion who identify as Catholic: 28%
  • Catholics who favour sexuality education in public schools: 95%
  • Catholics who believe family planning information should be available to teens: 83%
  • Catholics who believe condom use is pro-life because it prevents the spread of AIDS: 79%
  • Catholics who believe Government-funded Catholic hospitals should provide condoms for AIDS prevention: 73%
  • Catholics who support medical research using embryonic stem cells left over from in-vitro fertilisation: 69%
  • Percentage of Catholics who think the views of their local bishops are “very important” in deciding how to vote: 8%

Survivors Voice Europe launched in London

Building on alliances consolidated during the demonstrations around the Pope’s visit and a later demonstration at the Vatican itself, Survivors Voice Europe was inaugurated in London’s Conway Hall on Saturday, 26 March 2011. The two American founders of Survivors’ Voice came to tell their story and give their support.

Even when those leading the organisation spoke, the trauma they had endured was painfully evident. Despite the passage of decades since the abuse ceased and many years speaking out, most still could not do so without obviously fighting back tears. All were adamant that, even now, the Church does not care and is only interested in damage limitation. And this view remained after some of them had spoken to bishops, archbishops, cardinals and the Pope himself. Indeed the most damning comments were about the Pope’s cynical handling of the press and even more of meetings with child abuse survivors where promises were made that were never kept.

The fast tracking by Benedict of his predecessors’ beatification — with the abandoning of the usual five-year minimum rule — drew particular contempt. It was seen as a desperate attempt to close down enquiry into JP II’s questionable record, and — in so doing — closing the door on Cardinal Ratzinger’s own less-than-glorious activities during that period.

What was so striking about the people leading this organisation is that they are just ordinary decent people who have had enough. They are not publicity seekers; they just want to do whatever they can to try to prevent what nearly destroyed their lives destroying those of others.

It was also evident how much courage it had taken to declare what they have suffered. But it was also clear that abuse survivors derived immense solace from each other. That they talk of an instant bond in such circumstances is, sadly, also testimony to the extent to which their experiences dominate their lives, even in some cases half a century later. They spoke of such experiences transforming them from victims into survivors, a hugely positive psychological step.

But for those who have not shared their experiences, it must be even worse – as the suicide, crime and mental and physical breakdown statistics show all too clearly. One man who was later to become one of the American founders was so afraid, even as an adult, of his devoutly religious family’s reaction, that he “came out” by letter, telling them that in the next few days the story would break in the press. Having written the letter, he went to the airport and flew to the furthest place he could.

It later turned out that his father had been abused too, and that it had sullied his life. The other co-founder feared that taking on the church would ruin his business – it pretty well did. But he is also convinced that had he not faced up to the truth, he would have died by now from drink or drugs. Both testified that the abuse had hugely undermined their ability to be able to form and sustain relationships, and their ability to trust others.

One of the European organisers spoke of his time in Opus Dei. He said it was like a 19th-century secret society. Potential members were identified around the age of 11, when their preparation started for admission as aspirants at 14. From this age, they were progressively isolated from their families, whose role was insidiously replaced by the organisation and a nominated father substitute who took down and preserved in meticulous detail the aspirant’s personal thoughts.

This man said he was even required to transfer to an Opus Dei doctor, who, when he left the Order refused to transfer his medical records. The organiser said that, despite denials, Opus Dei members still use a cilice (metal chain with barbs worn around the upper thigh for a couple of hours at a time) and knotted rope to whip themselves. The aspirants are forbidden from taking the sadistic instruments home, or for discussing with their parents what happens within Opus Dei.

Apart from the Pope’s strategic attempts, noted above, to close down investigations into his predecessors pontificate, the greatest concern was for those parts of the world where abuse that is surely happening, but is not yet in the public eye such as Africa, the Far East and South America.

But that does not mean to say that there is not still a huge amount to come out in countries where abuse is already known. David Greenwood, a Yorkshire solicitor, was adamant that the hundred abuse cases he is dealing with are just the tip of the iceberg, even in this country. He felt that, for many, opening up the wounds was just too painful. Nor can the attitude of the Church help. David has gone on record as saying that, still now, the Church fights every case tooth and nail. Even after a hundred cases, David admits to being shocked anew by the depths of depravity to which abusers and their protectors stoop.

What has motivated the organisers to endure still more pain in bringing their suffering to the public’s attention is a determination to break the cycle of abuse in the future: for today’s children and future generations, all over the world. And they have made a very good start.

Encouraging individuals to bring cases and demand compensation is a major priority, with the added bonus of the publicity this brings the cause. Publicity will also follow from public demonstrations. Both should encourage others to come forward, helping them to become survivors rather than victims. Keith Porteous Wood urged the organisers to designate a formal national day for Catholic abuse survivors, worldwide.

As well as pursuing individual cases, David Greenwood suggests Survivors Voice’s strategy should be to maximise publicity. He also wants the Church to be challenged as an institution up to the very highest levels; and he has some promising avenues in mind. Keith is well advanced with challenges at the United Nations. He had recently returned from making his third intervention at the United Nations Human Rights Council. After his first intervention, in 2009, the Vatican representative had sought to pardon the unpardonable and spawned a media frenzy around the world – fifty articles, none of them favourable to the Church.

This time Keith presented the UNHRC with a powerful report demonstrating that his earlier accusations of the Church having broken multiple articles of the UN Convention of the Child had now been endorsed by Geoffrey Robertson QC. On the basis of his intervention, Keith had been invited to meet officials at the UN High Commission and this had opened up promising new lines of challenge. “This is not the end, it is the beginning” he told the enthusiastic audience.

UN and defamation of religion

The United Nations’ top human rights body has replaced its traditional condemnation of religious “defamation” with a resolution supporting an individual right to freedom of belief. The unanimous vote by the U.N. Human Rights Council was welcomed by free speech advocates.

Previous resolutions backed largely by Muslim countries sought to criminalise any criticism of religion that believers found offensive.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says the new resolution “properly focuses on protecting individuals from discrimination or violence, instead of protecting religions from criticism.”

The nonbinding vote calls on countries to guarantee people’s right to have or adopt a religion or belief of their choice.

Although the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), which represents the 57-nation Islamic bloc, supported the resolution, they were far from happy with it. They voted in favour as a “goodwill gesture”, but they made clear that they have not yet abandoned the previous resolution, which basically calls for an international blasphemy law that would protect Islam in particular from criticism.

French secularism debate

Religious leaders in France have expressed concern over the debate on secularism and the place of religion that is being proposed by the President, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The text of the letter, signed by Roman Catholic, Protestant, Christian Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders, described secularism as “a pillar of our republican past, a basis of our democracy, a foundation of our desire to live together.”

“Let’s take care not to squander this precious gain,” they warned, saying it was “capital during this pre-election period, to calmly stay the course by avoiding lumping things together and the risks of stigmatisation.”

“Debate is always a sign of health and vitality… But is a political party, even in power, the right authority to carry out the debate alone?” they wrote in La Croix daily.

Sarkozy, whose UMP party is trying to avoid losing votes to the far-right National Front (FN) ahead of next year’s presidential election, in February called for the debate on secularism and the role of Islam in French society. It will now be held on 5 April.

France’s Muslim population of five to six million — the largest in Europe — has already voiced concern over the debate, labelling it “divisive”. Some members of the UMP also disagree with the debate which they say is taking the party too far to the right while also legitimising the far-right National Front’s political agenda.

The six religious leaders said they were ready to reflect with:

“our country’s authorities and forces so that the religious factor can be an element of peace and progress.” But “the acceleration of political agendas risks, ahead of important elections for our country’s future, blurring this perspective and causing confusion that can only be detrimental.”

Islam is increasingly challenging the secular nature of France and there have been recent confrontations over hijabs in schools and the wearing of burqas in the street. While the school restrictions were eventually accepted as a legitimate expression of state secularism, the banning of full face veilings in public places is being widely flouted.


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