Newsline – 22nd 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

  • Bishop admits that church schools succeed because of selection
  • NSS calls on PM to remove bar on Catholics in royal succession
  • Sectarianism in Scottish football runs deep
  • Christian group seeks to take over library from council
  • Opposition grows to Catholic school in Richmond
  • Vatican looking for new ally in ambition to dominate European Union
  • Sex allegations against clergy cost US Catholic Church $2.34 billion since 2004

Bishop admits that church schools succeed because of selection

The National Secular Society says that the Church of England’s new head of education, the Bishop of Oxford, Rt Rev John Pritchard, is the first high-profile Anglican to admit that Church schools get their league-topping results by using privileged admissions criteria to select the best pupils.

Mr Pritchard is likely to set the cat among the pigeons this week by telling the Times Education Supplement that he would like to open up church schools to more non-Anglicans – reserving only 10 per cent of places for the children of church-goers.

By doing so, he said:

“We may not get the startling results that some church schools do because of getting some very able children, but we will make a difference to people’s lives.”

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

“The Church has repeatedly denied that the strict selection criteria that are applied in some schools are the reason they perform so well. We are told that it is because of the ‘Christian ethos’. Now the cat is out of the bag and the Bishop of Oxford lets us know that the Church is fully aware of why their schools perform so well.”

Mr Sanderson said:

“It is astonishing that we are even having this discussion or that this is an issue at all. It is scandalous that state schools, paid for by the taxpayer, can refuse to admit children on the grounds of their parents’ religion or purported religion. In no other area would this kind of blatant religious discrimination be permitted.”

Mr Sanderson did concede that it was a step in the right direction, but he expressed doubt on whether any dramatic changes would be made in the near future, if at all. He said that voluntary aided schools control their own admissions policies and the church would not be able to force them to comply.

“Parents who access these schools won’t be too thrilled to see them opened up to the community at large,” he said. “We’ve all heard of pushy, non-religious parents suddenly becoming regular church-goers in order to get a letter from the vicar that is the open sesame to the local church school.

“The Church of England’s main focus these days is education, and if they give up their admissions privileges, their schools will become just like all the other schools in this country, and the resources that they hog to themselves will have to be more equally shared out.”

Mr Pritchard told the TES:

“I’m really committed to our schools being as open as they can be. Every school should have a policy that has a proportion of places for church youngsters… what I would be saying is that number ought to be minimised because our primary function and our privilege is to serve the wider community. Ultimately, I hope we can get the number of reserved places down to 10 per cent.”

Half of the 4,800 Church of England schools are voluntary aided, meaning they control their own admissions policies. He said that schools should not “collect nice Christians into safe places” but should serve the wider community.

The Bishop’s comments come ahead of the publication of new guidelines on admissions due in the summer.

The Bishop’s proposals are likely to face stiff opposition from others involved in education within the Church. Revd Clive Sedgewick, director of education for the dioceses of Bradford and Ripon & Leeds said there would be resistance from some parents who have come to regard Church schools as almost like a private education without the fees.

In an editorial in the TES, Gerard Kelly said:

“The vast majority of faith school funding is provided by taxpayers, who come in two varieties – the religious and the non-religious. Whatever the precise proportions, it is generally accepted that services paid for by taxpayers should be available to all. Except when it comes to faith schools. Here, believing taxpayers often take precedence over non-believing ones. One hundred per cent discrimination for the remarkably cheap price of 10 per cent contribution to building costs.

“This is patently unjust. Church leaders may retort that non-believing taxpayers have access to 80 per cent of schools that are non-faith. But that isn’t the point. Can you imagine a non-faith school refusing to admit a church-going pupil because there was a school for her sort locally? The Bishop has taken a principled stand. But it is time the state was equally brave and told faith schools to open their doors.”

NSS calls on PM to remove bar on Catholics in royal succession

The National Secular Society has written to The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister calling for Parliament to debate the removal of discrimination against Catholics in royal succession.

The letter from the Society’s Executive Director, Keith Porteous Wood, opened by welcoming steps being taken towards the removal of the discriminatory primogeniture provisions in respect of the heir to the throne. However, he pointed out that “It is unacceptable that any change in this area could be made without removing the equally inexcusable prohibition on the sovereign marrying a Roman Catholic.”

He continued:

“If consultation is to take place with Commonwealth leaders over primogeniture, it is unthinkable not to include the question of discrimination against Catholics, and indeed the former Government undertook to do this, two years ago. The question was discussed during the Royal Marriages and Succession to the Crown (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill introduced by Dr Evan Harris. The then Lord Chancellor concluded that debate with the phrase ‘I shall certainly ensure that soundings are taken among Commonwealth Heads of Government.’  We call upon you to confront this indefensible discrimination that would be illegal in every other situation by submitting it to the will of Parliament at Westminster. Positive feedback has already been given by senior representatives of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. As all legislation has to be interpreted in the light of the Human Rights Act, the Government may care to seek advice as to whether, as it seems, succession determined free of discrimination on grounds of sex or religion would already be lawful without any legislative changes.”

Later in the week, Mr Cameron was challenged on the Today programme by Evan Davis to explain his approach to the discrimination against Catholics and women in the royal succession. He replied that he supported the necessary changes “in principle”. But he warned that:

“The Queen is not only the Queen of the United Kingdom, but of many other jurisdictions, so discussions have to take place between the UK Government and other governments around the world and also the Palace to bring this about. So it will take time.”

John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, said that he agreed with the need to change the rules on primogeniture: “New Zealand supports that view.” But he cautioned: “I don’t know whether those changes will happen any time soon.”

Government sources in Canada and Australia have warned however that there is no political appetite in those countries for changing the royal succession, for fear it reopens the debate on republicanism and leaving the Commonwealth.

Permitting Catholics to inherit is expected to pose more of a constitutional and diplomatic problem than permitting females to inherit. Downing Street has said in the past that changing that rule would be “difficult and complex”.

The Act of Settlement was passed by Parliament to settle the royal succession on the Electress Sophia of Hanover and her Protestant heirs — the ancestors of the Windsor dynasty — and to exclude any claims by the deposed King James II, a Catholic, and his heirs. Along with the 1689 Bill of Rights, it remains one of the main constitutional laws governing the UK and the Commonwealth.

Changing it is fraught with difficulty. The British monarch is the head of state of 16 Commonwealth countries. The Act of Settlement cannot be altered in any realm except by that realm’s own parliament and, by convention, only with the consent of the other 15 realms, as it touches on the succession to the shared throne.

Sectarianism in Scottish football runs deep

After parcel bombs were sent to high-profile officials and fans of the Celtic football team, NSS council member Norman Bonney and Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood accuse the state of playing its own part in perpetuating sectarianism in Scotland.

Norman Bonney writes:

The disciplinary difficulties with the European football authorities that currently face Glasgow Rangers Football Club with respect to sectarian chanting of its supporters in European games were claimed by Glasgow Celtic manager Neil Lennon at the weekend to be deeply rooted in Scottish society and to be passed down at home from generation to generation – a view supported by The Scotsman in an editorial on Saturday 16 April 2011. However, the problem is more far-reaching than this. Parliamentarians and church leaders need to examine and amend the very structure of the Scottish state.

A new monarch is required by law, as one of his or her first acts, to swear an oath to maintain and preserve the protestant religion and the Presbyterian form of church government in Scotland.

This ancient legal requirement, part of the Acts of Union of 1706/7, reflects the religious divisions of over 300 years ago, and should be abolished.

Unless this happens the next monarch will find that he (or she) is contributing to the continuation of sectarian religious divisions in Scottish society and the state.

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg should also consider the removal of this UK constitutional provision alongside plans announced this weekend to remove gender discrimination in succession to the throne.

Removal of the Scottish oath is entirely a UK matter and relatively simple compared to the new measure being considered by the Deputy Prime Minister since it does not require the consent of the other Commonwealth countries of which the Queen is head of state.

Keith Porteous Wood says sectarian schooling also plays a part in perpetuating hostility between Catholics and Protestants. He writes:

Catholic schools were established, mainly in the 19th century, because the appalling treatment of (mainly poverty stricken immigrant Irish) Catholics by the indigenous largely Protestant population. No one is suggesting that the Catholic sectarian schools in Scotland are teaching sectarianism, but few will think that it is a coincidence that the epicentre of these difficulties, west central Scotland, is the very area where the Catholic Church is most opposed to integration with mainstream “non-denominational” schools.

They are even obstructive about joint campuses. A statement from North Lanarkshire Council in 2004 set out the requirements of the Catholic Church in respect of joint campuses, including the following: “separate non-pupil entrances and receptions; separate staff rooms; provision of separate libraries; avoidance of crossover of staff and pupils through self-contained design of the schools to preserve the identity of both schools; … and pupils in each of the joint campus schools will have their own separate entrances.”

This bunker mentality by the Church, which in my view is doing its flocks no service, may also be a panic reaction about its own survival evidenced by plummeting mass attendance. In North Lanarkshire this dropped by 40% in just 18 years between 1984 and 2002, the latest figures available. In the same area, attendance at the Church of Scotland, while less than half that of the Catholic Church, has declined much more slowly: by less than a quarter. While I suspect that the Catholics are on balance more victims in this sectarianism, the integration of schools — into ones with no confessional teaching — must be made an absolute priority in strife-torn areas. As with multi-religious/multi-ethnic/multicultural areas south of the border, a prerequisite to integration is children from the whole community being educated together.

Christian group seeks to take over library from council

As the cuts in the public sector deepen we are seeing more and more incursions by religious groups into services that were once considered the responsibility of local authorities. Last week in Perivale, west London, a Christian group offered to run the local library, which the Council was proposing to close as part of its economy measures.

At a meeting of local residents, Philip Edwards, pastor of Hope Community Centre, responded to the council’s request for volunteers to help run the libraries at reduced cost. Mr Edwards said:

“The library is open 33 hours a week at the moment. We could open it as a library for at least 25 hours from Wednesday afternoon to Saturday and we could use it the rest of the week.”

Indeed, the church is at present holding its services at Horsenden Primary School, so a nice little council-owned property that could be used for that purpose would be very welcome. It is significant that the group does not propose to open the library on Sunday – not for library purposes, anyway.

Pastor Edwards said:

“We want to be in the community, I realise that people are nervous of any religious group taking it over. We want to go along and change things in society for good. If we can do something together, let’s do it.”

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

“The prospect of some evangelical group taking over a library raises all kinds of issues. Not only the fact that they intend to install their church rent free on the premises, but we do not know what kind of censorship policy — overt or covert — they would operate. Churches are for praying and saving souls, not running civic services. Let’s hope the residents of Perivale can find some other way of keeping their library open.”

Opposition grows to Catholic school in Richmond

After it was revealed that the counselling and welfare of school children in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames had been handed over to an anti-gay Catholic group, a new row has erupted over the establishment of a Catholic school in the borough.

Despite a poll by the local paper showing 63% of residents opposed the creation of the proposed Catholic secondary school, the local council has supported the plan.

At a packed public meeting, Lord True, leader of Richmond Council, said that the Pope’s speech to youngsters in Richmond last year made him realise “how sad it was” they had no Catholic secondary education in the borough.

He said: “I thought this is a long standing aspiration of this Council and community and it would be great if, in memory of the papal visit and in answer to those aspirations, we could do something.” He said:

“I am not a Catholic, but the challenge and the spirituality of the present Pope are of enormous contemporary relevance. He has put forward arguments which need to be listened to by people.”

But the newly formed Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign said it was disappointed no councillors spoke on behalf of residents who oppose the policy. Indeed, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for education and schools on the council, councillor Malcolm Eady, pledged his group’s support for the policy, but said he would be surprised if the Government offered funding.

The Inclusive Schools Campaign said the majority of its supporters were parents and included two school governors, along with religious and non-religious residents. Group member Jennifer Singer said:

“Given high demand for places among residents, Richmond’s new schools must be open to all children.”

Lord True said he hoped to announce details of the council’s plans by the summer.

But the Catholic Church is turning out its big guns to push its claims. The Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, stepped in to the argument, saying:

“I fully support the desire and aspirations of parents in Richmond for a Catholic secondary school. I understand that this is a matter which has been the subject of plans and wishes over a number of years, and that the local authority is keen to have, and is supportive of, such a project.”

What the Archbishop did not reveal was that when he was Archbishop of Wales he had said that gay people living in relationships should not be permitted to be teachers. In 2005 he told Wales on Sunday:

“It’s not just about somebody being a good teacher – it’s more than that. Someone living a life in manifest contradiction to the Church’s doctrine would not, in my view, be suitable to be employed by the Catholic Church. It would not give the right example to staff or pupils. When it comes to Catholic teaching, we expect teachers in all our schools to uphold the Catholic ethos. If someone is living a lifestyle which is in conflict to the moral teaching of the church then there is a real difficulty.”

Jeremy Rodell, chairman of the South West London Humanists, countered:

“Our campaign against this school is not anti-Catholic, we are saying the proposal is unfair and discriminative for taxpayers, including the 90 per cent who are not Catholic. To have to fund a school which is socially divisive against most people in the area and provides privileges to a small minority, that just seems completely wrong.”

Vatican looking for new ally in ambition to dominate European Union

The Vatican is supporting the ambitions of Croatia to become a full member of the European Union on the assumption that this overwhelmingly Catholic country will be an ally in the pope’s desire to see Europe once more under Catholic control.

“Affirming that Europe does not have Christian roots would be the equivalent to pretending that a person could live without oxygen or food,” the pope said in a message welcoming Croatia’s new ambassador, Filip Vucak, to the “Holy See”.

Mr Ratzinger also said that “irritating voices contest the reality of Europe’s religious roots with surprising regularity. And he urged Croatia, where nearly 90 per cent of the population is claimed as Catholic, not to be afraid to insist that the EU respect “its cultural and religious identity”.

Croatia hopes to become a full EU member in 2013 or 2014 after the expected passage of a national referendum later this year. The pope will reinforce his influence by visiting the Croatian capital of Zagreb on 4–5 June.

The pope told Mr Vucak:

“I am sure that your country will be able to defend its identity with conviction and pride, avoiding the new obstacles that, under the pretext of a misunderstood idea of religious freedom, are contrary to natural law, the family and — quite simply — morals.”

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

“Here we have the Vatican’s classic techniques of manipulation and control all summed up in a couple of sentences. The pope talks of Croatia’s ‘religious identity’ as though it was a foregone conclusion because 90% of the population were baptised as babes in arms. There is no reason not to think that the abandonment of the Catholic Church that is happening in other parts of Europe isn’t also happening in Croatia.  He talks of ‘natural law’. But in Vatican-speak ‘natural’ is whatever the pope decrees is natural. And when the pope involves ‘the family’, gay people had better watch out. And, as for morality – well, I wonder if the Church in Croatia — which has an iron grip on the country — is being more successful at covering up priestly child abuse than other societies? And as for the ‘irritating voices’ he complains of – that, presumably, would be anybody who dares to disagree with him.”

Sex allegations against clergy cost US Catholic Church $2.34 billion since 2004

In 2010 alone, the clerical abuse scandal cost American dioceses $123.7 million, according to an annual report released on April 11 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Only 70% of those funds were allotted to settlements ($70.4 million), therapy for abuse victims ($6.4 million) and support for offenders ($9.9 million). The rest was spent on attorneys’ fees ($33.9 million) and “other costs” ($3.1 million).

The clerical abuse scandal cost religious institutes an additional $25.9 million in 2010. These expenses brought the total cost of the clerical abuse scandal to American dioceses and religious institutes between 2004 and 2009 to $2.344 billion: $2.021billion for dioceses and eparchies, and $0.323 billion for religious institutes.

In addition, American dioceses spent nearly $21 million in 2010 on safe environment programs and background checks.

The report found that 428 new credible allegations of child sexual abuse were lodged against 345 diocesan priests or deacons in 2010. Only seven of the 428 allegations involved those who are currently minors; the other allegations were made by adults who allege they were abused as minors. In all, 74 abuse allegations since 2004 have involved those who were minors in the year of the allegation.

Of the 428 new credible allegations, 82% involved male victims, with 20% of victims under the age of ten.

“Two-thirds of new allegations (66 percent) occurred or began between 1960 and 1984,” the report continued. “The most common time period for allegations reported in 2010 was 1970–1974. This is approximately the same time pattern that has been reported in previous years, with most allegations reportedly occurring or beginning between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s.”

“Of the 428 new credible allegations reported in 2010, 71 new allegations (17 percent) were unsubstantiated or determined to be false by 31 December 2010,” the report added. “In addition, 25 allegations received prior to 2010 were unsubstantiated or determined to be false during 2010.”

Thirty of the allegations involved abuse that allegedly took place in 2010, rather than in a previous year. Following investigation by law enforcement, eight allegations (27%) were determined to be credible, seven (23%) were determined to be false, three (10%) remained under investigation, and 12 (40%) were determined to be boundary violations, not sexual abuse. Examples of boundary violations cited in the report included “kissing girls on top of the head, inappropriate hugging, and an adult patting a minor on the knee. In all cases civil authorities were called, and an investigation was conducted; also in all cases the civil authorities concluded there was no sexual misconduct.” Twelve (40%) of these 30 allegations involved foreign priests.

Only 72% of religious communities responded to a request for information by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. According to these surveys, male religious communities received “77 new credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor committed by a priest or deacon of the community, all of which are alleged to have occurred prior to 2010.” 77% of the victims were male; 19% were under age ten.

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