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What happened to the Birmingham Three?

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William Crawley | 15:53 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

brumchurch.jpgThe campaign to "free" the Birmingham Three is gathering pace. Supporters of Fr Dermot Fenlon, Fr Philip Cleevely and Brother Lewis Berry have now launched their own website, which includes a ticking clock counting the period of their "exile" in days, hours, minutes and seconds. The three members of the Oratory founded by John Henry Newman (pictured) have been ordered to "spend time in prayer at three separate monasteries hundreds of miles apart, indefinitely and with no public explanation".

Their case has been taken up by the journalist and author Ruth Dudley Edwards, who was a close friend of one of the priests, Fr Dermot Fenlon, in their student days at University College Dublin and then at Cambridge, and has launched a Free the Birmingham Oratory Three blog. Writing in the current edition of Standpoint magazine, she pledges to address "the scandalous way in which these men have been treated, and of the apparent inability of the Catholic Church to learn the downside of secrecy and authoritarianism" in the next edition. "But for now", she writes, "I'm just putting it on the record that, in a lengthy interview with me, the ubiquitous Jack Valero of Opus Dei, spokesman for the Newman canonisation cause and the Birmingham Oratory, has confirmed unequivocally that the Three are entirely guiltless of any wrong-doing whatsoever."

chav.jpgWhich begs the question: Why have these three Oratorians been "exiled" and "silenced"? If, indeed, that is what has happened. There have been rumours of trouble at the Birmingham Oratory since last year, when Fr Felix Selden, the Pope's Apostolic Visitor, asked the then Provost, Fr Paul Chavasse (pictured, left), to leave his position and take on a fundraising role in the United States. Fr Chavasse was replaced by Fr Richard Duffield -- both as Provost of the Birmingham Oratory and as "Actor for the Cause of Newman's Canonisation" -- on 2 February, just seven months before he would have officially welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to vespers at the Oratory. It was subsequently announced that "three members of the Birmingham Oratory have been ordered to go on retreat after disagreements with the rest of the community . . . and to spend time in prayer for an indefinite period by Fr Felix Selden." These departures leave just five members of the Birmingham Oratory community in place to welcome Pope Benedict.

There are rumours that Fr Chavasse is to return to Birmingham in time for the papal visit, but these remain officially unconfirmed. But if he is permitted to return to the Oratory while his erstwhile brothers remain separated on three different continents, some will inevitably ask if their exile was intended to protect their former provost.

Fr_Dermot_Fenlon.jpgIn July, Oratory parishioners published an open letter to the Apostolic Visitor, Fr Felix Felden, in which they appeal for the return of these "good pastors who are innocent of any wrong doing (as we have been assured is the case with these three)." (Read their correspondence.)

We learned this week that one of the Three, Brother Lewis Berry, is about to be sent to the Oratory in Port Elizabeth in South Africa for "a period of at least one year". I understand that Fr Dermot Fenlon (pictured, right) is currently in Canada.

To the supporters of the Three, their plight is a draconian injustice of medieval proportions. Is it appropriate, they ask, that three brothers should be ordered to leave their spiritual home and commanded to remain in prayer, to refuse all media requests for interviews, and to make no efforts to communicate with each other? Is this how the church should behave in the 21st century? They wonder, aloud, if these brothers have been exiled to avoid any embarrassment to Pope Benedict when he visits the Oratory next month. Ironically, if that was the motivation for this disciplinary measure, it may prove counter-productive.

On Sunday, we will try to make some sense of what is going on at the Birmingham Oratory and why three Oratorians who are "innocent of any wrong doing" have been "silenced and exiled" in what their supporters are describing as the ecclesiastical equivalent of "extraordinary rendition". Ruth Dudley Edwards and Jack Valero will be my guests on Sunday morning.


  • Comment number 1.

    There is something very fishy indeed about this business: if the Catholic Church had a base on the moon would one of the three have been sent there!

    Fr Felic Felden in his response to the letter from parishioners certainly does not address their concerns when he writes:

    "It is not helpful when Catholics without intimate knowledge of the matter spread speculations, or protest against the apostolic visitation in the public sphere, as they create scandal and might dangerously harm the Church and the Oratory of Birmingham."

    To a non-believer like myself this seems like a form of moral blackmail. The parishioners want only to know the truth, and would not the truth dampen all speculation and remove the whiff of any scandal?

  • Comment number 2.

    I have no idea why the Catholic Church has done this, and there is no indication why in the article, however, three things to bear in mind:

    1] a basic rule of natural justice is to hear both sides. If the Church has reasons for doing this, you might argue that it should give them, but that leads on to...

    2] we no longer live in the Middle Ages. These men are free to leave the Church and give their side of it. They haven't done so either.

    3] Having Ruth Dudley Edwards on your team immediately makes me suspicious.

  • Comment number 3.

    Please give details of the "Sunday morning" update. Will it be on radio? On LISTEN AGAIN? Will there be a transcript?

    This matter of the BIRMINGHAM THREE is a concern in many parts of the world.

    Presumably Ruth Dudley Edwards became involved because she knows Fr Fenlon personally? That's a sufficient reason, surely?

  • Comment number 4.

    Knarf, you are right that Ruth Dudley Edwards has become involved because of her longstanding friendship with Fr Dermot Fenlon. RDE describes herself as an atheist and shares hardly any of Fr Dermot's fews on matters of religion or ethics. Which makes her involvement interesting in itself. In her Irish Independent article she says: "Their defenders have formed an alliance that includes right-wing Catholics, people of other religions and none, and gays as well as straights".

    Sunday Sequence is broadcast live from 0830 on Sunday morning. You can list again on the BBC iPlayer. I will have an update on this blog after the programme is broadcast.

  • Comment number 5.

    This is an interesting post not least that I believe you use my photo of the Church. Michael Shiels former sacristan, God rest his soul, is blurred out on the left of the picture.

  • Comment number 6.

    Jackie -- Are you OK with us using this picture, or would you rather it was removed?

  • Comment number 7.

    You should ask Mr Valero why, precisely, the 'Three' are not being permitted to attend the Beatification, since they worked so hard to make it possible through their contribution to Newman's Cause. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that Fr Selden fears they will have an opportunity to speak to the Holy Father in person & expose his 'visitation' for the bungling farce that it is.

  • Comment number 8.

    If possible I would rather it was removed thankyou.

  • Comment number 9.

    No problem Jackie. Done.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    Well, I think you refereed that bout very fairly. What emerged clearly is that Mr Valero, despite being a spokesman for the Birmingham Oratory, doesn't know very much more than the rest of us what's been going on. Can it really be true that he's never even met Fr Selden? He didn't deny this. He did however say that Fr Selden was preparing to speak to the press (can we have an interview, please, rather than another press release?). Until then, with gagging orders all round & a inadequately briefed spokesman, we are all being left in the dark. The way this visitation has been handled has been a positive invitation to speculation & gossip, both among those who want to attack Fr Fenlon, Fr Cleevely & Brother Berry ('Ooh, there's no smoke without fire, you know!'), and among those who want to attack the visitation team ('It's all a conspiracy!'). I have no reason to attribute any malice to Fr Selden, but to an outside observer it seems that his visitation has been a shambolic failure.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hello, when will the program be available on the iPlayer? Great program. Thanks!

  • Comment number 13.

    We are dealing with a technical fault and we hope to make this week's programme available on the iPlayer within the next few hours. Apologies for this delay. I've been contacted by a number of people who are keen to listen again to the discussion between Ruth Dudley Edwards and Jack Valero. Please be patient with us.

  • Comment number 14.

    iPlayer now available. See new post.

  • Comment number 15.

    Forgive me for re-opening comments on this rather old post, but I feel I should modify what I have said in the two previous comments. Although I was at one time an employee of the Birmingham Oratory, and have known several members of the community for more than a decade, as regards the current situation I am very much an outsider, and like perhaps many other observers I have been somewhat misled by the misrepresentations of the situation that are so widely disseminated in the media & the blogosphere. While it remains deeply regrettable that three or four members of the Oratorian community are now likely to be absent from the beatification of their founder, the fact is that no-one outside the community has the full story about how this situation has arisen. If Mr Valero himself is uncertain about some of the details, or unwilling to say in public all that he does know, that in itself is not unreasonable; the difficulties that have arisen in Edgbaston are private matters of the internal life of the Oratory, and even a spokesman need not be taken fully into the confidence of those for whom he speaks.

    Regarding my own comments, I have certainly spoken hastily (always the temptation with blogs that allow comments!). I had been given the impression from various reports that Fr Felix Selden had acted in a somewhat cavalier manner in deciding to exclude 'the Three' from residence at Birmingham. I fear this impression is widespread, but I am increasingly convinced that it is false. I was not aware, when making these comments, that Fr Selden had already spent a year living in the Birmingham Oratory himself. This would suggest that the decision made in May was the conclusion of a long, but sadly unsuccessful, attempt to reconcile the community from within. To call the visitation a 'bungling farce' and a 'shambolic failure' is therefore unfair to Fr Selden. I apologise for using such language and I would not object if you decided to remove the comments in question. Certainly, one might say that recent events have constituted a 'PR disaster', but as the example of Pope Benedict himself has repeatedly shown, PR disasters can be manufactured by people using the media & communications technology, without any culpability on the part of those at the centre of such storms.

    I will conclude this comment by repeating what I have already said on the 'Valle Adurni' blog: "I want to hear from the 'Three', not because I suspect some skullduggery & want to know the gory details, but quite simply because these are three of the clergy I most like and admire & I am very concerned about what they are continuing to be put through. I quite see that the gossip, which has become vindictive in some corners of the internet, may now itself be a part of the cross that these men have to bear ... my anticipation of this event [Newman's beatification] was heightened by the thought of seeing Frs Cleevely and Fenlon, and Br Berry, alongside the Holy Father on this historic day in the history of their House. Their absence - and indeed the absence of Fr Chavasse - will, for me, cast a long shadow over the event."

    I do find the present situation regrettable, but it is not for me to cast blame.

  • Comment number 16.

    Having said that much, I should probably correct one small error of fact in my last comment. The visitation lasted for a year; but Fr Selden did not actually live in at Birmingham for the whole of that period. So I was informed by someone who certainly is in possession of the facts.


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