What happened to the Birmingham Three?
The 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."
Which 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.
In 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.