Church action against 'sex case' priest attacked

Some Catholics are upset at the way a respected cleric has been treated, writes Peter Stanford
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The Independent Online
PARISHIONERS of a Catholic church in west London will rejoice this morning at the sight of their parish priest saying Sunday Mass there for the first time in six months.

Fr Michael Hollings is one of the best known and most respected Catholic priests in Britain. His parish in Bayswater, St Mary of the Angels, is a model for church action in the community. The presbytery door is always open to anyone who needs food, shelter or advice.

When racial tensions threatened the local Notting Hill Carnival, it was Fr Hollings, a former major in the Coldstream Guards, who commanded sufficient community respect to bring the warring sides together.

His admirers are legion, from individuals he has supported in their battle with drink and drugs, to right-wing commentators such as Paul Johnson, who described him as "the best parish priest I have ever come across". Claire Holder, chair of the Notting Hill Carnival, sums up local opinion when she says: "I adore him - we all do."

Last week those same admirers were rallying to his cause as Fr Hollings, now 74 and in poor health, emerged from a six-month ordeal after accusations in a tabloid newspaper that he molested a 17-year-old boy placed in his care 25 years ago.

When the accusations were made, Fr Hollings was immediately sent by the diocese on enforced "administrative leave". A replacement priest took his place, and parishioners knew nothing until Cardinal Basil Hume arrived unannounced at the Bayswater church last Sunday to say the priest was being reinstated after police decided to take no action.

Parishioners, however, remain angry that a cloud has been cast over their priest's good name. Many feel that Westminster diocese handled the matter ineptly. Writing in last week's Spectator, Mr Johnson describes Cardinal Hume's gesture of support as "the least he could do considering how badly the business had been handled. The Spanish Inquisition in its heyday would have made a fairer job of it."

Julia Stonor, a member of one of Britain's oldest Catholic families, is another who is deeply upset and perturbed by what has happened. "Like many other ordinary parishioners I'm horrified by this whole business - by the damage it has done to a wonderful priest, by the secrecy with which the diocese carried out its investigation, keeping the parish in the dark throughout, and by the lack of public support Fr Michael has received from the Catholic establishment, people who in the past have been found singing his praises.

"I can't help suspecting that there has been something of a witch-hunt here from people who want to do down Fr Michael and his work. How, for example, did journalists from national newspapers know to be in our parish church on Sunday to hear the Cardinal, when we had no idea until the last moment that he was coming?"

Fr Hollings was a front-runner for the vacant post of Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster in 1976, before Abbot Basil Hume was appointed. He views with favour the ordination of women, married priests and inter-communion between the Churches. That such a man could suffer exile as the result of unproved allegations is worrying not only his parishioners, but also other priests.

Some fear that individual clerics now have little or no support from the ecclesiastical authorities against false accusers. Bishops are so anxious to appear whiter than white, following earlier cover-ups of sex abuse, that some priests complain their superiors regard them as "guilty until proven guiltier".

The National Conference of Priests urged recently that "procedures ensure that priests are given just treatment at all times".

Last week another celebrated priest, Monsignor Michael Buckley, aged 71, whose healing missions have won him a national following, was absolved after a two-month police investigation into allegations of sexual impropriety. The Yorkshire priest is now setting up a support organisation for victims of false accusations. "I've known of priests who were guilty of offences and the Church just swept the cases under the carpet," he said. "Now it's going to the other extreme."

Concern that the pendulum has swung too far, from over-protection to complete absence of support, is focused mainly on national guidelines adopted by the Catholic bishops of England and Wales in 1994.

These were introduced after the Catholic Church in Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia and America had been shown to have covered up sexual misconduct by priests with youngsters. In the United States between 1984 and 1992, some 400 Catholic priests were accused of molesting children, prompting the bishops to pay out an estimated $400m (pounds 260m) in compensation.

Many of the accused faced multiple charges in what Fr Andrew Greeley, an author and psychologist, says has become "perhaps the most serious crisis Catholicism has faced since the Reformation".

It was the English bishops' guidelines that dictated the handling of the charges against Fr Hollings. Nicholas Coote, assistant general-secretary of the bishops' conference and one of those who shaped the guidelines, acknowledges that there has been disquiet.

"What has happened is that the clergy have up to now been in a special position, and it has come as a terrible shock to them to find themselves in the same vulnerable place as others like doctors, teachers and social workers," he said.

The guidelines, Mr Coote added, are under constant review. In particular he feels that there is a greater need for diocesan seminars where priests can give voice to their fears without worrying that others will think they have something to hide.

He would also like to see the diocesan officials who overseethe application of the guidelines building up good relationships with police, social services and the Crown Prosecution Service. "It is important, in the light of our past record, that these bodies can now trust us."

This suggestion was opposed by one priest supporting a fellow cleric accused of abuse. The priest, who did not wish to be named, said: "Such a development would seem to me like the Church working hand in glove with the authorities.

"It needs to preserve some independence of action if it isn't simply going to give the green light to anyone who wants to make life uncomfortable for their local priest."