Nepotism? Not us, say Knights of St Columba

Monklands/ order denies links
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The Independent Online
ON FRIDAY night at the first full council meeting following publication of the report each member of the ruling Labour group publicly denied membership of the Knights.

They have long regarded themselves as spiritual and temporal do-gooders, but last week the members of the Roman Catholic fraternity of the Knights of St Columba were squirming under unfamiliar epithets.

"Nepotists," said the report into corruption in Labour-run Monklands District Council. "Parodists," said a Masonic Lodge spokesman about references to the Knights as Catholic versions of Freemasons.

Until now, few people outside the Catholic church would know of the Knights of St Columba, a 10,000-strong organisation of artisans and small businessmen dedicated to charitable deeds and church causes. But the spotlight of Professor Robert Black's independent inquiry into Monklands council illuminated corners of the organisation that cast them in rather a different light.

The Edinburgh University-based professor found that nepotism and favouritism were widespread. Thirty-three council employees were related to prominent Labour Party members or were themselves prominent party men. There was evidence that Coatbridge, a Catholic area, was favoured at the expense of Protestant Airdrie. Dr Black has passed some complaints to the Crown Office, and criminal charges are not being ruled out.

The report said: "It has repeatedly been suggested to the inquiry that a number of the elected members who serve on important committees are members of the Knights of St Columba. There is of course no suggestion that there is anything improper in such membership, but it must be stressed that a declaration of interest should be made by any councillor who is a member when the Council is making decisions affecting any member of the public who is known by the councillor to be a member of the organisation. This duty of disclosure is specifically mentioned in the Code with regard to Freemasons, and the same duty must exist in relation to the Knights of St Columba."

Although Professor Black's words seem more exhortation than accusation, the damage has been done, exacerbated by a decision by the organisation's Glasgow headquarters to make no official comment. But the body's Supreme Knight (or president), Tony Britten, confirmed last week that he had conducted his own inquiry into the Monklands affair more than a year ago.

"We don't believe that members should obtain jobs or housing or influence through their membership of the Knights," he said. "That would bring the order into disrepute. There are 105 brothers in Coatbridge. When this came up I asked them how many were involved in the Monklands District Council. It would appear that 15 were employed by the council, and of those, seven had council jobs before they joined the Knights. We had one brother who was a district councillor, and he left the order 12 months ago. So as far as we can tell we have no members on the council at the moment".

On Friday night at the first full council meeting since publication of the Black report, the rest of the elected councillors looked on at the extraordinary sight of each member of the ruling Labour group publicly denying membership of the Knights.

Meanwhile the only single Knight-politician which the Britten inquiry found is suspicious about the claims regarding the Knights' influence.

John Dillon, a 52-year-old school janitor, who is an independent councillor rather than a Labour man, said: "I left the Knights because my health has not been good," he explained. "Membership hasn't ever guaranteed me employment. I've lost three good jobs. Someone is being mischievous with these corruption allegations."

Father Damien Murphy, chaplain of the Lanarkshire Knights, who include the Monklands fraternity, said of Professor Black's comments: "I'm absolutely astounded. People are laughing with the shock of it."

The Knights of St Columba are among a number of men-only Catholic organisations with shadowy reputations. The body was formed 76 years ago, inspired by an American Catholic order known as the Knights of Columbus (the Irish version is called the Knights of St Columbanus). Members wear gilt lapel badges displaying the initials KSC. At meetings they don regalia. The regalia and their titles prompt comparison with the Masonic Order. "We are aware of this," said Supreme Knight Britten. "There is a myth that we're some kind of equivalent to the Freemasons. The question of abandoning the titles for something more ordinary often comes up."

They network zealously. Last year's annual report refers to maintaining "regular contact with Catholic Members of Parliament" and activity "in the world of politics while still maintaining our non-party political stand". Mr Britten insists that this means campaigning against such things as abortion and euthanasia.

Last week, Fr Peter Smith, administrator of the Scottish Archdiocese, said he found Professor Black's reference to the Knights "quite astonishing. By no stretch of the imagination is it a secret organisation."

The order's "councils", as branch meetings are called, are spiritually fuelled by chaplains such as Fr Murphy, a Dubliner who has worked in Scotland for 15 years. The Coatbridge Knights, he said, were formed partly as a result of sectarian practices in public life. "It wasn't until the 1960s that the first Catholic girl got a council job in Coatbridge," he said.