Cardinal dismissed his top press aide 'for being gay'

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The Independent Online

A spokesman for the Cardinal declined to deny the claim last night, fuelling controversy over the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality.

The new equality minister Ruth Kelly, who is a member of the Catholic Opus Dei sect, has appalled leaders of Britain's gay community by failing to say whether she believes being gay is a sin.

Stephen Noon, 35, joined the Archbishop's staff in 2003 on a salary of around £35,000. Mr Noon, who was previously a press officer for the Scottish Nationalist Party, was handed the brief to improve the Catholic Church's image. He held the post for less than a year.

According to the newspaper, friends say relations with the Cardinal deteriorated after Mr Noon's long-term partner visited him at his office.

"His partner came to the office at the end of the day and was introduced to the Cardinal. Shortly afterwards the Church made it clear that his sexuality was incompatible with the job he had to do. Since he was the spokesperson for the Cardinal, Murphy-O'Connor clearly felt he had to act because homosexual acts are regarded by the Church as a sin," a friend was quoted as saying.

Mr Noon is reported to have received a £20,000 pay-off and in return agreed not to speak in public about his sacking. However, a close friend said: "What was terrible was the unchristian way Stephen was treated. That was the saddest part of the outcome of events. The process he had to go through was extraordinarily painful."

Since becoming Archbishop of Westminster in 2003 Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has maintained a steadfast opposition to abortion, becoming embroiled in a row over the issue during the general election.

Last week he spoke out against the Bill on assisted dying and was firmly opposed to the repeal of Clause 28, which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools.

A spokesman for the Cardinal said: "We do not divulge confidential details about employees about why they join or leave us." Mr Noon could not be contacted for comment.

Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative MP, defended the Cardinal. "I don't think that the Cardinal had any choice. The Church's teaching is very clear. It would be difficult if you had a press secretary explaining the teaching, while at the same time violating it."