Catholics 'are running out of priests'

Faithful often travel miles to Mass as churches close because ageing padres are not being replaced
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Britain's four million Roman Catholics have been warned that they are running out of priests, and that weekly Mass will soon become a rarity in hundreds of churches.

Britain's four million Roman Catholics have been warned that they are running out of priests, and that weekly Mass will soon become a rarity in hundreds of churches.

The number of priests in England and Wales has fallen from 7,000 in 1980 to 5,500, mainly as a result of retirement and death. According to some estimates, half of all priests are now aged 60 or older.

Increasingly worshippers will be asked to travel miles to neighbouring parishes on a Sunday, according to the Church authorities. They will also be called on to do many of the parish duties currently handled by the priest.

Already the Catholic Church has started to merge parishes and close churches in East Anglia, Shropshire and Liverpool, Britain's most Catholic city. Liverpudlians have been incensed by plans to shut six of their inner-city churches. Sixty of the city's parishes have already been reduced to just 27.

Until now, the growing shortage of priests has been overshadowed by the series of child-abuse scandals in the Church, which have seen 21 priests convicted for offences against children, with further cases pending.

The controversy has even led to speculation that the new Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, may not be made a cardinal by the Pope later this year as an indication of the Vatican's disapproval - although Catholic leaders are confident that this will not prove to be the case.

Despite the headlines generated by the abuse cases, the shortage of priests is potentially a more damaging problem for the Church, putting almost intolerable strain on some existing clergy, who often soldier on well past retirement age.

Peter Stanford, Catholic author and commentator, said: "We've seen elderly priests having physical breakdowns because of the pressure they're under. When they're 65 it's assumed that they'll just carry on - basically until they die in the job. It's a huge problem for the Church on all sorts of levels. In the past they would have had two or three priests carrying out parish duties. Now they only have one."

Father Kieron Conry, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales, believes that Catholics will have to accept travelling much further to attend Mass than at present.

"It's happening already," he said. "There are some dioceses where the number of priests doesn't exceed by much the number of parishes. Some of these parishes would have had three people in them 20 years ago." He said that increasingly lone priests will rely on help from parishioners to keep the church functioning.

Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor, the de facto leader of Britain's four million Roman Catholics, was personally damaged by the case of Father Michael Hill, a suspected paedophile in his former diocese of Arundel and Brighton.

It emerged that, as bishop, Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor had sent Hill to work at the Gatwick Airport chaplaincy where he abused more children - a mistake which led to calls for the new Archbishop's resignation.

Last year the Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, the Most Rev John Ward, agreed to be replaced when one of the priests in his jurisdiction, Father Joe Jordan, was jailed for eight years after sexually abusing young boys.

Two years previously, the archbishop's press officer, John Lloyd, was also jailed for eight years following a conviction for indecent assaults against children.

In response to the scandals Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor has established a review of Church procedures led by Lord Nolan, the former judge who investigated standards in public life for Parliament. The committee will report at Easter.

At the time he said: "I wish to apologise sincerely to the survivors of abuse and their families and communities. They have been hurt not just by the abusers but also by mistaken attitudes within the Church community at all levels.

"I acknowledge that far too often there has been insensitivity and inadequate response to their hurt."