Eye witness: White collar, black belt – but not a hard man

The clergy: Across Britain, violent attacks are part of the job.
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The Independent Online

Nobody messes with Father Brian. He may be short but the man in black with the dog collar and biblical beard is tough. When an angry drug addict attacked him in church, this Anglican priest did not turn the other cheek. He struck hard instead, and laid his assailant out.

The fight was recorded by a surveillance camera, and has been broadcast on national TV many times since. "It was on News at 10," remembers the Rev Brian Regan. "It went, 'Bong! Palestinian Uprising. Bong! Priest Hits Parishioner'."

That was years ago, in a different parish, he says. But as we walk the streets of Tile Hill, on the south side of Coventry, it is clear that encountering abuse, vandalism, and the threat of violence are still part of his everyday life.

Fr Brian used to train at judo but the last thing he wants is to be seen as a hero or a hard man. That would be asking for trouble. His job is already one of the most dangerous around.

Vicars are now as much at risk of attack as police officers, according to a survey commissioned by the Home Office and published last week. Six priests have been murdered since the Rev Christopher Gray was stabbed to death in Liverpool five years ago. Seven Anglican clerics in every 10 have been abused or assaulted in the past two years, the survey found. Half were in their own homes at the time.

"The clergy are the only professionals left in areas like this after dark," explains Fr Brian. "The policemen go back to their houses in the gin-and-tonic belt at the end of the day; so do the doctors, the teachers, the solicitors. We still live here, so when people are in trouble in the middle of the night they knock on our door." Some of those who knock are drunk, high, mentally ill or violent. The scar on Fr Brian's forehead was put there by a parishioner at a previous church who rammed his head through a glass door. The house he lives in is watched night and day by a police security camera. Other modern urban vicarages are reinforced with steel bars, gates, and alarms that make them look like fortresses.

Now even those who have refused to desert their parishes in the face of danger may find they have no choice. The Church of England's latest financial crisis could force it to close down buildings and send inner-city priests elsewhere.

The Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, has warned the Church it is in danger of abandoning the poor. The Bishop of London has gone one better by threatening to quit. "If we do have to retire from areas of deprivation where the Church has so often in the past been renewed in its spiritual life," says Richard Chartres, "that to me is a resignation issue."

Coventry is another diocese that has been told it will have to make do with less from now on. Tile Hill is the seventh poorest of its 230 parishes, although it does not look it at first sight. The woods that punctuate rows of former council homes lend the place a leafy calm on a summer's day, and some of the front gardens are beautifully kept, mostly by elderly men and women who came here in the 1950s. "There are some people who make this a super place to live," says Fr Brian. "Really solid salt-of-the-earth people who know their neighbours."

That's may be why they don't go out after dark. Other gardens look as if they've just been the venue for a riot. The roads are quiet because 60 per cent of people in this community built for the workers of the vanished motor industry do not have a car.

St Oswald's vicarage is the biggest house in the area, a pebble-dashed box backing on to a youth club that was smashed up by youngsters earlier in the summer. When Brian and Maureen Regan arrived seven years ago, the parish was broke. They raised money to refurbish the church and hall, but winning over the locals was harder.

"I was the first married priest for 20 years," says Fr Brian. "The previous guy had a live-in curate who turned out to have been an imprisoned paedophile. Letters were put through our door. We were abused, and stuff was painted on the walls: 'Go away queer'. They thought my wife was the housekeeper. Didn't go down very well with her, that."

Maureen Regan had been reluctant to become a vicar's wife, and fought hard to persuade her husband not to give up his job as the sales director of a furniture company, but has since been won over. She is a qualified counsellor and runs a bereavement clinic from the church hall. "I am as happy as a pig in muck now," she says, "but there are times when I am really frightened for him."

Fr Brian identified a core group of teenage troublemakers and tried to befriend them, which first meant showing that he was not afraid. "What works is a mixture of loving them but not being so friendly that they walk all over you."

As if to prove the point, the first person we see out on Jardine Crescent is a bulky lad in shorts. "All right Father?" When he's gone, the priest whispers: "That's Mike. He's a big dealer around here. Smack mostly, I think."

Fr Brian's house calls take him to a woman who was recently given weeks to live if she did not stop drinking, and a Muslim refugee from Herzegovina who was terrorised by local children until the priest had a new garden fence put up. At the next house, Linda and Steve are not in. Fr Brian is not too disappointed. "They are mentally sick. The bacterial stench in there is overpowering."

We walk back past the bookies and the grocery shop, looking for Wayne, "a seven-year-old gangster". He's not around. "Something's going on," says Fr Brian. "It's far too quiet." Later he finds out the police have been putting on extra patrols to deter holiday crime. The ordinary people we meet smile and nod, but not many seem keen to hear about the family service on Sunday.

Fr Brian is undeterred. As a priest in the established church he believes it is his duty to care for everyone in his parish whether they want it or not. He talks about stopping a woman in the street who was swearing violently at her two-year-old son. "She asked who the so-and-so I was to interfere. I said, 'Well, I'm the only person in the parish who by law has the right, because I have the cure of your soul and your child's soul. Your behaviour is not good for your child and not good for you.'"

Perhaps not surprisingly, her response to this speech was to shout abuse and leave. Fr Brian was thick skinned, as usual. "I know her children are on the at-risk register," he says. "Nobody else would say a thing like that to her, but the vicar has to. If he doesn't he's hiding behind his collar."