Joan Smith: Dear God, Ms Kelly, you're in the wrong job

Once again, she faces something called a conflict of interest
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The Independent Online

If a cabinet minister were to demonstrate dreadful judgement twice in one month, you might conclude that he or she should think about resigning. In the case of the present government, that is so improbable that I make no apology for returning to the subject of the Secretary of State for Communities, Ruth Kelly, about whom I wrote last week. On that occasion, Ms Kelly was in trouble for removing her dyslexic son from the state education system, where she cut thousands of special needs places during her short period as education secretary.

Now, as my colleague Francis Elliott reveals on our news pages, Ms Kelly stands accused of preparing to give in to homophobic lobbying from Roman Catholic bishops. It seems that these worthies, who present themselves as champions of children's rights in their relentless campaign against abortion, would rather see kids remain in institutions than hand them over to same-sex adoptive parents. Faced with equality legislation that would make such discrimination illegal, they've lobbied the Government and found sympathetic listeners in the Prime Minister and Ms Kelly who - this is not a joke - is the cabinet minister responsible for equality. Despite opposition from more principled members of the Cabinet, this odd couple is minded to grant the bishops the exemption they are demanding, which would allow Catholic adoption agencies to show gay couples the door.

At this point, I can't resist pointing out that this is the same Catholic church which is fighting lawsuits all over the world as a consequence of failing to prevent decades of child sexual abuse by priests. In the American city of Boston, where a huge scandal came to light seven years ago, the archdiocese has paid out $85m in compensation. Three years ago, a report commissioned by the American Catholic church admitted that more than 10,000 children, most boys, had been abused by priests. In this country, a damning inquiry into abuse in the Catholic church published in 2001 called for strict measures to root out sex offenders and prevent paedophiles entering the priesthood.

A year earlier, the church's current head, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, was criticised for his handling of a scandal involving a paedophile priest; the cardinal was responsible for appointing Friar Michael Hill as a chaplain at Gatwick airport, despite concerns about his conduct towards children. Hill eventually served three and a half years in prison for nine sex attacks, including one on a boy with learning difficulties whom he met at the Gatwick chapel.

If I were thinking about how best to promote the welfare of children in need of adoptive parents, I certainly wouldn't take much notice of an organisation with such a scandalous record. No doubt Ms Kelly takes a different view, but then she would: she's a devout Catholic, and in a sane world that would disqualify her from taking decisions which might provide special treatment to an organisation of which she is a member.

Those of us with a surer grasp of morality are entitled to explain to Ms Kelly that for the second time in a month she faces something called a conflict of interest, and the Prime Minister's support cannot alter that fact. If she gives in to the bishops, Ms Kelly will be open to accusations of homophobia, denying children a loving home for doctrinaire reasons and making a mockery of the Government's commitment to equality. If she doesn't, she'll be in trouble with her spiritual advisers. What else will it take to persuade the minister that she's in the wrong job?

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