Religion with a ghastly past
I am married to a Catholic and have allowed our two children to be brought up in that faith. We are a free-thinking zone because I am a deity sceptic. Yet I have to acknowledge that there are many wonderful people in the Church, both priests and laity, who do brilliant work selflessly to improve the lives of others. It continues to amaze me that they have been so silent and passive on the question of child abuse and the way the Catholic Church has sought to avoid prosecution of abuser priests while protecting the good name of the "one true faith".
It is now apparent that the abuse was very widespread, indeed, global, and over many decades. The strategy for dealing with this has been consistent over the same period, with the result that thousands of children must have been abused as a direct consequence of the policy of the Church. It is simply not believable that Joseph Ratzinger was unaware of this and he has, as a man in a very senior position of responsibility, a case to answer in our courts.
I would like to thank the officials in the Foreign Office for providing an excellent agenda around which ordinary people can base demonstrations when Ratzinger hits town. I don't think it is unreasonable for us to expect a little give and take on such a visit and we should remind this man that in this country we have fought for many freedoms supported by most of the population.
A few of them include a woman's right of sovereignty over her own body; a right to birth control; equal opportunities for all regardless of sexual orientation, sex, faith or race; sovereignty of the laws of the United Kingdom and freedom of scientific research within carefully considered ethical parameters.
These freedoms have not created a perfect society but one in which progress might be made towards a better future, not the ghastly past of repression, misogyny and intolerance.
Christian evangelists remind heathen lost souls like me that we cannot hope to cope with the stresses and traumas of modern life because we do not have grace to see us through.
This is the same grace which enabled the saints, under the Romans, to suffer their hideous martyrdoms with picturesque equanimity. One assumes that the same divine strength was granted, in more recent history, to Christians cruelly and ingeniously put to death by other Christians.
Yet today Christians insist that the heathen should respect their thin skins and tender feelings. Martyrdom has been downgraded from disembowelment or being eaten by lions or burning at the stake to the horrors of a bit of impertinent (though arguably pertinent) satirical teasing.
It hardly recommends to us the faith that claims to move mountains.
As a cradle Catholic like Catherine Pepinster ("The FO holds Catholicism in cultural contempt", 26 April) I find the the Foreign Office gaffe mildly amusing. As I remember it, "brainstorming" as an aid to making decisions has only two conditions: think whatever you like and avoid thinking you are a fool for thinking it. The whole thing should be in confidence, lest the propagator of ludicrous ideas should become known.
No doubt the offensive contribution would have had people falling about, Catholic and non-Catholic. It would be the effect of excessive merriment that allowed the boundaries to be breached and the joke to be circulated.
Ash Vale, Surrey
Despite the apologies, the list could be either evidence of a joke in poor taste, which in other large institutions might draw the attention of the diversity guardians, or show that recent generations, despite being taught about a wider range of religions, actually have only a vague knowledge of the issues relating to Catholicism.
The FO should be ashamed of making a formal apology to the Vatican, because the memo contained references to basic human rights all legal in the UK. Why is the FO apologising for UK government policy to a religious body that is contemptuous of these same human rights?
I would think the Foreign Office should be apologising to the British people for not supporting UK policy, and instead pandering to the prejudices of this religious organisation.
Judging by their suggestions for the Pope's visit here, those Foreign Office types are clearly much more fun than I have previously been led to believe. I just can't wait to see their ideas for any proposed visit by the Supreme Leader of Iran.
If civil servants have time to spend making adolescent suggestions about what the Pope might do in his forthcoming visit, haven't they got too much time on their hands? An obvious target for efficiency savings, I'd say.
Haskayne, West Lancashire
Clegg is making a tactical error
Nick Clegg is wrong to rule out supporting Labour if they come third in the popular vote. With the parties so close, there will be massive tactical voting with a high proportion of votes cast against parties rather than for parties. First-past-the-post will make it impossible to determine the real will of the electorate from the results.
Clegg and the Lib Dems should support the party that will deliver the best mix of their most important policies, starting with proportional representation. This can only be Labour.
Nick Clegg's demand for electoral reform as his price of propping up a government, and not just moderate reform but nothing less than full-scale proportional representation, should not be regarded as a plus in his favour.
Yes, the present system has many unfairnesses, and yes, the Liberal Democrats have a valid complaint that it has kept them permanently out of power. But the cure that's worse than the disease would be a system which puts the same party permanently into power.
For all people's hostility to politicians and governments, they have always had one great perception: that they can actually boot out a government every so often. This may be crude, but it's the supreme safety valve that enables a constitutional democracy to keep functioning without coups and civil wars.
Astonishingly, the Liberal Democrats present their demand as a matter of principle, but even the Conservatives' adherence to the present system is a lot more principled than that.
In pondering "what it would take for the Liberal Democrats to win South West Surrey", Julian Gall suggests that "it would be remarkable, on historical performance, for the Lib Dems to do so well" (letter, 22 April).
Not so remarkable. In 1997, the Tory majority over Lib Dem was 2,694. In 2001, it was a mere 861. In 2005, it was 5,711. To win the seat, the Lib Dem candidate, Mike Simpson, needs a swing of just over 5 per cent, about half the swing achieved by the Lib Dem candidate in 1997.
The Liberal Democrats have been in close contention in South-west Surrey for three consecutive general elections. For them to win this time is certainly not beyond the range of possible outcomes.
Foreign help to glorify England
On Thursday, 22 April, I had the great pleasure of attending a concert organised by the Royal British Legion in celebration of England's patron saint at St George's Church, Hanover Square, London, and a most enjoyable event it was too.
The programme was designed around St George's flag (Turkish martyr, his emblem the instrument of execution of a Palestinian Jew). The Deputy Lord Mayor of Westminster, Frances Blois (Norman-French surname) was conducted to her seat.
The choir sang music by Handel (German, naturalised English), we heard a poem by George Herbert (Welsh), we sang that most evocative of English hymns, "I vow to thee my country" with words by Cecil Spring Rice (American) and music by Gustav Holst (Swedish family via Russia and Latvia).
Despite all this terrible foreign influence, the occasion was proudly English. It gave the best possible rebuff to all those racial purists who claim St George and his flag for their own.
Exams can fail our children
Professor Roger Murphy's warning of the dangerous reliance on exam results reminds us that judging pupil's abilities is a tricky task ("Don't trust exam results, says marking expert", 22 April). The broad brushstrokes of success and failure at GCSE and A-level can serve only to pigeon-hole pupils unfairly. There are other very valid factors that should be taken into account when assessing young people's abilities, such as practical and vocational learning and achieving vocational qualifications.
The purely academic route suits some but it would be naive to think it fitted everyone. A mixture of academic, practical and vocational learning would allow a wider breadth of assessment and keep education accessible and relevant to all.
Encouragingly, there are signs that a wider range of options is being offered to young people, including the new University Technical Colleges. It is vital that youthful talent is nurtured, not restricted by a narrow, singular way of assessment.
Lord Baker of Dorking
Chairman, Edge, the independent education foundation, London NW1
Bridget Goodwin's daughter has indeed shown wisdom beyond her years. (letter, 23 April). By saying "Why have we done all that work if we're not going to do Sats?" she has summed up the whole problem concisely.
Many children now believe they go to school to pass exams. The idea that they may be there for an education is irrelevant. While not totally divergent, the two aims are most certainly not similar.
Most of us use the English and mathematical knowledge from school every day. Geography, history, science and foreign languages all make life better, easier and more interesting. Practical subjects such as woodwork and cookery are vital to running our homes, and how many of us ever play as much sport after leaving education?
When I was at school, I thought that trying to divert the lesson with a red herring was subversive. Only when I became a teacher did I learn that such occasions bring the opportunity to discuss the world in a spontaneous and exciting way, enjoyed by all the class, and to their benefit.
Middle Handley, Sheffield
Plot thickens on tar sands
The resolution calling on BP to disclose more information about its £1.5bn "Sunrise" tar sands project in Canada ("Oil giants on sticky ground", Business, 16 April) is backed by a campaign calling for a review of the environmentally controversial plan. One hopes that the review will include a "Total Energy Analysis"/ "Gross Energy Requirement" component to assess the feedback between energy inputs and outputs when assessing the viability of this "unconventional" energy reserve.
The exploitation of tar sands (aka oil shales) as an energy resource has been considered to be one of the best illustrations of the discrepancy which can exist between energy and financial viability. Many years ago, an article in Business Week ("Shale Oils High-Risk Future", 28 April 1975) stated: "In the past, each time that the price of oil went up, shale oil companies promptly declared that their time had finally come... now, companies which once said shale oil would be profitable at $5 then $7.50 then $11 a barrel are hard-pressed to name any figure at all."
The application of energy analysis techniques by Peter Chapman to this quandary, suggested that, "the price escalation could be explained by a very high energy input per unit of energy output". Has this been included in BP's estimates that the $45 to $90 tar sand extraction cost will make economic sense with oil prices expected to be between $60 and $90 over the coming decade? Or is history repeating itself? If BP have developed more energy-efficient extraction techniques, they can be included in the proposed review.
Dr David Bartlett
Ilkley, West Yorkshire
God to take rap?
We have been hearing a lot about an "act of God" in relation to the volcanic dust. When some other "natural" crisis happens later because of climate change caused by man, will God still be responsible? What do the insurers say?
Liz Hoggard notes that Last weekend she was in the Uffizi, in Florence, gazing at Michelangelo's David (26 April). She may need to make another visit because the David is housed in the Galleria dell'Accademia, with a copy on display outside the Palazzo Vecchio.
Newtownabbey, Co Antrim
Much ado about ...
Using Shakespeare to prove that education was better some 400 years ago is like using Stephen Hawking to prove how good it is now (letters, 24 April). Shakespeare's own Constable Elbow didn't know the difference between detest and protest or benefactors and malefactors. Shakespeare knew that then, as now, standards of education varied widely.
Perspectives on cancer treatment: Costs dilemma that dogs NHS
I am a cancer specialist in Sheffield, lead clinician for the North Trent Cancer Network, and a national clinical adviser on radiotherapy to the Cancer Action Team, and I could not agree more with Jeremy Laurance (21 April).
His point about cancer registries is spot on; even in Western Europe the quality of data in some national registries is appalling. Second, most of the problems we have with cancer survival are due to patients presenting with advanced disease rather than through deficiencies in diagnosis and treatment. Finally, the "vital cancer drugs" that David Cameron is demanding be made more freely available are not what people think they are.
Drugs such as Sutent for kidney cancer are not only expensive (£40,000 a year per patient) but actually translate only into an improved survival for one individual patient of about three months.
Sutent is a useful drug, far better than what was previously available, but it can be very toxic (some of its side-effects can be life-threatening) so, an average course of Sutent being 18 months and costing the taxpayer £60,000, is the benefit really that great? Could that £60,000 be used better elsewhere, perhaps in oncology or possibly in other parts of the NHS which have not had the prominence of cancer medicine in recent years?
My personal opinion is that as the recession bites we need to reprioritise; public expectations, particularly for cancer treatments, are now way too high. So should the money Mr Cameron wants to be spent on new cancer drugs be better spent on preventative oncology, dementia services, mental illness etc, or perhaps in other ways that benefit the NHS more as a whole?
Ultimately, the most productive investments in the NHS will be those that prevent illness, reduce demand, or allow diseases to present at a stage where they can be effectively treated, which not only improves stats such as those which Mr Cameron is keen to quote, but also would lead to reductions in costs of investigations and treatments.
Dr Peter Kirkbride