Monthly Archives: March 2011

Why are bishops still writing our laws – and why is Nick Clegg about to make it worse?

Here’s a Trivial Pursuit question with an answer that isn’t at all trivial. Which two nations still reserve places in their parliaments for unelected religious clerics, who then get an automatic say in writing the laws the country’s citizens must obey? The answer is Iran… and Britain.

In 2011, the laws that bind all Brits are voted on by 26 Protestant bishops in the House of Lords who say they are there to represent the Will of God. They certainly aren’t there to represent the will of the people: 74 per cent of us told a recent ICM poll the bishops should have to stand for election like everybody else if they want to be in parliament. These men use their power to relentlessly fight against equality for women and gay people, and to deny you the right to choose a peaceful and dignified death when the time comes.

And here’s the strangest kicker in this strange story: it looks like the plans being drawn up by the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, now Deputy Prime Minister in coalition with Conservative David Cameron, to “modernise” the House of Lords will not listen to the overwhelming majority of us and end these religious privileges. No – they are poised to do the opposite. Sources close to the reform team say they are going to add even more unelected religious figures to parliament. These plans are being drawn up as you read this and will be published soon. The time to fight is today, while we can still sway the agenda.

But let’s step back a moment and look at how all this came to pass. The bishops owe their places in parliament to a serial killer. Henry VIII filled parliament with bishops because they were willing to give a religious seal of approval to him divorcing and murdering his wives – and they have lingered on through the centuries since, bragging about their own moral superiority at every turn.

Pore through the history books and you’ll find they opposed almost all of the progressive changes in our history. The Suffragettes regarded them as such relentless enemies of equality for women they set fire to two of their churches. In 1965, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury scorned the people who were campaigning for nuclear-armed countries to step back from the brink, on the grounds that “a nuclear war would involve nothing more than the transition of many millions of people into the love of God, only a few years before they were going to find it anyway”. In 2008, his successor, Rowan Williams, said it would be helpful if shariah law – with all its vicious misogyny, which says that women are worth half of a man – was integrated into British family courts.

Today, the bishops claim they are really motivated by concern for the poor and vulnerable. But which two bills have brought them out to vote in largest numbers in recent years? The first was to vote against the Equality Bill, which finally criminalised discrimination against gay people in the provision of services to the public. The bishops rallied and railed to keep it legal for people to effectively hang signs saying “No Gays” outside their shops, charities and hotels. They even threatened to shut down services helping the poor if they were required to give them to gay people – suggesting their much bragged-about opposition to poverty is pretty shallow.

The bishops’ second greatest passion is to prevent you from being able to choose to end your suffering if you are dying. Some 81 per cent of British people believe that if you are terminally ill and can’t bear to live any longer in an agony that won’t cease, you should be allowed to ask a doctor to help you end it. If you believe this is “evil” – as the bishops do – that’s fine: you can choose to stay alive to the bitter end, no matter how awful the pain becomes. That’s your right. But for the bishops, that’s not enough. They want to impose their conviction on the rest of us. They don’t even speak for their own followers: the polling consistently finds huge majorities of Christians support euthanasia too.

The bishops didn’t turn out to protect the poor and vulnerable. They turned out to hurt them. The Right Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth declares he is there to show “Parliament is accountable not only to the electorate but to God”. This is a surreal situation: Britain is one of the most blessedly irreligious societies on Earth, yet we are on a lonely shelf with Iran in handing a chunk of our parliament to clerics. The British Social Attitudes Survey, the most detailed study of public opinion, found that 59 per cent of us say we are not religious. And remember: even 70 per cent of Protestant Christians say it’s wrong for the bishops to have these seats.

Nick Clegg promised before the election he would introduce a 100 per cent elected House of Lords – which would obviously mean an end to the bishops’ privileges there. Yet now people close to him say he is going for only 80 per cent elected, with the bishops remaining on the undemocratic benches. And it gets worse. People close to him whisper he is planning to add even more unelected religious figures: an imam, the chief rabbi, and others, in pursuit of the multiculturalism the Prime Minister just disowned. So we may soon have the bizarre sight of an atheist Deputy Prime Minister expanding the number of unelected religious figures in our parliament in the name of “modernisation”.

Last week, David Cameron gave a speech telling British Muslims – rightly – that they had to support “equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality… This is what defines us as a society. To belong here is to believe in these things”. Yet he has been a key defender behind the scenes of retaining the bishops in parliament, even though they explicitly oppose “equal rights regardless or race, sex, or sexuality.” They refuse to allow women to hold the top jobs in their organisation. They demanded an opt-out from laws banning discrimination against gay people, to allow individuals to express their “conscience” – a loophole so large it would render the law meaningless. Using Cameron’s logic, they oppose “what defines us as a society” and do not “belong here”, yet he is keeping them in a position of great unelected power. It seems his “muscular liberalism” only applies to people with brown skins.

The atheists and secularists who are campaigning for democracy are consistently branded “arrogant” by the bishops and their noisy cheerleaders. But who is arrogant here? Is it atheists who say that since we have no evidence about how the universe came into being, we should be humble, admit we don’t know, and keep investigating? Or is it the bishops, who claim that they not only “know” how everything was created, but they know exactly what that Creator thinks, how he wants us to have sex, and which pills we can take when we are dying? What could be more arrogant than claiming you have a right to an unelected seat in parliament to impose beliefs for which there is no evidence on an unbelieving population?

None of this has to happen. We do not have to accept our laws being formulated by people we did not choose and do not support. But Nick Clegg needs to be pressured, fast. He has spent the last nine months shedding every principle he ever espoused. Is he now even going to abandon his atheism, and give the forces of organised religion yet more power over us? Mr Clegg, in the name of the God you and I don’t believe in – step back from the bishops.

To join the campaign against this, join, volunteer for or donate to the National Secular Society or the British Humanist Association who are leading the fight-back.

Johann Hari | 18th February 2011

French debate on secularism and religion “could fuel prejudice”

Leaders of the six main religions in France have warned the government against a planned debate on Islam they say could stigmatise Muslims and fuel prejudice as the country approaches national elections next year.

Weighing in on an issue that is tearing apart president Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, the Conference of French Religious Leaders yesterday said the discussion about respect for France’s secular system could only spread confusion at a turbulent time.

The UMP plans to hold a public forum on secularism next week that critics decry as thinly veiled Muslim-bashing aimed at winning back voters who defected to the far-right National Front at local polls last week.

Mr Sarkozy’s allies are split over the populist strategy, with moderates such as prime minister François Fillon publicly opposing what they see as the UMP’s drift to the far right.

Stressing that faith should foster social harmony, the religious leaders said the debate could “cloud this perspective and incite confusion that can only be prejudicial”.

“Is a political party, even if it is in the majority, the right forum to lead this by itself?” they asked in a rare joint statement.

The statement was signed by the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox Christian and Buddhist faiths. UMP party leader Jean-François Cope rejected accusations of fear-mongering, saying the debate about how the secular system is respected in practice would ensure equality for all faiths.

News Scotsman | Tom Heneghan | 31 March 2011

Spain is still a very Roman Catholic country, but times are changing

Few Spaniards go to weekly mass, though the church retains a powerful influence

It has produced the world-conquering Jesuits, the mysteriously powerful Opus Dei and, of course, the Spanish inquisition. But is Spain a nation of ardent, rosary-clutching Roman Catholics?

On one level it is. Three-quarters of Spaniards define themselves as Catholics, with only one in 40 who follow some other religion. Movements such as Opus Dei and the Neocatechumenal Way (whose followers are known in Spain as kikos after founder Kiko Argüello) are popular.

Yet the country’s seminaries, monasteries and nunneries are half-empty (or, in some cases, closed). And only 15% of Spanish Catholics attend mass every week. More than 60% rarely step foot inside a church. The Vatican, meanwhile, has lost the battle on attitudes to sex and contraception.

That has not stopped the church, which runs an extensive network of schools, from getting involved in politics. A radio station it part-owns, the Cope, is a ferocious critic of the socialist government and the faithful have been called out to protest against laws on divorce, abortion and gay marriage.

The Spanish Inquisition formally wound up its work in 1834. As for Opus Dei, two ministers in the conservative People’s party governments between 1996 and 2004 were reportedly members. There are none reported in the current socialist government, unlike Tony Blair’s Labour cabinet – where Ruth Kelly admitted receiving “spiritual support” from Opus Dei.

The Guardian | Giles Tremlett | Thursday 31 March 2011

Charges against Pope for crimes against humanity

TWO GERMAN lawyers have initiated charges against Pope Benedict XVI at the International Criminal Court, alleging crimes against humanity.

Christian Sailer and Gert-Joachim Hetzel, based at Marktheidenfeld in the Pope’s home state of Bavaria, last week submitted a 16,500-word document to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at the Hague, Dr Luis Moreno Ocampo.

Their charges concern “three worldwide crimes which until now have not been denounced . . . (as) the traditional reverence toward ‘ecclesiastical authority’ has clouded the sense of right and wrong”.

They claim the Pope “is responsible for the preservation and leadership of a worldwide totalitarian regime of coercion which subjugates its members with terrifying and health-endangering threats”.

They allege he is also responsible for “the adherence to a fatal forbiddance of the use of condoms, even when the danger of HIV-Aids infection exists” and for “the establishment and maintenance of a worldwide system of cover-up of the sexual crimes committed by Catholic priests and their preferential treatment, which aids and abets ever new crimes”.

They claim the Catholic Church “acquires its members through a compulsory act, namely, through the baptism of infants that do not yet have a will of their own”. This act was “irrevocable” and is buttressed by threats of excommunication and the fires of hell.

It was “a grave impairment of the personal freedom of development and of a person’s emotional and mental integrity”. The Pope was “responsible for its preservation and enforcement and, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of his Church, he was jointly responsible” with Pope John Paul II.

Catholics “threatened by HIV-AIDS . . . are faced with a terrible alternative: If they protect themselves with condoms during sexual intercourse, they become grave sinners; if they do not protect themselves out of fear of the punishment of sin threatened by the church, they become candidates for death.”

There was also “strong suspicion that Dr Joseph Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of his church and as Pope, has up to the present day systematically covered up the sexual abuse of children and youths and protected the perpetrators, thereby aiding and abetting further sexual violence toward young people”.

The Irish Times | PATSY McGARRY |  Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Pope Accountability

On the Internet site the possibility is now offered to read the charges in book form, to download it free of charge, or to order the book.

Of particular importance is the fact that as many people as possible lend weight to the  concerns of the charges through their support.

Under the heading “Do You Approve” on the website it is possible to add your signature to this effort.

We would like to deliver as many signatures as possible to the Prosecutor at the  International Criminal Court in The Hague.

In the meantime, internationally well-known attorneys, who have represented hundreds of victims of child abuse, have directly contacted the Prosecutor at the ICC in support of our charges under the following adress:

To the Prosecutor
The International Criminal Court
Dr. Luis Moreno Ocampo
Maanweg, 174
NL-2516 AB Den Haag

File number:  OTP-CR-48/11

We know that some people may consider this procedure to be symbolic.
However, in contrast to many other courts of justice, the International Criminal Court in The Hague is not deterred in its prosecution of an offender even when the offender claims immunity as a “head of state.”
For this reason, there is a real chance that the Prosecutor at the ICC will initiate investigations against Joseph Ratzinger.
This chance will, of course, be greatly enhanced the more people express with their signatures the fact that the crimes of child abuse by Joseph Ratzinger’s Catholic Church present a monumental problem worldwide and that it is their hope that investigations will be initiated against Joseph Ratzinger.

Please share this information and the websites with your friends and all concerned. We are very grateful for your support.

Christian Sailer
Gert Hetzel

Verlag Sailer & Hetzel

Survivors Voice Europe inauguration

Conway Hall, 26 March 2011

Building on alliances consolidated during the demonstrations around the Pope’s visit and a later  demonstration at the Vatican itself, Survivors Voice Europe was inaugurated in Conway Hall on Saturday, 26 March 2011. The two American founders of Survivors’ Voice came to tell their story and give their support. We wish the new organisation every success.

Even when those leading the organisation spoke, the trauma they had endured was painfully evident. Despite the passage of decades since the abuse ceased and many years speaking out, most still could not do so without obviously fighting back tears. All were adamant that, even now, the Church does not care and is only interested in damage limitation. And this view remained after having spoken to bishops, archbishops, cardinals and the Pope himself. Indeed the most damning comments were about the Pope’s cynical handling of the press and even more of meetings with child abuse survivors where promises were made that were never kept. The fast tracking by Benedict of his predecessors’ beatification – with the abandoning of the usual five-year minimum rule – drew particular contempt. It was seen as a desperate attempt to close down enquiry into JP II’s questionable record, and – in so doing – to Cardinal Ratzinger’s activities during his pontificate.

What was so striking about the people leading this organisation is that they are just ordinary decent people who have had enough. They are not publicity seekers; they just want to do whatever they can to try to prevent what nearly destroyed their lives destroying those of others. It was also evident how much courage it had taken declare what they have suffered. But it was also clear that abuse survivors derived immense solace from each other. That they talk of an instant bond in such circumstances is, sadly, also testimony to the extent to which their experiences dominate their lives, even in some cases half a century later. They spoke of such experiences transforming them from victims into survivors, a hugely positive psychological step.

But for those who have not shared their experiences, it must be even worse – as the suicide, crime and mental and physical breakdown statistics show all too clearly. One man who was later to become one of the American founders was so afraid, even as an adult, of his devoutly religious family’s reaction, that he “came out” by letter, telling them that in the next few days the story would break in the press. Having written the letter, he went to the airport and flew to the furthest place he could. It later turned out that his father had been abused too, and that it had sullied his life. The other co-founder feared that taking on the church would ruin his business – it pretty well did. But he is also convinced that had he not faced up to the truth, he would have died by now from drink or drugs. Both testified that the abuse had hugely undermined their ability to be able to form and sustain relationships, and their ability to trust others.

One of the European organisers spoke of his time in Opus Dei. He said it was like a 19th-century secret society. Potential members were identified around the age of 11, when their preparation started for admission as aspirants at 14. From this age, they were progressively isolated from their families, whose role was insidiously replaced by the organisation and a nominated father substitute who took down and preserved in meticulous detail the aspirant’s personal thoughts. This organiser said he was even required to transfer to an Opus Dei doctor, who, when he left the Order refused to transfer his medical records. The organiser said that, despite denials, Opus Dei members still use a cilice (metal chain with barbs worn around the upper thigh for a couple of hours at a time) and knotted string to whip themselves. The aspirants are forbidden from taking the sadistic instruments home, or for discussing with their parents what happens within Opus Dei.

Apart from the Pope’s strategic attempts, noted above, to close down investigations into his predecessors pontificate, the greatest concern was for those parts of the world where abuse that is surely happening, but is not yet in the public eye such as Africa, the Far East and South America. But that does not mean to say that there is not still a huge amount to come out in countries where abuse is already known. David Greenwood, a Yorkshire solicitor was adamant that the hundred abuse cases he is dealing with are just the tip of the iceberg, even in this country. He felt that, for many, opening up the wounds was just too painful. Nor can the attitude of the Church help; David has gone on record as saying that, still now, the Church fights every case tooth and nail. Even after a hundred cases, David admits to being shocked anew by the depths of depravity to which abusers and their protectors stoop.

What has motivated the organisers to endure still more pain in bringing their suffering to the public’s attention is a determination to break the cycle of abuse in the future: for today’s children and future generations, all over the world. And they have made a very good start.

Encouraging individuals to bring cases and demand compensation is a major priority, with the added bonus of the publicity this brings the cause. Publicity will also follow from public demonstrations. Both should encourage others to come forward, helping them to become survivors rather than victims. Keith Porteous Wood urged the organisers to designate a formal national day for catholic abuse survivors, worldwide.

As well as pursuing individual cases, David Greenwood suggests Survivors Voice’ strategy should be to maximise publicity. He also wants the Church to be challenged as an institution up to the very highest levels; and he has some promising avenues in mind. Keith is well advanced with challenges at the United Nations. He had recently returned from making his third intervention at the United Nations Human Rights Council. After his first intervention, in 2009, the Vatican representative had sought to pardon the unpardonable and spawned a media frenzy around the world – fifty articles, none of them favourable to the Church.

This time Keith presented a powerful report demonstrating that his earlier accusations of the Church having broken multiple Articles of the UN Convention of the Child had now been endorsed by Geoffrey Robertson QC. On the basis of his intervention, Keith had been invited to meet officials at the UN High Commission and this had opened up promising new lines of challenge. “This is not the end, it is the beginning” he told the enthusiastic audience.

National Secular Society | 29th March 2011

Out of the shadows

Original Video – More videos at TinyPic

During the event in Rome in October 2010, Italian photographer Silvia Amodio started her “Out of the shadows” project.

The project consists of a series of photographs of survivors and their testimonies.
Initially it was started for a publication in the Italian issue of Marie-Claire, which came out in February this year, but working on this subject made Silvia decide to hand over the material to Survivors Voice Europe to be on display at their events all over the world.

At the Rome event more than 30 survivors were photographed and a selection of these pictures and testimonies have been mounted into a multimedia video. Silvia continues to follow Survivors Voice Europe at their events and new pictures will be added.

BHA: Government concerns with creationism need to be translated into strong action

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has welcomed Government statements that ‘teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact’. However, the BHA has warned that without concrete actions, there remains a risk that groups with extreme religious agendas, including those with a creationist outlook, might be eligible to run state-maintained free schools and academies.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education stated yesterday that ‘the education secretary is crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact. Ministers have said they will not accept any proposal where there are concerns about the people behind the project.’ Groups setting up new free schools in the UK will be vetted to ensure that they have ‘strong education aims’ and ‘high curriculum standards’.

The remarks are consistent with other assurances from the Government. In the BHA’s meeting with the schools minister, Nick Gibb MP, he was unequivocal that, the Government feel that creationism has no place in science lessons. The Government has also established a ‘due diligence unit’ to screen applications for proposals that would teach religious extremism, including views such as creationism.

However, despite these welcome statements, it remains to be seen how free schools will be prevented from teaching children creationism, ‘intelligent design’, or other religious myths in science, or from failing to teach evolution.

As free schools and academies are free to opt out of the National Curriculum they are not covered by Government guidance issued in 2007 which makes it clear that creationism and intelligent design are not scientific theories, and so cannot be taught in science lessons, as they have ‘no underlying scientific principles, or explanations, and are not accepted by the scientific community as a whole’.

When free schools were first proposed, the BHA warned of the attractiveness of these schools to ‘faith’ groups, including those with extreme religious views. These concerns have been realised, with many applications coming from religious groups, including from those such as  the Everyday Champions Church (ECC), which pledges to teach evolution in science but ‘as a theory’.

Education Campaigns Officer Jenny Pennington commented: ‘Without strict guidance against the teaching of creationism in science for free schools, as well as a robust, transparent method of ensuring that no groups with extremist views are able to establish free schools, the Government’s pledges are less than reassuring.’

‘Whilst we support the Government’s efforts to prevent the teaching of creationism, the fact remains that free schools will be able to neglect to teach the theory of evolution in science and can relegate one of the most important concepts in science  to just ‘a theory’. In addition, by allowing ‘faith’ groups, to run state schools the government risks funding institutions that teach evolution in one lesson and then completely undermine these teachings with confessional religious education lessons that teach the opposite.

‘In addition, we will be asking the government in our response to its review of the National Curriculum to make teaching of evolution compulsory from primary level. We are committed to working with  government, scientists and science organizations, educationalists and our supporters in parliament, to ensure that all children have access to good quality science education.’


The Government’s comments on creationism are reported by the Guardian. The article can be accessed here.

British Humanist Association | 22 March 2011

NSS Director slams Vatican failures over child abuse at UN Human Rights Council

The NSS’s Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood make a forthright attack on the Catholic Church’s deplorable record on child abuse at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday 15 March.

Keith was acting in the capacity of international representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which does a great deal of excellent work at the UN on a wide variety of areas, for example on children’s and women’s rights and freedom of expression.

Watch on YouTube

Keith pointed out to the plenary session of the Council that Geoffrey Robertson QC’s book The Case of the Pope alleged that the Church had broken six Articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, thus confirming the accusations that Keith had previously made at the UN – in September 2009 and March 2010.

Keith called attention to the fact that when he made similar accusations at the Council on 22 September 2009, the Papal Nuncio did not deny them, but had claimed that a report, then twelve years overdue, was being “finalised as we speak”. It still remains to be filed. Among other “justifications”, the nuncio informed the Council that as many as 5% of Catholic clergy could be involved. (If true, that would equate to approximately 20,000 clergy involved in child abuse). He added that offenders can be dismissed under Canon Law.

Keith reported some key points from Robertson’s book, including his withering analysis of why the abuse continued unabated. Keith repeated Robertson’s conviction that “the scourge of child abuse within the Church itself had for many years gone unpunished as a result of the procedural deficiencies of Canon Law, the selfish desire to protect the Church from scandal by harbouring and trafficking paedophile priests, and the negligent supervision of bishops by the Holy See through its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith office, headed for the previous two decades by Cardinal Ratzinger.”

Keith said he half expected to be called to order during his speech, or at least have the representative of the Holy See or some compliant Catholic country make an objection. He thought the most likely triggers were him naming Cardinal Ratzinger and repeating Robertson’s conclusion: “The Holy See’s grave and extensive breaches of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its contempt for its reporting obligations over the past thirteen years, should … justify its expulsion.”

Fortunately, he was not interrupted and the chair later said in response to a member state’s objection to another NGOs intervention that, in effect, sometimes it was only the NGOs who were prepared to confront member states with uncomfortable material.

For good measure, Keith drew attention to two “smoking gun” letters which have recently come to light, written by the senior members of the Church’s hierarchy. One was from Rome to the Bishop of Tucson and the other was from the Papal Nuncio to the bishops of Ireland. One, for example, contains the damning phrase “under no condition whatever ought the [personnel] files be surrendered to any lawyer or judge whatsoever”. Their crucial significance is that they point the finger directly at the Vatican as the source of instructions to cover up abuse by priests. This is in stark contrast to the Vatican’s standard rebuttal in which they seek to blame local bishops.

The UN itself did not escape unscathed from Keith’s intervention. He drew the Council’s attention to another target of Robertson’s criticism: “It is a serious reflection on the competence and resolve of the ‘eighteen experts of high moral standing’ who have been elected to the Committee on the Rights of the Child that they have done and said nothing about the Vatican’s thirteen-year failure to deliver a report, during the period when widespread child abuse by its priests has been extensively publicized.”

Keith concluded by calling once more upon the Human Rights Council and the Committee on the Rights of the Child to hold the Holy See to account for:

  • its breach of its obligations under the CRC;
  • its disregard for its duty of care to the abused children;
  • its systematic cover-up of thousands of cases of abuse; and
  • its failure to adequately control those put in positions of trust with children.

Read a full transcript of the speech

Read the written statement

Read the links within the statement to key media reports

While in Geneva, Keith participated in other key meetings and took up an invitation to visit the UN High Commission at the Palais Wilson to meet officials to discuss these matters further. We pay particular tribute to the work at the UNHRC of Roy Brown and Jack Jeffery of IHEU – both, as it happens, also NSS life members.

Also at the Human Rights Council this week, IHEU delivered another stinging rebuke on the topic of “Defamation of Religion”. Read the story in full

See also: Making the church face up to the truth of child abuse

National Secular Society | Fri, 18 Mar 2011

European Court of Human Rights rules crucifixes are allowed in state schools

Strasbourg judgment overturns 2009 ruling that crucifixes violate secular principles, calling them an ‘essentially passive symbol’

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that crucifixes are acceptable in the continent’s state school classrooms, describing them as an “essentially passive symbol” with no obvious religious influence. In its judgment, handed down in Strasbourg, the court found that while the crucifix was “above all a religious symbol” there was no evidence that its display on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils.

The ruling reverses their earlier, unanimous decision from 2009 in favour of a Finnish-born mother who said that state schools in the Italian town of Abano Terme, where she lives, refused to remove the Roman Catholic symbols from classrooms.

Soile Lautsi said the crucifix violated the secular principles that state schools were meant to uphold. The court agreed, saying children were entitled to freedom of religion and that although “encouraging” for some pupils, the crucifix could be “emotionally disturbing for pupils of other religions or those who profess no religion”.

It said the state had an obligation “to refrain from imposing beliefs, even indirectly, in places where persons are dependent on it or in places where they are particularly vulnerable”.

But the decision caused uproar in some European countries, especially Italy, which argued that the cross was a symbol of the continent’s cultural and historic roots.

Their interventions led to the grand chamber of 17 judges overturning the 2009 ruling. In their judgment they observed that “a crucifix on a wall was an essentially passive symbol whose influence on pupils was not comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”

They added there was nothing to suggest that “the [Italian] authorities were intolerant of pupils who believed in other religions, were non-believers or who held non-religious philosophical convictions.” Nor was there evidence that the presence of a crucifix had “encouraged the development of teaching practices with a proselytising tendency”.

Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, welcomed the verdict, declaring that “popular sentiment in Europe” had won.

All countries that are members of the Council of Europe will be required to obey the ruling.

The Guardian | Riazat Butt | Friday 18 March 2011

Some pressure on the judges of the European Court

In 2009 the ex-fascist Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa on the main national television channel: “Anyway we won’t remove the crucifix. They can die! The crucifix will remain in all school classrooms, in all public spaces. They can die! They can die, together with those fake international bodies. They don’t count at all.”

The Vatican Bank – Then and Now

What did Michele Sindona know about the death of Pope John Paul I?

Twenty-five years ago this morning, the most well-known banker in Italy finished his morning coffee, then began to scream “They have poisoned me!” An absurd thought, because he was at that moment safely confined in an Italian prison. But it turned out Michele Sindona was right; two days later, he was dead. The power associated with the Vatican Bank had struck again.

Michele Sindona, the Mafioso chosen by Pope Paul VI to advise the Vatican Bank


The Vatican Bank was established with a massive sum provided by the dictator Benito Mussolini in “payment” for the loss of Papal-owned territories 60 years earlier, when the inhabitants of those territories decided they would rather be part of a united Italy than continue to be ruled directly by the Pope. Its first director, a brilliant but unscrupulous financier named Bernardino Nogara, used those funds and others to control a substantial portion of Italian economic life, including the ownership of several banks, munitions factories, and Italy’s largest manufacturer of the contraceptive devices that were officially banned by the Church.

The Church’s insatiable demand for funds, particularly to finance its attempts to influence European politics in the postwar era, led the Bank to seek even greater profits by plunging into organized crime: evading Italian currency laws, laundering Mafia drug profits, and serving as a front for fraudulent securities schemes. In 1948, a Vatican official named Monsignor Edoardo Cippico was arrested and imprisoned for evading Italian currency controls through money-laundering operations at the Vatican Bank.

In 1968 Pope Paul VI selected as the Vatican’s chief financial advisor a man named Michele Sindona, a well-known Mafia banker who was later convicted of fraud, theft, perjury, and murder. In 1973, Sindona engineered the sale of the Banco Cattolica del Veneto, which had previously been owned by the Vatican, to the Banco Ambrosiano of Milan. The Cardinal of Venice was shocked and infuriated by this sale, for Banco Cattolica had for decades served as a “friendly” bank offering low-cost financial arrangements for the parishes of Venice. He immediately set out for Rome to demand a meeting with the Pope, in an attempt to undo the sale and to punish its perpetrators. He never got to see the Pope, though. He was shunted instead to Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the American who then ran the Vatican Bank, who not very politely asked “Eminence, don’t you have anything better to do?” “You can’t run the Church on Hail Marys,” Marcinkus is often quoted as saying. Intensely frustrated, the Cardinal closed all diocesan accounts at Banco Cattolica, and wrote an angry letter to its new Board demanding it remove the word “Cattolica” from its name.

By the late 1970s, the illegal activities of Sindona and the Vatican Bank were not a well-kept secret. Italian and even American investigators were sniffing around, getting closer and closer to the truth.

Even the Italian financial press was publishing editorials asking for the Pope to impose “order and morality” on his Bank, a secretive institution that according to insiders controlled over $10 billion of assets. The one airtight protection they had was the fact that the Vatican Bank operated inside the Vatican compound, which despite comprising only 108 acres is treated as a separate “country” whose institutions are not subject to the laws of Italy. Italy therefore had no authority to examine the records of the Bank.

Warrants were issued at different times for the arrest of Archbishop Marcinkus and two other senior Vatican Bank officials, but so long as they remained within the compound (as they did) there was nothing the Italian government could do. Even when Marcinkus once offered to give a videotaped deposition (as a “character witness”) for Michele Sindona, the Vatican forbade the proceeding only hours before it was to commence. The only thing that could go wrong would be for the Pope to order a housecleaning at the Vatican Bank, which Pope Paul VI certainly had no intention of undertaking.

The unraveling began on August 6, 1978, when Paul VI died. The College of Cardinals surprised everyone, especially Archbishop Marcinkus, in choosing a dark horse candidate as his replacement. It selected Albino Luciani, the Cardinal of Venice, whose favorite local bank Marcinkus and Sindona had spirited away just five years earlier. He took the name John Paul I.

Luciani: The worst possible new Pope for the Vatican Bank

Luciani was known as a kindly man, but he was not a forgetful man. Even if he had been, his memory might have been jogged when immediately after taking office he received a circular from Italy’s Office of Exchange Control warning of illegal activities involving transfers to the “foreign” Vatican Bank to violate the nation’s currency laws. According to David Yallop’s book In God’s Name: An Investigation Into the Murder of Pope John Paul I, Luciani quickly ordered an investigation of the Vatican Bank, and on the evening of September 28, 1978, after only 33 days on the job, he reviewed final drafts of documents approving sweeping changes, including the immediate replacement of Marcinkus. The next morning, Luciani was found dead. The changes at the Vatican Bank did not happen.

Would anyone really have had the audacity to murder the Pope in his bed? Yallop makes a highly persuasive argument that this is exactly what happened, and that Michele Sindona and his cronies are the leading suspects. A few months after the Pope’s mysterious death, Italian prosecutor Emilio Alessandrini began closing in on the facts of the Vatican Bank’s criminal activities; he was gunned down in the streets by men paid by Sindona. Alessandrini’s work was picked up by prosecutor Giorgio Ambrosoli; he was murdered too. Sindona even attempted to arrange the assassination of an American district attorney, John Kenney, who was cooperating with his Italian counterparts; nonetheless, he was convicted in the United States on 65 counts including fraud, perjury, and embezzlement.

Sindona’s political connections got him extradited back to Italy to stand trial for Ambrosolli’s murder; Sindona thought this would be a clever move, because it would be easier for him to wangle his way out of an Italian than an American prison. He miscalculated, though; on March 18, 1986, he was convicted and sentenced to life. With nothing left to lose, he began putting out the word that he was willing to tell what he knew, including about the death of the Pope, in exchange for his freedom. Two days later, his jailer handed him a cup of coffee, from which he never recovered. No one has ever been charged for Sindona’s murder.

'Perplexed and baffled'

The Vatican Bank wound up paying over $250 million to settle claims for over a billion dollars of losses of innocent depositors in a Milan bank that its crimes had helped to destroy. But that was then, this is now. Everything is clean and on the up-and-up today, right? Wrong. Just last fall, police seized over $30 million of Vatican Bank funds said to be involved in yet another money-laundering scheme. The official Vatican response is to be “perplexed and baffled” as to how this could happen.

What is truly perplexing and baffling is why the world allows the farce of pretending the Vatican to be an independent country to persist. Picture the Scientologists or the Southern Baptists announcing the formation of an “independent country” on a few acres of land in the middle of Washington, opening a bank there that is not subject to any regulation but their own, using that bank to fund criminal enterprise throughout America, and using the profits from those crimes to recruit more converts to build more political power to keep that bank alive. Someone please explain to me, slowly, why this would be OK.

Secular News Daily | 21st March 2011 |Luis Granados

Luis Granados is a Washington, DC attorney and a student of the scandals of religious history. His weekly God Experts blog relates a current headline or anniversary to a curious episode from the past. Someday, he will publish a book called Damned Good Company, a collection of stories of humanist heroes through the ages who bucked the prevailing God experts.

The rise of Europe’s religious right

Women’s rights, gay rights and healthcare are all under threat – the secular nature of the European project must be reaffirmed

Europe is generally regarded as the most secularised continent in the world. But in few EU member states is there a complete separation between church and state. The old interweaving of religious and worldly authority still makes itself felt in many countries today.

In England, the head of state is also titular governor of the church and bishops are members of the House of Lords. Finland and Denmark still have an official state religion, and in Greece up until recently, the Orthodox church was in charge of the public civil status register. Everywhere, churches maintain a firm grasp on education, the care and medical sectors, and the media. Churches have formal and informal positions of exception by law, which are sometimes used to refuse public services such as abortion or same-sex marriage, or to evade secular authority in cases of child abuse.

Europeans may take a sceptical view of political leaders who are too quick to express religious faith in public (while in the US an atheist president is virtually inconceivable), yet churches have a greater influence on politics than many people realise. The Vatican has a special position due to the highly centralised organisation and its status as a state.

Worryingly, religion is also increasingly making its presence felt in the corridors of the European Union – even though the EU was designed as a strictly secular project. The treaty of Lisbon includes article 17 on the dialogue of the EU institutions with churches and non-confessional organisations. This forms the basis for an annual summit of religious leaders with the leaders of the EU institutions. Secular organisations are largely ignored.

José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, and Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, have special high-level cabinet officials whose job it is to maintain relations with churches. The EU has official diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the most powerful lobby groups in Brussels.

Other religions also have representatives in Brussels, but they are less influential than the Roman Catholic church. Their collective influence is not to be underestimated, however. In addition, religions have influence from the pulpit, if necessary by threatening excommunication if politicians adopt standpoints that are at odds with official doctrine.

We are witnessing the emergence of the European equivalent to the “religious right” in the US. Areas affected by this rise include women’s rights, gay rights and sexual and reproductive health rights as well as healthcare (such as contraception, abortion, condoms and IVF). Freedom of expression is also affected, generally in the form of laws against blasphemy. Freedom of religion is often conceived as a collective right of religion to exempt itself from the law, particularly the EU fundamental rights.

Religious lobbies are, for example, highly active against the broad European anti-discrimination directive that is in the works. Under intense pressure from religious lobbies, the European commission was initially reluctant to table a directive by which discrimination against gay people could be combated.

Invoking religious freedom, the lobbies are negotiating exceptions to the ban on discrimination, including discrimination against gay people, or for the right of confessional schools to discriminate. In this way, discriminatory practices are effectively being written in stone, while the principle of equality is one of the explicit pillars of European unification.

The European commission scarcely dares to take action when member states invoke religious freedom to disregard EU-fundamental rights. For example, in the case of Lithuania, when a law was passed that bans the “promotion of homosexuality”, effectively rendering gay people invisible.

The controversial Hungarian media law also includes a paragraph of this type, which states that the media must show respect for marriage and the institution of family, whereby the government aims to constitutionally enshrine the definition of marriage as being between a man and woman. The new Hungarian media supervisor has already qualified public expressions of homosexuality as in conflict with these standards, and therefore potentially punishable under the new law. Discrimination of this type is clearly in conflict with the ban on discrimination in the EU treaties.

In the asylum and immigration legislation, religious lobbies are advocating for a conservative definition of “family” for purposes of “family reunification”, or against the recognition of homosexuality as grounds for seeking asylum.

The fight against HIV/Aids and the reduction of maternal mortality also form targets for the religious lobbies, which are attempting to impose their own sexual morals such as a ban on condoms.

This is abuse of freedom of religion, which was intended to protect the individual against oppression and coercion on the part of the regime. Religious organisations do not determine where the boundaries of fundamental rights should be set. The EU fundamental rights are currently in the process of finding increasing expression in legislation. It is unacceptable for this legislation to be biased according to a strict religious morality. It is high time for the secular nature of the European project to be re-emphasised. Europe doesn’t do God.

Perhaps it is time to replace “freedom of religion” by freedom of beliefs or conscience, an individual right that can be claimed by 500 million Europeans in all of their diversity.

The Guardian | Sophie in ‘t Veld | Thursday 17 March 2011

The National Secular Society has awarded the 2011 Irwin Prize for Secularist of the Year to Dutch MEP Sophie in ’t Veld.

Ms in ’t Veld won the prize for her work as chair of the European Parliamentary Platform for Secularism in Politics (EPPSP). She is an ardent advocate of the separation of religion from politics and campaigns on a number of issues where this is relevant.

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