Catholics, sex, abortion, libel, a cardinal — what a story…

February 20, 2008

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor

UPDATE: The trial ended in stalemate on Feb. 29 and a retrial is due in a few months. Murphy-O’Connor was not called to testify.

The British papers are all over the story of the libel suit brought by former spokesman for London’s Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O’Connor against the Daily Mail. The tabloid wrote in 2006 that Austen Ivereigh, 41, had pressured one former girlfriend into having an abortion and wanted another to abort twins she was carrying (she later miscarried). He flatly denies the charges and accuses the Daily Mail of making him lose his job and his reputation. The story broke at a time when Ivereigh was an active Church campaigner against abortion.

The case opened in court on Monday and Ivereigh has been on the stand giving his side of the story. He admitted he did not always live up to Church teaching (on sex before marriage, for example) but strongly denied that he proposed abortion and insisted that he, as a practising Catholic, opposed it.

The story has all the elements for lurid headlines and snap judgments — sex, abortion, the Catholic Church, charges of hypocrisy, “he said/she said” accusations, libel and the link to a “prince of the Church.” The second woman in the case is referred to only as “Madame X.” The cardinal is due to take the stand next week and the press section is sure to be packed. It’s not often that such a senior Catholic prelate gives testimony in court.

The lawyers for both sides came out swinging. Ivereigh’s lawyer told the court that his client was “threatened and baited like an animal” by “journalism at its most personally destructive and vicious.The lawyer for the Daily Mail told Ivereigh: “You were behaving hypocritically, contrary to the beliefs of your church and in a callous and cruel way to both these women.”

Full disclosure: like many other journalists covering religion in Europe, I dealt with Ivereigh when he worked for the cardinal and found him to be an intelligent and informative spokesman. I have no special insight into this case and have no idea how the court will finally call it.

That said, this trial comes against a background of years of highly publicised cases regarding Catholic priests abusing young boys. This one is different because it’s about adult heterosexual lay people. Still, the Catholic connection is strong. Do you think this case will be just as damaging for the Church?

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