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

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.”

Adding context to the Vatican- Muslim dialogue story

Context is such a help. My report that the Vatican is due to respond positively and very soon to the dialogue appeal by 138 Muslim scholars was based on several conversations these days in Rome with cardinals and Vatican officials. Our news stories have to pare comments down to the essential quote to keep the story to a manageable length. Adding more context to some of those comments can give a better feel for the way these leading Catholic figures view the Muslim letter.

Catholic cardinals at the Vatican, 24 Nov. 2007The cardinals discussed the issue on Friday. The Vatican said: “Some speakers dealt with relations with Jews and with Islam. There was discussion of the encouraging sign represented by the letter of 138 Muslim personalities and of the visit of the King of Saudi Arabia to the Holy Father.” So we had a fact (“discussion”), a hint (“encouraging”) but nothing more than that.

Asking around, I got three cardinals who spoke about this on the record. Each deals with Islam in one way or another. Senegal is 95-percent Muslim, France has Europe’s largest Muslim minority and mostly Hindu India’s Muslims are a minority (13 percent of the population) but a larger one than its Christians (2 percent).