You are here:   Columns >  Open Season > A Catholic Cover-Up

Gagging order: Father Felix Selden (left) abruptly removed Father Dermot Fenlon 

The Viennese Father Felix Selden has a splendid title: the Delegate of the Holy See for the Congregation of the Oratory. And what a jolly-looking chap he seems — ideal for the job of overseeing the 70-odd little communities worldwide of secular priests and lay brothers who strive to live simply and usefully according to the principles laid down by the 16th-century St Philip Neri. Yet what havoc he has wrought on the Birmingham Oratory in the year when the Pope is visiting to mark the beatification of Cardinal Newman, its founder in 1848. And how he has blighted the lives of Fathers Dermot Fenlon and Philip Cleevely and Brother Lewis Berry.

Selden came calling when the eight priests of the Oratory sought guidance from Rome to help them deal with the issue  of their loved and trusted Provost, Father Paul Chavasse. He had formed what a spokesman would later describe coyly as an "intense but physically chaste friendship" with a handsome, gay 20-year-old who had been turned down for the priesthood. 

Oratorians are traditionalists, doctrinally and liturgically. Birmingham's Oratory was particularly noted for its deep commitment to the ideals expressed in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae: all sexual acts were sinful other than those within marriage. Yet the emphasis was on compassion, and Fenlon, whose 50-year-old friendship with me had survived my divorces, atheism and social libertarianism, had queues outside his confessional. Formerly a Cambridge don, he is also a respected Newman scholar. The Newman beatification and the visit to the Oratory by Pope Benedict would have been the most joyful event of his life.

Oratorians are enjoined to live in charity with each other, so the emphasis was on helping Chavasse resolve his problem. That in some quarters Newman was being represented as a gay icon who believed that individual conscience trumped church doctrine made the matter more urgent: Fenlon was one of three Oratorians particularly eloquent in defence of Newman's chastity, heterosexuality and the orthodoxy of his faith. 

Selden brought with him Father Ignatius Harrison, the Provost of the London (Brompton) Oratory, with Father Gareth Jones his bizarre choice as canonical adviser. As a cleric, Jones rarely stays long anywhere: in the Birmingham Oratory, he was twice a novice under Fenlon and was twice asked to leave because he did not fit in. In December 2009, it was announced that Chavasse had stepped down and had been asked by Selden to go to the US as a fund-raiser. Six months later, the Tablet announced: "Three members of the Birmingham Oratory have been ordered to go on retreat after disagreements with the rest of the community. Fr Philip Cleevely, Fr Dermot Fenlon and Br Lewis Berry have been told to spend time in prayer for an indefinite period by Fr Felix Selden." Cleevely was sent to Scotland, Fenlon to a Trappist monastery. Berry has been transported to South Africa. All were forbidden to speak to the press.

View Full Article
March 4th, 2013
9:03 PM
I don't understand it all - sounds like the gay mafia!!

Philip Tong
October 12th, 2010
2:10 PM
I do not claim to be impartial or in complete possession of the facts. What I do know is that Fr. Dermot Fenlon is a man of truth, wisdom and love and would never do anything contrary to those principles. I had never in my life met what I would call a truly holy man, not until I met Fr. Dermot. It does seem preposterous and, in fact, cruel to me that this man who has served the Birmingham Oratory, its parishioners and the legacy of Blessed JHN so lovingly over the years has been treated thus. I am currently in the process of organising a peaceful protest rally to insist that Fr. Dermot is restored at his rightful home. I do not yet have a date for it, but I am seeking names of people that want to get involved. Should you wish to do so, please email me at: Should fools like Selden, Jones and Harrison think they can get away with this, they have another thing coming!!!

October 2nd, 2010
8:10 PM
Storm in a chalice.

Matt pardoe
September 21st, 2010
10:09 PM
This 20yr old gay man may well be the key. Had he been a genuine candidate for the priesthood, surely his identity would have been revealed by now. Although he allegedly shared meals, trips to the theatre and pilgrimages with Fr. Chavasse, his identity remains a mystery as do his whereabouts. It could be that someone wanted to discredit Fr. Chavasse, maybe he was set up, wouldn't be the first time. It might explain why Fr. Harrison took Fr. Gareth Jones along with him that night. A decent well qualified Canon Lawyer might have asked too many questions.

September 20th, 2010
2:09 PM
This is a tragic mess, which I only discovered when one of the three exiles showed up in my parish. I've been trolling for info ever since. The only comment I can make, as a member of an Oratorian parish for some years, involved in several of their works, is that over time I have often wondered whether their particular mode of living as a religious community is really viable in the modern world. They are meant to live in small groups no larger than a good-sized family, and to live together by free consent rather than by vows of obedience to the superior of a religious order. Their governing structure, as best I can understand, is to arrive at both individual and community direction by consensus, which can involve accepting ‘assigned’ positions within the house because the mere fact of their presence and participation always implies a fundamental consent. Each household is independent and finds its own mission, usually through a parish, but also in university or hospital chaplaincy, elementary or secondary schools, etc. But ask an Oratorian what is their highest priority as they carry out their works, and (in my experience) the answer will be that their first duty is the maintenance of community life in their household, and that the parish, school, or other work, is a means to that end. As one of the parishioners, volunteers, and (erstwhile) lay employees of our local Oratorian house, I’m not sure that regarding a parish as a means to a more private end is quite fair or good enough for the sheep of their flock – at the very least it risks fostering an attitude towards the parishioners that they are accessories to the mission. It has certainly been my personal experience, and one shared by other parishioners on some issues, that a small Oratory household, with its intimate inter-relationships (and I mean that in only the most upright and proper sense) is capable of turning very inward towards its own concerns and circling the wagons against any suggestion from the flock that they are falling short in their pastoral duty to practice at least some degree of transparency and responsiveness about the business of the parish. The most salient instance of this problem in our case was a sudden and overwhelming commitment to the Tridentine Mass, at the expense of a what had been a growing and active “family Mass” (Novus Ordo with chant and renaissance motets) – the so-called “Extraordinary Form” was to be considered the ordinary, and the firings and dissolutions which resulted were not open to question. Both the attitude and the liturgy itself came to resemble nothing so much as the prayer of a monastic community, where the public is permitted to witness from their restricted precincts services in which they take no part. I have no objection to monastic communities conducting themselves in precisely that manner, but an Oratory is NOT a monastery. Oratorians are, by definition, secular priests, with all that this implies in a modern world, so very different from St. Philip’s 16th-century Rome. Perhaps it was even a bit out of step with Blessed Newman’s 19th-century England, where he felt compelled to live out his vocation in very anti-Oratorian ways, such as taking up his post in Ireland or accepting the Cardinal’s hat. I suspect that the “family-sized” community has always been a difficult model, since there are bound to be differences, and perhaps factions, which are troublesome in a monastic household of dozens or hundreds, but lethal among only five or ten men – perhaps in a complex and interconnected world which bombards the life of any secular priest, the traditional Oratorian model is unsustainable, and only survives when differences are sublimated, sometimes at the cost of doing what is right for the souls in one’s care. I’m just guessing – which is what our local Oratory household has left us to do. Still we stay, because even a Mass from which we feel somewhat excluded is so much better than the happy-clappy crap down the road.

September 2nd, 2010
4:09 PM
I fear you have a few things wrong. Br.Lewis was ordained deacon while Father Chavasse was Provost. Father Chavasse was Provost until he stepped down in February 2010. There is no Diocesan priest incardinated to the Oratory. As for Father Selden being inexperieced that too is incorrect. The main point which you have reported correctly is that Father Chavasse is and was totally innocent of any wrongdoing.

August 27th, 2010
6:08 PM
For several months I have been doing my investigation into this sorry affair. It has not been easy to get at the truth, but having spoken to many people with connections to the Oratory (but who must remain anonymous for obvious reasons) Ihave been able to work out the following sequence of events. After threats from a journalist who was out to get Fr Paul Chavasse the wellintentioned but inexperienced Oratorian Visitor Fr Felix Selden took the unusual decision to start an openended visitation in April 2009. The result cleared Fr Chavasse of any wrongdoing, but to avoid further attacks on the community he agreed to step down as Provost in December and spend a period of time away from the Oratory. In the meantime Br Lewis Berry was ordained to the diaconate and given a vote in community matters with the full approval of Fr Selden. Fr Duffield from Oxford came to help out the small community which with Fr Chavasse away had only 5 members one of whom is 86. Then something strange happened. Fr Selden appointed Fr Robert Byrne of the Oxford Oratory to act as visitor for the London Oratory which was also put under an openended Visitation. From what I hear visitations in English Oratories normally have lasted about a week maximum. These two visitations have been going on for months. But the result of the London visitation has thus far been that Fr Ignatius Harrison of LOndon has been put in charge of the Birmingham Oratory. He brought Gareth Jones in for canonical advice and suspended the independent government of the Brum house. The Birmingham 3 objected to these tactics and were sent away. The criticism of Cherie Blair on the Newman cause websight created more tensions as well as the enforced incardination of a diocesan priest into the Oratory, but the real "crime" of the 3 has been to resist the takeover of their community by an ex novice, Jones, and Fr Harrison who is the man who is really in charge. Fr Selden only knows what Harrison tells him. Harrison and Jones don't like Fr Dermot and it is doubtful that they will ever allow him back, unless his appeal against them succeeds. Br Lewis too looks to be in real difficulty with them. Nothing has been saod about Cleevely so far, though someone in the know has said that the plan is to "refound" the Oratory once the Papal Visit is over and press attention goes elsewhere. It's obvious that Jones doesn't like his former novice master, but why Harrison should care is a mystery, but he is very gay friendly and Fr Femlon is orthodox. It is all very sad.

August 27th, 2010
1:08 PM
"It's clear that they are being punished for sticking to Catholic teaching." Is it?

Anon 2
August 27th, 2010
9:08 AM
On the contrary, I am grateful for clarifications eminating from this article. The Oratory can no longer justify claiming that this is purely a 'private matter'. The reputations of three perfectly decent men have been tarnished with no justification whatsoever. It's clear that they are being punished for sticking to Catholic teaching. I suspect that the liberalisation movement, so beloved of the hierarchy sees these men a hinderance and can anyone really still believe that Rome and the English bishops still sing from the same hymnal? The whole matter has been very badly handled by the Oratory. Indeed, the few statements which have been made have been 'economical with the truth' to say the least. The so-called Birmingham 3 have been gagged and so, it falls to the laity to plead their cause on their behalf. Why have letters to Fr. Harrison been ignored? Is he above replying to the great unwashed? Is it not a matter of conflict of interest that the twice-failed novice, Fr. Jones was chosen as one of the bouncers given that Fr. Fenlon was his novice-master? Sadly, I fear that the three exiled will never return to the Birmingham Oratory. It's a matter of the Oratory 'saving face'. How much better for it to right a wrong and set an example to the rest of us who screw up badly so often? The Holy Father will visit in less than a month in order to Beatify Cardinal Newman. How sad that the event is marred by this sorry situation which will cast a shadow over what should be the most joyous day in the history of the English Oratorian movement.

August 27th, 2010
8:08 AM
On the contrary, it is helpful to have certain aspects clarified. The whole business has been extremely badly handled by the Oratorians who just thought the laity would shut up and behave in the midst of what has been a turbulent time. The choice of a twice-failed novice to be one of the two bouncers is very questionable especially as Fr. Fenlon was his novice master. This is no longer a 'private matter'. Three very decent and totally innocent men have been hounded out of their house for their firm stance on Catholic teaching. Injustice must be fought whenever it raises its ugly head. Given that the question of liberalisation is so clearly embraced by the hierarchy is anyone in any doubt that the English bishops and Rome no longer sing out of the same hymnal? It is also a matter of great sadness that the Oratory itself has been 'economical with the truth' to say the least. I fear it is too late and that Frs. Fenlon and Cleeveley will not reappear at the Birmingham Oratory. Br. Lewis, I hope, will go forward to ordination to the priesthood, but again, I doubt that he will serve at the Birmingham Oratory. The church, like the rest of us, should not act to 'save face'. Instead, as we are all urged to do, it should acknowledge its error and rectify a wrong.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.