A leading human-rights campainger in the UK is furious after Prime Minister David Cameron allegedly shut down a Downing Street petition rather than cause embarrassment ahead of Pope Benedict’s planned visit to the country in two months’ time.
Peter Tatchell of the gay-rights group OutRage! set up the petition on the Downing Street website, and says it was originally set to expire in September. However, Cameron has shut it down more than three months before it was due to expire.
“This looks like an attempt to prevent the petition from embarrassing the government by gaining a large number of signatures in the run-up to Pope Benedict’s visit to the UK in September,” said Tatchell today.
“The Prime Minister’s office originally agreed that the petition would remain open until the Pope arrived in the UK. But his officials declared it closed on 6 June and only informed me of this decision yesterday. The petition had been frozen since early April, on the grounds that the general election was imminent. It was never reopened. During the short time it was online the petition gathered 12,339 signatures,” said Tatchell.
The Prime Minister’s Office has posted a response to the curtailed petition, which, says Tatchell, “evades all the issues it raised, apart from the public funding of the Pope’s visit. Even then, the answer is vague and unsatisfactory. Much of the Pope’s UK itinerary involves religious events and proselytizing. These should not be funded by the taxpayer.
“The petition asked the Prime Minister to dissociate the government from the Pope’s extreme, intolerant opposition to women’s rights, gay equality, embryonic stem cell research and condom use to prevent the spread of HIV. It also called on the Prime Minister to express his disagreement with the Pope’s role in the cover-up of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy, his rehabilitation of the Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson, and his plan to make a saint of Hitler’s pope, Pius XII, who refused to publicly condemn the Holocaust. None of these issues were addressed by the government’s response.
“It is appalling that the government is not willing to dissociate itself from the Pope’s extremist, fundamentalist opinions. Even many Catholics criticize him as intolerant and out of touch,” said Tatchell.
The petition reads:
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to disassociate the British government from the Pope’s intolerant views ahead of the Papal visit to Britain in September 2010. We urge the Prime Minister to make it clear that his government disagrees with the Pope’s opposition to women’s reproductive rights, gay equality, embryonic stem cell research and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV. We ask the Prime Minister to express his disagreement with the Pope’s role in the cover-up of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy, his rehabilitation of the Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson, and his decree paving the way for the beatification and sainthood of the war-time Pope, Pius XII, who stands accused of failing to speak out against the Holocaust. We also request the Prime Minister to assure us that the Pope’s visit will not be financed by the British taxpayer.
The British government’s response to the petition reads:
The Holy See has a global reach and so is a valuable international partner for the UK Government. Our relationship with the Holy See enables us to address jointly a range of foreign policy and development issues. These include working towards delivery of the Millennium Development Goals, addressing the impacts of climate change, preventing and resolving conflict, and finding ways to encourage disarmament.
As with any bilateral diplomatic relationship, there are issues on which we disagree. The Holy See is clear on our positions on these issues. However, we believe that Pope Benedict’s visit will provide an opportunity to strengthen and build on our relationship with the Holy See in areas where we share interests and goals, and to discuss those issues on which our positions differ.
Since the visit has the status of a State Visit, and some parts of the programme are being organised by the British Government, a proportion of the costs of the Visit will fall to the Government. The costs can be divided into two categories: policing costs, which will be met by the State from existing policing budgets, and non-policing costs, which will be split between the Catholic Church and the Government. The total size of the costs at this stage is not confirmed but discussions are currently under way to decide the appropriate levels of contribution from the Government and the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of England and Wales, and of Scotland. Other parts of the programme, such as the Masses and other pastoral events, are the responsibility of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences. The direct costs of these events will therefore be borne by the Catholic Church.
Tatchell has often criticized Pope Benedict XVI’s illiberal stance on key social issues.
“The Pope is an opponent of women’s rights. He not only opposes the right of women to choose to have an abortion but also their right to contraception, which can help reduce the abortion rate,” he said.
“He opposes women’s access to IVF fertility treatment, to give childless couples the chance of parenthood.
“The Pope supports gender discrimination, including a ban on women priests and bishops, and he wants the Catholic Church to be exempt from equality and antidiscrimination laws that apply to everyone else.
Stem cell research
“He has sought to block potentially lifesaving and disease-curing embryonic stem cell research, and he rejects the right of suffering, terminally ill people to die with dignity at a moment of the their own free choice.
“Pope Benedict denounces the use of condoms, even to stop the spread of HIV, and he has falsely claimed that condom usage ‘increases’ the rate of HIV infection. His teachings put millions of lives at risk.”
Tatchell cites a report in the Independent, which cites the prestigious journal the Lancet as “accusing Pope Benedict of distorting scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine by saying that condoms increase the spread of AIDS.”
And he further cites a BBC report that says: “The Catholic Church has been accused of telling people in countries with high rates of HIV that condoms do not protect against the deadly virus.”
Tatchell adds: “He [Benedict] rejects legal equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and their full protection in law against homophobic and transphobic discrimination.
“The Pope has approved the Catholic Catechism, which condemns same-sex relationships as a ‘grave depravity,’ ‘intrinsically disordered’ and ‘contrary to natural law.’”
Tatcell continues: “In 1992 [when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was in charge of the Inquision], he authored a Vatican document that condemned homosexuality as an ‘objective disorder’ and a ‘strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil.’ Rejecting the concept of gay human rights, the document asserted that there is no ‘right’ to laws protecting homosexual people against discrimination, suggesting that the civil liberties of lesbians and gay men can be ‘legitimately limited for objectively disordered external conduct.’
“The Pope has attacked same-sex marriages as ‘evil’ and vilified supporters of gay equality as ‘gravely immoral.’ He has also vilified homosexual equality as a ‘deviant trend’ and condemned same-sex love as being ‘without any social value.’
Complicit with Nazi regime
“Pope Benedict colludes with anti-Semitism, including with holocaust deniers and with Catholic leaders who were complicit with the Nazi regime.
“He rescinded the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, who, in 2008, denied key elements of the Holocaust with claims that a maximum of 300,000 Jews died in concentration camps and that none were gassed by the Nazis.
“He has also paved the way for the beatification and eventual sainthood of Pope Pius XII by issuing a decree in 2009 celebrating his virtues, despite the pontiff's 1933 Concordat with Adolf Hitler and his silence concerning the Nazi mass murder of six million Jews,” Tatchell adds.
“While condemning loving, consenting adult same-sex relations, the Pope helped shield from prosecution Catholic clergy guilty of child sex abuse. He colluded with the cover-up of their crimes and with the policy of relocating paedophile priests to other parishes, where they often went on to commit further sexual abuse, as revealed in the 2006 BBC Panorama programme, Sex crimes and the Vatican.”