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.