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Abbot and Sister take on ‘bear pit’ of atheists in debate over papal visit

An abbot, a nun and a Catholic journalist defended the Church last night in a debate held by the British Humanist Society over whether the Pope should be granted a state visit to Britain.

Journalist Austen Ivereigh, who runs Catholic Voices, a team of young Catholics trained to speak to the media, and Fr Christopher Jamison, former abbot of Worth Abbey, spoke against the motion “The papal visit should not be a state visit”, but were defeated by a hostile crowd. Human rights activist Peter Tatchell and philosopher A C Grayling spoke for the motion at the event in the South Place Ethical Society building in central London.

The debate, organised by Central London Humanists together with the British Humanist Association, was chaired by Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee.

Alan Palmer, chairman of the Central London Humanists, said before the event: “We know that many people are angry that the state visit of Pope Benedict XVI is going to cost the UK taxpayer a lot of money. Some wonder whether in the current economic circumstances we should be spending millions of pounds to provide a state platform for a religious leader who has already criticised our legislation and condemned the way we organise our society.”

But Dr Ivereigh described the debate as “a bear pit”, saying afterwards: “It was very nasty, there was a lot of shouting, a lot of abuse. It was very hard to make our point. But I was glad we were there. Even if people weren’t listening, and they weren’t, it was important that we were there, and we witnessed what the Catholic Church is about.”

Speaking against the papal visit, A C Grayling said the Pope and the Church were being given a platform that was disproportionate to the size of their membership and being paid for by the UK taxpayer. He also said the Catholic Church was a criminal conspiracy, with members committing crimes and those crimes being protected by the hierarchy higher up.

Peter Tatchell said the Pope should not be invited because he opposes women’s ordination, as well as IVF and embryonic stem cell research, and as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger helped to cover up child sex abuse cases. He also criticised plans to make Pius XII a saint.

Speaking against the motion, Fr Jamison said the Church made huge contributions to civil society through schools, and helped with homelessness and the environment.

Dr Ivereigh, a former spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, said the Pope was right about Aids in Africa, and that the Catholic Church saved more Jews during the Holocaust than any other organisation.

One Catholic, who writes the Claz Coms blog, said many members of the audience wore “anti-Catholic ‘Pope Nope’ T-shirts” and that “right from the start of the debate, there was a lot of shouting from the humanist supporters… I don’t mean civilised shouts of agreement or disagreement, but actually almost barbaric screams of war!”

She wrote on her blog: “As a Catholic, I want to say how pleased I am with the way Catholics behaved, and voiced their opinions. Of the two sides, the reasons for the Pope’s state visit were by far the most succinctly argued, calmly delivered, and least abusive.”

Another member of the audience, Sister Gemma Simmonds of the Congregation of Jesus, said: “As a woman and a British citizen I frequently object to a variety of heads of state”, but that people around the world had to aspire to get on as best as they could. She urged people to welcome him.