Police and the Catholic Church are to form a joint group to examine the role of priests in emergency situations following the denial of last rites to murdered Catholic MP Sir David Amess.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick have agreed to work together to establish the group to study the access given, or refused, to Catholic priests to scenes of traumatic violence.
In particular, the group will consider whether any changes are required to the guidance issued to officers faced with such situations.
The review follows an outcry at the refusal of officers to permit Fr Jeffrey Woolnough to pass through a police cordon and administer the final sacraments of the Church to Sir David after he was stabbed repeatedly at a constituency surgery in Essex on October 15.
Cardinal Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, announced the formation of the group after greeting Commissioner Dick ahead of the Catholic Police Guild’s annual Requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral.
The Mass was celebrated by Bishop Alan Williams of Brentwood – the diocese in which Sir David lived – who now serves as the Guild’s liaison to the bishops’ conference.
Cardinal Nichols said: “In recent times questions have arisen concerning the access given, or refused, to Catholic priests to scenes of traumatic violence, such as the violent death of Sir David Amess.
“The Metropolitan Police Commissioner and I have agreed to establish a joint group to study this issue and whether any changes are required to the guidance issued to officers faced with such a situation.
“I am grateful to the Commissioner for this agreement and I am confident that it will help to establish a helpful way forward in this matter of considerable sensitivity and importance to the Catholic community.”
The Mass was offered to remember and pray for officers who have lost their lives and was attended by representatives from police forces around the country, both serving and retired, as well as several force chaplains and guild members.
The funeral of Sir David will take place in Westminster Cathedral from 10.30am on Tuesday November 23, celebrated also by Cardinal Nichols.
Sir David, Conservative MP for Southend West, was stabbed to death at Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, on October 15.
Police have since charged Ali Harbi Ali, a 25-year-old British Muslim of Somali origin, of murder and he is likely to stand trial in March next year.
The murder provoked a wave of national grief but also anger among many Catholics when it was revealed that police refused to allow Fr Woolnough, his parish priest, access to Sir David in his final moments.
It led Mike Kane, the Labour MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, and a Catholic, to propose an “Amess amendment” to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to permit priests to have access to Catholics “in the final moments of life” or to pray alongside them shortly after they have died.
Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury also expressed the view that last rites should be considered an “emergency service”.
Bishop Davies said: “Every Catholic Christian hopes to receive the Sacraments and be accompanied by the prayer of the Church in the final crisis of our lives.
“Every believing Catholic desires to hear Christ’s words of pardon and absolution for the last time; to be strengthened by the grace of anointing; accompanied by the assurance of the Church’s prayer and whenever possible to receive Holy Communion.
“This is something well understood in hospitals and care homes yet the events following the murderous assault on Sir David Amess suggest this is not always comprehended in emergency situations.
“I hope a better understanding of the eternal significance of the hour of death for Christians and the Church’s ministry as an ‘emergency service’ may result from this terrible tragedy.”
(Photo courtesy of the Catholic Communications Network)
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