BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
THE BISHOPS of England and Wales are facing a showdown with the Government — and sonic of their own clergy — after resisting moves by the Department of Trade and Industry to give secular employment rights to priests.
The DTI, headed. by former trade union leader Alan Johnson, is pursuing a code of "best practice" for clergy that would guarantee basic rights such as holiday entitlement and, significantly, proper pension provision. The bishops are under pressure to show that their priests are adequately protected.
In 2004, representatives from different faiths in Britain were invited to take part in a clergy working group to consider employment protection. A draft questionnaire was issued earlier this year.
The Catholic response has been to insist that the employment rights enjoyed by other denominations should not apply to priests.
But the Government has made clear that, while it "respects a range of religious traditions", it has the power to enforce employment regulations.
A spokeswoman for the DTI said: "The Government is keen that clergy should be treated fairly. It has the power to extend employmeat rights to the clergy by law; equally it is seeking an outcome that respects a range of religious traditions and the clergy's legitimate concerns. No final decision has been taken on the way forward."
Last week Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff said employment rights were not needed because clergy -are not employees, but office holders". The draft questionnaire was inapplicable to the
circumstances of Catholic priests in particular, and he reiterated the Church's position that Canon Law provides adequate protection.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham has also warned his priests that with rights come obligations, and secular employment protection may impose unforeseen restrictions on the clergy. He said that the concerns of the DTI were met by Canon Law. which imposes both "rights and duties on a priest".
But some priests are now saying that the bishops are out of step with their clergy and that safeguards are needed. Financial mayhem in some dioceses and an ageing priestly population are placing particular demands on priests.
Fr Shaun Middleton, a former spokesman for the National Conference of Priests, said he regretted "acquiescing" over employment rights.
"This issue was first discussed with the DTI back in 2002 when the bishops, priests and religious argued against any change to the existing law pertaining to Catholic clergy," he explained. "To my everlasting shame I agreed that Canon Law did provide sufficient safeguards but I've now had a change of heart. I sincerely hope that the Government wilt push for this and secure rights for priests.
"What Canon Law does is impose obligations, and times have changed. Priests need rights in law with regard to their employment status."
Fr Middleton said priests were particularly vulnerable in retirement. Current payment plans lacked dignity and forced clergy to go "cap in hand" for funds.
"At the moment priests pay into diocesan schemes, but that is very much an ex carita 'charitable] payment and they are forced to ask for the money rather than be given it as of right. There is no national co-ordination and no regulation between the different provinces. Rather than being reliant on Mother Church, priests should be paid a decent salary and should budget accordingly."
Another London-based priest, who asked not to be named, agreed that Canon Law did not provide sufficient protection.
"Reluctant as I am to see the Government interfering yet further, the simple fact is that the bishops are not addressing the real stresses that priests are under," he said.
"Many Catholic priests are working in the Health Service and the Prison Service in addition to their parish duties, and the bishops should be negotiating proper service level agreements. At the moment. I'm struggling to find time for my day off."
He said the bishops should be "pro-active" in their dealings with the DTI.
"Why can't we be putting forward a proper policy rather than continually reacting to what is proposed?" he asked.
The Code of Canon Law, which is binding on the Catholic Church throughout the world, is suppose to provide "sound and adequate safeguards for the rights of clergy with reference to their pastoral office".
Canon Law 281 (I) states that "since clerics dedicate themselves to the ecclesiastical ministry, they deserve the remuneration that befits their condition... it is to be such that it provides for the necessities of their life and for the just remuneration of those whose services they need."
The Code continues: "Suitable provision is likewise to be made for such social welfare as they may need in infirmity, sickness or old age." Canon 2g3 further states that priests may take a "rightful and sufficient holiday every year".
But these guarantees hold little comfort, especially for younger priests, who question the Church's capacity to look after its own. Last week The Catholic Herald reported that the diocese of Lancaster is now £10 million in debt.
For late-vocation priests who have taken Holy Orders after years working in the secular world, with attendant employment safeguards, the lack of rights is particularly alarming.
There are also fears that the Church's focus on "self-regulation" fails adequately to protect priests accused of misconduct.
The bishops argue that any formal, secular code of practice is seen as inappropriate, simply because clergy are not "employees". But both the Church of England and the Baptist Church have announced employment rights for their pastors.
Anglican clergy, like Catholic priests, had been seen as "office holders answerable only to God", but under provisions agreed in 2004 they now have a right to redundancy payments and holidays as well as access to employment tribunals.
Lambeth Palace acknowledged that the proposals gave clergy "a greater safeguard against injustice" and "a better framework of accountability".
The Government spokeswoman said this week that the DTI Was simply trying to ensure parity of rights across the religions.
"It has to be something that is right for everybody," she said.
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