BY MURRAY WHITE THE ORATORY FATHERS Were
forced to give a robust defence of their management of a Catholic Sixth Form College this week after accusations that they had been racist in banning Muslim students from praying.
At a press conference on Monday, Fr Guy Nichols, Chairman of the Governors of the Oratorian-run St Philip's Sixth Form College, Birmingham, denounced a media "witch-hunt" after press reports centred on the Fathers' decision to ban from college grounds prayer meetings held by a group of around 30 or 40 Muslim students.
He said: "The Fathers wish to emphasise that this conclusion in no way springs from, or leads to, racism. The issue of Muslim worship seems to have been created deliberately to bring the Fathers into disrepute and cause unnecessary tension between us and the Muslim community."
But teachers at St Philip's this week told the Catholic Herald that they objected to being told by the Oratorians to ban Muslim prayer, which they said was done independently of official collective worship. They said they had been increasingly left out of decisions regarding policy towards students of all faiths.
One teacher, who did not wish to be identified, said that the Fathers had staff and students doubly angered and confused by not preventing Muslim prayer meetings at various points last year.
"The irony was that the Catholic staff were given no chaplain for 12 months, and were told we could not have Mass in the college, andl-ad to go to the Oratory Church," he said. A chaplain has now been appointed.
A "chapel" room used by different groups of students for prayer last year had also been whitewashed and converted back into a classroom before the new term, said the teacher.
A colleague said that many of the teachers felt "completely disregarded and trampled over. In reality, it almost feels like being excommunicated".
She said: "The issue is about what kind of Catholic education we are providing. If we don't come to terms with multi-faith education, we will cease to be a presence in the inner-city. You cannot just preach, you have to understand too."
A spokesman for the Governors of the College and the Oratorians, Peter Jennings, claimed that the Fathers had been "subjected to a lot of wild accusations over the past two years. Most of it has been inaccurate".
Tension over the future of the College re-erupted a fortnight ago when MP Clare Short, speaking on a Channel Four programme, called for a review of the powers of school governors. The Oratorians, who appoint the St Philip's Governors, had threatened to close St Philip's, because, they said, its proportion of Catholic students had fallen to a level which invalidated their Trust Deed.
Fr Nichols confirmed that the Oratory was still in negotiation with the Anglican diocese of Birmingham, who may be willing to take it over on the site of an Anglican secondary school.