Damian Thompson reveals the turmoil behind the scenes in the preparations for Pope Benedict XVI’s keenly awaited visit to Britain — and how the trip has been hijacked by a Blairite cadre

Last week, the Catholic Arch-bishops of England and Wales were summoned to a private meeting in London where they were given astonishing news about Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain. The pontiff is due in four months’ time (16-19 September), yet preparations were going badly wrong. Some of the major venues, while announced, had still not been booked. And worse, the Church’s share of the cost of the four-day trip had veered wildly out of control, from £7 million to a figure nearer £14 million. They later concluded that the centrepiece — an open-air Mass at Coventry airport — was probably going to have to be cancelled. It was a disaster.

There were ‘gasps from the archbishops’, I’m told. This was the Mass at which the Pope would beatify John Henry Newman. The organiser of the visit, Monsignor Andrew Summersgill, outlined their backup plan: hold the Mass in St Mary’s College, Oscott, a sprawling, clumsily modernised neo-Gothic seminary near Sutton Coldfield that Benedict is scheduled to visit anyway. ‘We can blame the change of plan on the era of austerity’ was the proposed excuse.

Crucially, only 10,000 worshippers could be accommodated at Oscott. Coventry airport can take 200,000 — a figure which is actually much smaller than the number of people who want to attend the beatification of Newman. The archbishops at the meeting immediately grasped the implications of this. They had already collected money for the Coventry Mass — how would they explain that it had been cancelled?

Relations between the members of the team organising the papal visit were tense enough before this disaster. Mgr Summersgill is something of a divisive figure — regarded by his critics as an ambitious, mitre-hungry protégé of the previous Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. Sources close to Archbishop Vincent Nichols, his successor, say he had never wanted Mgr Summersgill to take charge of the papal visit. He certainly did not want the task he had last week: to inform the Vatican that the budget had spun out of control and that the centrepiece of the visit — the Mass at Coventry — might have to be cancelled.

The Vatican’s response was straightforward. No, the Pope would not beatify Cardinal Newman — one of his spiritual heroes — at a cut-price ceremony in an old seminary. It must be a full open-air Mass at a major venue like Coventry, Archbishop Nichols was told. Sort it out. How he will do so is a mystery. Meanwhile, any reference to Coventry has mysteriously vanished from the papal visit website.

Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain was always intended to be on a smaller scale than that of John Paul II in 1982. But the diplomatic, political and logistical problems associated with it are far greater. For various diplomatic reasons, the last Pope came to Britain on a private visit: Benedict XVI is doing so as a head of state. Accordingly, the British government will pay for aspects of his visit that are not specifically Catholic. A draft itinerary of his visit, seen by The Spectator, includes an audience with the Queen at Holyrood House, Edinburgh, and an 8.15 p.m. state banquet in his honour hosted by the Prime Minister at Lancaster House — which, bizarrely, the Pope is not expected to attend, presumably because, at 83, he might find it exhausting.

Inline sub2


The Papal visit also coincides with much public indignation at the Church’s role in protecting paedophile priests. The authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would like to see the Pope arrested for his role in covering up the abuse. There has also been resentment over the £7 million of taxpayers’ money that will pay for the visit — but at least that sum has not increased since the non-Catholic parts of the Pope’s itinerary were confirmed earlier this year. It is the part of the visit run by the Church which is running into danger. The question facing the archbishops is how on earth the church got its own sums badly wrong.

The explanation, according to independent sources — one of them in Rome and a long-time supporter of the former Cardinal Ratzinger — is that the planning has been dangerously haphazard. The venues have been publicly announced but, as late as last week, Summersgill’s team had not finalised arrangements for the two big Catholic papal events in England: a vigil of prayer in Hyde Park on Saturday evening and the Sunday morning Beatification Mass at Coventry airport. Both have been widely publicised. But not all the contracts have been signed. ‘The Hyde Park event has not been confirmed,’ says a spokeswoman for the Royal Parks.

Meanwhile, Patriot Aerospace, the company that bought Coventry airport in April, is unhappy that, thanks to a previous agreement, it has inherited a five-day closure during the papal visit for which it will receive no compensation. (The Church originally set aside £1.3 million for Coventry, but that was to meet its own costs for staging the event, which are likely to be far higher.) It’s hard to think of a surer recipe for pushing up expenditure than announcing venues before properly securing them. The miscalculation is all the more mystifying when one considers the identity of Summersgill’s chief adviser and co-ordinator, a former 10 Downing Street media officer called Magi Cleaver. And this is where the mystery deepens.

Ms Cleaver’s role in the Pope’s visit is pivotal — and in inverse proportion to her profile. She has brought on board an events company called WRG, a Manchester-based firm used extensively by Tony Blair during his premiership. It has a reputation as being very good, but also very expensive. In an earlier incarnation, it organised the handover of Hong Kong to China; it was event manager for the whole G20 Summit in London last year.

To say that Ms Cleaver keeps a low profile is putting it mildly. She makes fleeting appearances in Alastair Campbell’s autobiography as a Foreign Office employee seconded to No. 10; this week her name was nowhere to be found on the papal visit website. In the words of a Catholic source, ‘She remains very much beneath the radar. It’s unclear as to whether she’s a practising Catholic. But she’s still good friends with the Blairs, particularly Cherie.’ Ms Cleaver has worked as media co-ordinator for Vital Voices, a stridently PC women’s charity that supports the provision of abortion and contraception services in the developing world.

Cleaver’s closeness to the Blairs is important, given that the key player on the secular side of the papal visit, Francis Campbell, Britain’s first Catholic ambassador to the Holy See, is also very friendly with the Blairs. Indeed, the former PM secured his appointment in order to facilitate Benedict’s visit. Campbell is charming, kind-hearted and (as I can vouch from conversations with him) theologically literate to a high degree. He is not to blame for the Church’s mishandling of the costs of the visit.

But his presence at the heart of the enterprise has reinforced suspicions in Rome that Benedict XVI is unwittingly being caught up in a Blairite publicity stunt bearing the fingerprints of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. For example, the Foreign Office document officially announcing the Pope’s visit describes it as ‘an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen ties between the UK and the Holy See on global action to tackle poverty and climate change, as well as the important role of faith groups in creating strong communities’.

This is, unmistakably, the language of Blair’s Faith Foundation, with which the Catholic Church in England and Wales worked closely d
uring Summersgill’s tenure at Eccleston Square: Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor acted as an adviser to it, and would have joined its board had the Pope not stopped him.

Parts of the itinerary drawn up for the Pope also read like extracts from a Tony Blair Foundation conference. There are numerous meetings with non-Catholics and ‘People of Faith’; there is no sign of any visits to a hospice, crisis pregnancy centre or adoption agency which might take the Pope into areas of Catholic teaching from which the Blairs have publicly dissented. These matters are glossed over, just as they were when Mr Blair was discreetly received into the Catholic Church by his friend Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor without being asked to disavow his support for abortion.

Such sleight of hand might annoy any Pope. Yet it is particularly inappropriate for Benedict XVI, given his disdain for the Blairite strand of Catholicism-lite. For months, there have been fears in Rome that the visit to Britain was being hijacked. But there was little anyone could do, given the power dynamics involved. The Catholic Church is far less centralised than many realise, and in England a lot of power still rests with a secretive ‘magic circle’ that includes Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, Andrew Summersgill, the more liberal diocesan bishops and lay allies such as Francis Campbell and, until recently, Blair himself.

Organisationally, this tightly knit group is reminiscent of the New Labour project to which the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales gave such gushing support. Even now, the hierarchy can be regarded as one of the last bastions of Blairite patronage and back-slapping.

To this day, we do not know who appointed Cleaver. What we do know, however, is that the costings in the bishops’ official fundraising document, which predicted that the final bill would be £6.75 million, are now a woeful underestimate. A spokesman for the Catholic Church told The Spectator as we went to press: ‘The final programme is not confirmed yet. Even going back to the launch of the visit with the minister and the cardinal, what was expressed at that stage were the hopes of what would happen. We’re still working on it. All venues are subject to confirmation — the final itinerary will be fixed in July. Progress is being made quickly.’ But no one else in the Church, it is fair to say, believes that progress has been quick; very much the opposite. And it is this sluggishness and lack of transparency which will leave priests throughout the country desperately trying to explain to parishioners why their money is going down the drain.

‘Why give this information to you?’ says one of our sources. ‘Because this papal visit is heading for the rocks, the two people in charge — Summersgill and Cleaver — are clearly out of their depth. Our parishioners will now have to foot the bill for their incompetence — and Pope Benedict deserves so much better. Without public scrutiny, things can’t be turned around. Enough is enough. Let sunlight be the best disinfectant.’

Damian Thompson is a leader writer for the Daily Telegraph and a director of the Catholic Herald.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated