The very model of a modern monsignor

Allow me to introduce you to Monsignor Jim Curry, parish priest of Our Lady of Victories in Kensington. A most fascinating character. No, that’s not him in the picture.

But first, a digression. Many of you will be aware of the ongoing dispute around the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Holland Park. For those of you who aren’t, it may be worth recapping a bit. To begin with, a considerable number of Catholic schools in England – specifically the more successful ones – are lending a sympathetic ear to Michael Gove’s big push for academy status. This is because academy status looks like a good way of escaping the dead hand of the “Catholic Education Service”, a body of bureaucrats whose combined knowledge of education could be inscribed on the back of a postage stamp, but who don’t let that inhibit them from issuing detailed instructions to head teachers on the latest educational fashions. It should be noted that neither the incumbent chairman of CES, Bishop Malcolm McMahon, nor his predecessor, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, have managed to get a firm grip on CES.

Which background is important for understanding the dispute around the Vaughan. Damian has been doing Trojan work on this if you want to delve further, but here’s the story in a nutshell. The Vaughan is one of the best schools in the country outside of the private sector, and in particular is nationally known for music. The main reason for its success is the school’s extremely strong ethos, which is closely tied in to its admissions policy. No, the Vaughan doesn’t select by academic ability or by social class – it runs a points system giving precedence to children whose parents participate regularly in church activities, which to me seems entirely sensible. This, however, has been a long-running sore point with Catholic educational bureaucrats, who regard the Vaughan as hopelessly elitist and, rather than a showcase, a bit of an embarrassment precisely because of its success, and who’d dearly like it to become yet another bog-standard comp.

Which is where the long-running dispute with the Diocese of Westminster comes in. First the Diocese unilaterally changed the Vaughan’s admissions policy, a move hotly contested by the now sadly retired headmaster Michael Gormally. That was round one. In round two, Archbishop Nichols attempted to stamp his authority on matters by sacking a bunch of governors and appointing his placemen, a move that only made him look bad. In round three, the Diocese referred the Vaughan’s admissions policy to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator – in other words, a Catholic diocese narked to the state on one of its own schools for being too good.

All things considered, you can see why Vaughan parents are hopping mad. For more detail, please considering visiting the site of the Cardinal Vaughan Parents’ Action Group, which has justly gained the support of a stellar cast of the Catholic great and good. Which is where we return to where we came in, with this letter [pdf, emphases mine] from the Action Group to Archbishop Nichols:

We write to express our grave concern at the turn of events during last Wednesday night’s meeting of the Cardinal Vaughan Governing Body on 6th April 2011, witnessed by a large number of parents and pupils who had gathered in the School car park at the culmination of the Candlelit Vigil of prayer and hymn singing, held outside the School gates.

At the end of the Vigil, parents and pupils processed into the car park, and were gathered under the window of the library where the meeting was taking place. We have received a number of witness statements which describe what took place, but the salient facts are these:

  • Mr Eynaud, the Acting Headmaster, was seen sitting at the desk in the Head’s office, directly below the library.
  • Parents were singing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’; it was observed that someone closed the library windows, presumably to shut out the sound.
  • Mgr Curry (identified by parishioners of Our Lady of Victories and Our Lady of Grace, although he was not wearing clerical attire) entered the Head’s office and approached Mr Eynaud; clearly very angry, he was gesticulating with his index finger very close to Mr Eynaud, even appearing to prod him in the chest.
  • Mr Stubbings, the Deputy Headmaster, and Mr O’Donnell entered the room; at one point both Mgr Curry and Mr O’Donnell both appeared to be shouting at Mr Eynaud, while Mr Stubbings was trying to interpose himself between them.
  • It appeared that no one in the room was aware of the large number of adults and children who were watching this scene with a sense of mounting shock and dismay. The hymn singing had ceased and a section of the group was demanding the removal of the Director of Education from the Board of Governors; at this, Mr Eynaud emerged into the car park. He asked that the gathering should disperse and appeared pale and very shaken. He spoke to parents and his words implied that he had been given the impression, by Mgr Curry’s words or behaviour, that his career was now ‘finished’.
  • As the group was beginning to disperse, Mgr Curry, followed by Mr O’Donnell, moved towards the door opposite, leading into a corridor. At this, a number of parents began to shout comments such as, ‘Why won’t you come and talk to us?’ They both left the room, leaving Mr Eynaud and Mr Stubbings behind. As the shouting continued, one of the organisers announced that proceedings were at an end and asked everyone to leave. The car park was cleared within two minutes.

We believe that what occurred represents an irretrievable breakdown in the relationship that must exist between a Head and a member of the Governing Body. The Head had no responsibility for the presence of the parent group in the car park; no official notification had been given by the Governing Body that parents were barred from the School grounds (although a request that the Chairman of Governors should meet with parents in the School Hall before the Governors’ meeting had been refused). In any case, there can be no excuse for the bullying and intimidation to which Mr Eynaud was subjected.

Mgr Curry’s continued participation on the appointments panel for the new Head is obviously now out of the question. We believe that his membership of the Governing Body is also now untenable and we request that you replace him as your representative immediately. We also request that Mr Eynaud be given an immediate written apology.

Your Grace, a very large number of Cardinal Vaughan parents have written to you over recent months, asking a great number of questions; none has received a reply from you. On this occasion, we believe that a direct response from you is necessary.

We continue to hold your intentions in our prayers, and would ask you to pray for us as well.

In these circumstances, I would be a little less diplomatic than the redoubtable Mrs Anne Brown is in the forgoing. But eagle-eyed readers will have noticed the reappearance above of Mgr Jim Curry, and his presence requires a bit of explanation.

As you know, I can’t abide personal backbiting, and I really don’t like being nasty to one of our priests, who have enough troubles without me adding to them. But I’m prepared to make an exception for Jim.

For starters, there’s a brief biography here. Some people may wonder how come an East End boy like Jim Curry gets to swank it up at the Athenaeum. My response is that it’s a perfect illustration of that web of patronage known as the Magic Circle. Here we have someone who at a relatively young age got appointed as Cardinal Hume’s personal secretary, carrying on that function for Cormac when +Basil went to meet his Maker, and who since his return to parish work has been remarkably good at getting himself nice parishes. While I’ve rarely heard anyone say a kind work about Jim, there are elements of the hierarchy (naming no names like Cardinal Cormac) who hold him in great esteem.

Not, I hasten to add, nearly as much esteem as Jim holds himself in. You know when you’re leaving Mass and shake hands with the priest on the way out? I often find you can tell a lot about a priest from his body language in that setting. Jim’s body language was always – how shall I put this? – that of a feudal despot having to spend some time meeting and greeting his supplicating peasants. Not the easiest guy to warm up to, no matter how good he is at schmoozing bishops.

Jim is frequently tipped for a mitre himself, most recently with regard to the vacant auxiliary post at Westminster. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt that his old mucker Cormac is a member of the Congregation for Bishops, and thus well placed to pull strings in Rome. The prospect doesn’t really bear thinking about. You see, if the behaviour mentioned above was just an isolated incident from an otherwise steady and responsible priest, that would be one thing, but…

Thinking back, some six or seven years ago, when Jim was parish priest at Our Lady of Grace in Chiswick, he hosted a Churches Together meeting with then international development secretary Hilary Benn. Well, these are the sort of worthy events that take place under the Churches Together banner, and getting an actual government minister to speak might even be considered a feather in Jim’s cap. Were it not for the table just inside the entrance of the church before you got to the pews, groaning with DfID pamphlets and CD-ROMs, of which the large majority were on the topic of “sexual reproductive rights” or, in other words, population control. Such was the volume and placing of the material that it beggars belief that Jim hadn’t seen and okayed it. A priest having a display of population-control literature inside his parish church? Back in the day, that would have meant a stern phone call from the CDF.

Then there was the time he allowed an enormous banner advertising a mobile phone company to be draped from the church railings. This actually made the diary page of the Tablet, which thought the affair hilarious. Perhaps, but perhaps not the decorum you’d expect from a man who’d deeply like to be a bishop.

That’s Chiswick. Since Jim’s move to Kensington, he’s also hit the headlines for replacing the weekly sung Latin Mass with Filipino folk singing, something that wasn’t universally popular even with Filipino parishioners.

Then there was that mysterious affair of the forty grand bet. Back when Cardinal Cormac was retiring as Archbishop of Westminster, there was the usual speculation about his successor. Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds was widely seen as the frontrunner; in the end, of course, Vin Nichols got the job. In the midst of this, it was reported that Paddy Power had turned down a £40,000 bet on – you guessed it – Jim Curry. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Jim had anything to do with this, but it certainly raised his profile, in a way that cynics might even see as vulgar ostentation.

There was also a case over a decade ago of a controversial school closure in east London. At the time, parents who’d been trying to lobby the diocese reported the Cardinal’s private secretary replying to letters with mafia-style warnings not to bother him with this nonsense again. Hmm, sounds familiar.

And now, Jim finds himself a diocesan appointee to the Vaughan’s governing body in the midst of a bitter dispute between school and diocese, a dispute he seems to be doing his level best to escalate to nuclear level. Presumably Archbishop Nichols couldn’t find someone more emollient and diplomatic, like Colonel Gaddafi or Charlie Sheen. And this maniac is being tipped for a mitre? Sheesh, is all I can say. Sheesh.