Communion and controversy

Two weeks ago, a couple came into the Batley and Birstall News office asking to see a journalist.

Clearly upset, they came to us about their son, Denum. He is 7 years old, has Down’s Syndrome and is being shut out of his first Holy Communion by the Catholic church as they feel his understanding of the Sacrement is too limited for him to take part.

The story made our splash, and a version can be read here.  Looking to get the full story, I contacted Denum’s school, the priest at his church and the Diocese of Leeds, overall authority body for that parish. I recieved a statement from the Diocese, which is included in the copy, while noone else would speak to me. I didn’t even get past the receptionist at his school – as soon as I mentioned his name I was told the head didn’t want to comment. I suddenly felt great empathy for Clare – she felt like she’d hit a wall in her communication with the church and now I was in the dark too.

The story went out last Thursday, and exploded. Our Facebook page was inundated with comments, largely supportive, and that morning I’d seen Denum and his parents in the early bulletins on Look North and Calendar (local news programmes). As a journalist I hoped for an exclusive, but I understood why she wanted the extra publicity.

That morning the Daily Mail  put its own story online, and when I spoke to Clare that morning, she said she was going to be interviewed on BBC Radio Leeds on the Liz Green show. We had a call from 5Live, asking for another interview, and when I checked back in with her at the end of a rather surreal day she told me she was going on BBC Breakfast the next day. I watched her interview, and the verdict of a disability consultant representing the Catholic church, who seemed to be on Clare’s side.

Stories have since popped up in the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post, on the BBC News site, Irish Central website, and the Catholic Herald Online, as well as a few parenting websites. The story made it onto Twitter and Mumsnet too. Our sister paper, the Dewsbury Reporter also included a version of the tale. It’s fair to say, I think, that it’s rattled some cages. As an exclusive, it would have been great – particularly if the other stories came off the back of my work – but I can’t blame her for wanting to tell her story to anyone who would listen, and I do think it spreading as it did has helped.

It’s now close to a week since the original article, but unfortunately there’s no concrete progress – the church seem to be accusing Clare of not attending Mass enough, again, and although some new disability guidelines are due across the board, they’re not out for 4/5 months and so won’t be implemented in time for Denum to join in in May.

Some of the comments made about Clare, on our Facebook page and on our site, have accused her (somewhat unfairly I feel)  of using her son to get the media’s attention, playing the ‘disability card’ and not attending Mass regularly enough.

Then there’s the question of whether its right, ethically, to put a 7 year old through a religious committal ceremony without being able to determine whether he does truly understand and appreciate what is going on. But how would you measure that comprehension? This is where the church needs to adapt its teaching methods and ceremonies to children of all abilities – there are groups within the church that aim to help chuldren with learning disabilities but how effective are they in preparation for the first Sacrement?

I don’t know. As an atheist, religious ceremony means very little to me. I have no intention of christening my children, and would never get married in church – its not right for someone who does not believe in God.

But what I do know is that if I felt my child was being discriminated against, singled out or excluded in any way, for an unfair reason, I would fight tooth and nail for justice. And for that I truly respect her and wish her  and Denum every happiness, whatever the outcome. All she truly wants is to see her little boy join his school mates in cementing his membership at the church where he was christened, where she married his father, and where she’s worshipped for decades.

What’s so controversial about that?


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