Shortly after gay reporter and barman Terry Higgins died in 1982, one of the first acknowledged victims of the AIDS virus then nascent in England, a group of his friends got together and set up a charity trust in his memory, dedicated to promoting awareness and preventing the spread of the disease.
Twenty five years later the Terrence Higgins Trust is generally considered as the UK’s leading HIV and AIDS charity, and the largest in Europe. It provides services on a national and local level to people with, affected by, or at risk of contracting HIV; and campaigns for greater public understanding of the impact of HIV and AIDS. So it seemed right and fitting that the prestigious London Oratory School, whose pupils include Tony Blair’s boys, should choose to donate to this very worthy charity the proceeds raised by a gala concert on World AIDS Day this December, featuring the school’s internationally acclaimed choir, the Schola.
The ‘Song of Hope’concert was planned and advertised months ago, and depending on ticket sales, expects to raise a substantial sum, running into thousands of pounds, very useful funding for the Higgins Trust in its AIDS ‘care and aware’ campaign.
But suddenly last week, with less than a month to go before the concert, the London Oratory School reneged on its offer and dropped the charity as beneficiary of the gala.
A spokesman for the Terrence Higgins Trust, whose fundraising team had spent several months working on the concert, said they were surprised and disappointed by the decision. “It’s a shame we won’t benefit, but the school has its policies and they have to think about their integrity. It’s very challenging raising money for HIV and Aids.”
The reason for the withdrawal? The Terrence Higgins Trust advocates condom-use to prevent the spread of HIV, and it is also the lead organisation in the England & Wales gay men’s health promotion partnership, both anthema to the Catholic Church, which opposes any kind of contraception and considers homosexuality a sin. And although supposedly autonomous, the London Oratory is a Catholic school, and directly answerable to the Vatican.
In a conciliatory letter to parents, following some complaints about the school’s initial support for the trust, headmaster David McFadden explained that there had been concerns,
“regarding the distribution of proceeds to an organisation whose aims and practices conflicted with the teaching and viewpoint of the Catholic Church.
“The London Oratory School will always want to make sure its charitable fundraising work is done with organizations whose philosophy, aims and practices support Christian values.
“The nominated charity does not meet this criterion, it would be inappropriate for the school to financially support this charity from the proceeds of the concert.”
In a statement, the school said the proceeds from the concert would now be split between SURF, a fund for the survivors of the Rwandan genocide, and SOS Children’s Villages, a charity which is funding a “family strengthening programme” in Swaziland.
Actor Simon Callow, a patron of both the THT and the Schola choir has threatened to resign his patronage of the latter because of the school’s decision.
“If it’s subject to that sort of pressure from the Catholic Church, then I’d find it really hard to endorse it, he wrote in a letter to McFadden.
One anonymous parent expressed outrage at the school’s decision, but admitted there were reactionary elements among some clergy and parents who would be delighted by the news. The London Oratory School has close ties to the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which recently hosted an event to celebrate the work of a pro-life charity.
On the inauguration of the current Pope, Benedict XVI, AIDS activists called on him to ease the papal ban on the use of condoms to prevent HIV.
“He has a great opportunity to help tackle the global HIV pandemic, said Nick Partridge, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust at the time. “We hope that he will take it.”
He didn’t. And he hasn’t. And as usual, practicing Catholics follow the dictates of the Vatican, which condemn all sexual relationships outside marriage, and rejects the use of all forms of artificial birth control.
Twenty five years after the foundation of the Terrence Higgins Trust ignorance about the causes of HIV remains high, even in the UK, with many still believing that it can be caught through kissing, sweat, or shared cutlery.
“The lack of good sex education means many young people are leaving school ignorant about HIV and safer sex, said Nick Partridge. “HIV is now the fastest growing serious health condition in the UK, and there is no cure. It’s time to get our facts straight. ”
Fat chance with the Catholic Church, whose President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo officially announced “The Aids virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon and can easily pass through the ‘net’ that is formed by the condom, advising millions of people from Asia to Latin America not to use them.
In Kenya–where an estimated 20% of people have HIV–the church condemns condoms for promoting promiscuity and repeats the claim about their permeability. The archbishop of Nairobi, Raphael Ndingi Nzeki, said: “Aids has grown so fast because of the availability of condoms.”
Some priests are even told by the Vatican to say that condoms are laced with HIV/Aids.
The World Health Organization has condemned the Vatican’s views, saying: “These incorrect statements about condoms and HIV are dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people, and currently affects at least 42 million.” The organisation says “consistent and correct” condom use reduces the risk of HIV infection by 90%.
“But they are wrong about that, says Cardinal Trujillo. “This is an easily recognisable fact.”
The Catholic Church’s irresponsible and outrageous claims about condoms make the spread of HIV far harder to control, and indeed greatly help in sending the ignorant faithful to their early graves. The preservation of life must be of higher importance than the preservation of church regulations. Abstinence is not a practical option for many people.
By axing the Terrence Higgins Trust as beneficiary of their World Aids Day gala, the London Oratory School has exposed itself as a deluded and hypocritical institution, an obedient tool of a right-wing control-freak Pope. Any guest with half a heart choosing to sit through the school concert next month will surely have, along with the lovely music in his ears, a very nasty taste in his mouth.
MICHAEL DICKINSON, whose artwork graces the covers of Dime’s Worth of Difference, Serpents in the Garden and Grand Theft Pentagon, lives in Istanbul. He can be contacted via his website http://yabanji.tripod.com/ or at: firstname.lastname@example.org