How The Argus Destroyed the Reputation of a Faithful Priest

St Laurence of Rome distributes alms to the poor
On Thursday 5th September, Bill Gardner of The Argus wrote an astonishing article for the local newspaper that made its way into the national and then international press.  Newspapers that carried his story on Fr Ray Blake of Brighton included the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Times and The Telegraph as well as international news agencies.

The Legend of St Laurence of Rome

Bill Gardener’s article was, unfortunately for Fr Blake, an unscrupulous ‘hit-piece’ characterising the parish priest of St Mary Magdalen Catholic Church as a grim Dickensian villain who hated the poor of Brighton.  A whole month earlier, on August 10th, Fr Blake had penned a post for his personal blog entitled, ‘The Trouble With the Poor’. 

The blog post, to which Bill did not provide a URL link in his article was a meditation on the Feast of St Laurence, the Catholic Saint who, during the persecution against the Roman Church under Valerian, when asked to bring to the Emperor the ‘treasures of the Church of Rome’, brought to him the poor, the sick, the widows and ophans in the Church’s care and declared, “Behold, O emperor, the treasures of the Church of Rome!”

According to the legend of St Laurence, the enraged Valerian had Laurence slowly grilled to death. During his martyrdom, the legend says that Laurence said to his murderers, ‘Turn me over now, since this side is done.’ St Laurence was the focus of the blog post by Fr Blake and it was against this backdrop that his post ‘The Trouble With the Poor’ - especially the homeless - was read by his readership. Of course, you would never know this had you read Bill Gardner’s astonishing character assassination of the Brighton priest whose Church operates one of only two nightly soup runs to the homeless and hungry of Brighton.  It is clear from the priest’s blog post that St Laurence is the focus of his reflection, since the Saint’s gruesome martyrdom is pictured in his piece.

Writing on the Church’s theology, Fr Blake wrote:

‘The Protestant argument was against the pre-reformation Catholic Pelagian practice of salvation through works.  The Catholic conter-reformation argument was against Protestant belief that once you were saved you were saved. Catholics believe the great danger in Protestantism is complacency, having received the ‘blessed assurance’ of Salvation one can relax. The Catholic doctrine is that complacency about salvation is dangerous, hence the counter-reformation and biblical teaching of ‘faith fruitful in good works’.  No ‘assurance’ can guarantee salvation, it is God’s free gift, unknown to us until judgement day.’

The Brighton priest’s August reflection continued:

'The sin of the Pharisees, of the rich man in the story of Dives and Lazarus is complacence. The rich man didn’t even notice the mess that Lazarus created at his front door.  He didn’t respond to it, he needed someone to bring him out of his complacency.’

An international controversy begins...

Fr Blake blesses the bench dedicated to Ann Roberts
It was within both this content and context that Fr Blake’s readership understood the following thoughts on the poor and homeless that Fr Blake ministers to on a near daily basis in his life as a Catholic priest.  Speaking of his experiences as a priest in Brighton, Fr Blake wrote:

‘The trouble with the poor is that they are messy. There is a secluded area between the church and our hall, a passage, occasionally we find someone has got a few cardboard boxes together and has slept there and if it has been raining leaves a sodden blanket, cardboard there to be cleaned up, often it also smells of urine and there is often excrement there and sometimes a used needle or two.

There is a man who comes into the church, especially during the traditional Mass and during the silence of the Canon will pray aloud, “Jesus, I want you to bless Fr Ray and ...., and God, can you persuade the good people here to give to the poor, I am poor”. Unchecked he will take his cap off and have a collection.  It makes a mess of our prayers, it stops some coming to Mass here.  If they are not doing that they are ringing the door bell at every hour of the day and night, and they tell lies. They tell you their Gran is dying in Southampton and they need the train fare, you give it to them and if you don’t find them drunk in the street they are back the next day and the other Gran is dying in Hastings this time.’

Harsh? Or just the honest, real life experiences of ministry in the ‘city by the sea’?  Bear in mind that Fr Blake greets members of Brighton’s homeless community day in, day out, at his door.  Few people in Brighton would suggest that all of Brighton’s homeless community are of either sound mind or are perpetually truthful, yet this does not stop both Fr Blake and his flock loving, feeding and caring for them, more than most in Brighton.

The Martyrdom of St Laurence
The misrepresentation of an honest Priest who had does more than most to help the homeless

Just days after their cruel hit-piece, The Argus itself ran a poll in which 54% of readers said they would like the Council to ban ‘super-strength’ lager being sold in order to curb the ‘anti-social behaviour’ of members of Brighton’s homeless community. Fr Blake,  far from condemning the homeless, was simply reflecting on his experiences as a priest, but honesty can get you into hot water with The Argus, those great champions of Brighton’s homeless and of those who help them.

Nearly a whole month after his reflection on St Laurence, Bill Gardner wrote his piece with the headline, ‘”Lying” and “Messy” Poor Sent by God to Test Us’.  With stunning journalistic flair, Mr Gardner claimed that the Brighton priest had, ‘condemned’ street drinkers, ‘complained’ about a homeless man, ‘blasted’ homeless people who came to his door and that he found homeless people “quite a trial” to deal with and here began the international controversy of the Catholic priest who was characterised in the  local, national and international press as somehow ‘hating the poor’.

In his blog post, Fr Ray did no such thing.  He put the many troubles, difficulties and hardships of the poor in the context of St Laurence, the fifth century Deacon who died defending them as the ‘treasure of the Church’.  Fr Ray’s message was that we should imitate the kindness and charity of St Laurence, who loved the poor and showed us that they are the real ‘wealth’ of the Church.

Was The Argus’s motivation just good, old-fashioned anti-Catholicism?

St Mary Magdalen's Church feeds the homeless 365 days a year
The truth is that few people are as compassionate on the poor in Brighton as this good and faithful priest and the volunteers who work on the soup run, the financial support of which is due to his direct appeals to his congregation.

Whatever Brightonians make of the Church’s position on such issues as human sexuality, abortion and marriage, the accusation of meanness or hatred of the poor cannot be levelled at either Fr Blake or the parishioners of St Mary Magdalen’s Church, who entirely fund the soup run to the homeless from their own pockets and who also both co-ordinate and assist it for no pay whatsoever.

Replying to The Argus’s shocking article, Fr Blake said on his blog:

‘Perhaps Mr Gardner might like to help on our soup run.  It doesn’t have to be 365 day a year, once a week would be fine, providing he treats our clients with respect.  Or maybe he could take Jason or Daryl or Pawel or Dawn out for a cup of coffee or a meal, or just come a clear up the next time someone comes in and vomits or bleeds all over my kitchen because he is on drugs or has been beaten up.

Maybe, next time I run out of money I could tap him for a few quid when some vulnerable 17-year-old girl needs to top up her phone to speak to her mum because her boyfriend has beaten her up or she needs a roof over head because she is sleeping in a tent and it is just few degrees above zero and she is vulnerable. Or maybe the next time I am arranging a child’s funeral and someone comes to the door in need of someone to talk because they are suicidal, I can send them round to Bill’s place so he can spend a couple of hours listening to them.  Here, too, I am neither complaining, blasting, lambasting or anything else, just asking.’

There is little doubt that Mr Gardner removed from Fr Blake’s blog post both the context and much of the content of his reflection on the Feast of St Laurence.  Earlier in the same week, no less, he wrote a previous piece for The Argus in which he claimed Fr Blake had expressed ‘outrage’ over a bondage bridal fair in Brighton. He had written nothing on his blog commenting upon the fair and Fr Blake merely gave a telephone reply to Mr Gardner re-stating the sanctity of marriage for Catholics.  What does a journalist expect a Catholic priest to say? So, it would appear that two mischievous articles in one week concerning the same priest might suggest a trend bordering on obession that leads some to believe that Mr Gardner may have ‘had it in’ for this Catholic priest.

Introducing the ‘irritating little b******’

Speaking on the phone to Mr Gardner, Fr Blake had told The Argus reporter that one man who comes to the Church every so often is an ‘irritating little b******’.   This was then emblazoned in headlines and sub-headlines in such newspapers as the Daily Mail, those other champions of the poor and homeless. This was indeed the same man as Fr Blake mentioned in his blog post.  While Fr Blake and the parishioners at St Mary Magdalen love him dearly, the gentleman he was describing is on an ASBO which forbids him to walk on 44 different streets in Brighton and Hove.

ASBO: Something not mentioned in Bill's hit-piece
Still, Mr Gardner did not seem too interested in who the gentleman Fr Blake was describing is, who is known to Brighton’s residents, business community, churches, local authority, police and probation services to be very challenging indeed.
In fact, the gentleman is banned from St Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, having disturbed their services last Christmas, when he inadvertently set his own head on fire while lighting a candle, because his ‘Santa hat’ caught alight. 

Unfortunately for the reputation of Fr Blake, who did not expect his passing comment on the man to be published, Brighton people believe he has in some way injured the right reputation of a perfectly reasonable gentleman when, in fact, his behaviour is so destructive, his begging techniques so very intrusive, that he is on one of the most restrictive ASBOs dispensed to any of Brighton’s citizens, whose ‘anti-social behaviour’ causes distress to others.  Yet, the individual at the heart of Fr Blake’s comment has himself vindicated Fr Blake on a You Tube video in which he praises Fr Blake’s compassion for the poor.

It is a great pity that Mr Gardner opted to go with a sensational quote about the gentleman concerned, rather than to ask more questions about who the ‘irritating little b******’ could be.  Of course, it is also a complete misrepresentation of the truth to suggest that Fr Ray Blake does not care for this individual.  Both he and his parishioners do care about him and in fact, while he is banned from many of Brighton’s churches, he is still consistently welcomed back to St Mary Magdalen Church, despite having disturbed Mass there on several occasions, something known in the Catholic Church as sacrilege, unless worship is disturbed in an emergency.  We love this gentleman, named Jason, very much and he knows it.  If only Bill Gardner had done what journalists are meant to do and investigate. Now, of course, the faithful of St Mary Magdalen Church must ponder who is more irritating and socially menacing...Jason, or rogue reporter, Bill?

A priest's reputation destroyed by appalling journalism

How sad it is, that thanks to Bill Gardner, the erstwhile cub reporter for The Argus, the people of Brighton and Hove, as well as people across the country and across the World, believe the shocking misrepresentation of Fr Blake that Mr Gardner gave to them.  I hope you are pleased with yourself, Mr Gardner.  You have destroyed, for the time being, the reputaion of a good, caring,  faithful, honest priest in the local and now national and international press.  The measure you give out, however, is the same that will be measured back to you.  Do the honest thing, the right thing, the just thing and apologise to him - in print!

Chance would be a fine thing...
This is the very least that Bill Gardner and his editor, Michael Beard can do for a priest who has been misrepresented in their newspaper with devastating effects for his public reputation and the image of the Church. If only they put as much zeal into writing on homelessness, as they do in destroying Catholic priests, Brighton would be a very, very different place.  Until a public apology is made to Fr Blake, we urge Brightonians to boycott the newspaper and for advertisers to reconsider using their advertising space.

If readers of The Eye of a Needle would like to show support for Fr Blake, you can contact the editor of The Argus here.  Its US parent company, Gannett can be contacted here and its holding company, Newsquest, can be contacted here.

If you would like to contribute in any way to St Mary Magdalen Church’s feeding of Brighton’s homeless community, they are always in need of volunteers who are willing to sacrifice their time in order to serve those in whom the Catholic Church teaches Jesus Christ is especially served.

We welcome feedback from readers and aim to build a relationship of trust and mutual respect with the readership of this magazine.  Trust and respect is important.  If only it was important to Bill Gardner and The Argus.