By Hilary White

LONDON, December 3, 2007 ( – Although St. John’s and St. Elizabeth’s, a fashionable London Catholic hospital, has agreed to abide by the terms of a revised Catholic code of ethics, some questionable actions by its chairman and management team could result in the hospital losing its Catholic identity or even going out of business entirely, a Catholic watchdog group says.

“The hospital is not out of the woods yet,” said Nicolas Bellord, secretary to the Restituta Group, a Catholic organization attempting to restore the hospital’s Catholic character.

In 2006, the hospital proposed to lease a building on its property, Brampton House, the former Convent of Mercy, to a medical practice of NHS doctors. Under the NHS ethics code, doctors are under contract to provide abortions or referrals for abortions as well as the full range of contraception-oriented “family planning” services prohibited by the Cardinal’s code of ethics.

The Restituta Group told that the clause in the sub-lease that was not shown to the hospital’s board, including the Cardinal’s representative, allowed these NHS contract obligations to supersede those of the hospital, effectively negating the Cardinal’s revised code of ethics.

Further, the clause allowing the NHS doctors to opt out of the Catholic code of ethics was left out of the sub-lease shown to the Charity Commission, a non-ministerial government department that regulates registered charities. The Commission approved a loan to the hospital of £11 million to fund the project. Having been informed of the omission, the Charity Commission has written to the hospital demanding that the situation be remedied.

Lord Bridgeman, the hospital’s chairman who had failed to inform the board or the Brampton trustees about the sub-lease clause, addressed the issue at a meeting November 7. He proposed as a solution to the crisis the “secularisation of the Hospital’s constitution by removal of the Cardinal’s ‘ethics clause’”. This would result in the hospital becoming, effectively, a secular institution “in the Catholic tradition,” and under no obligations to refrain from committing abortions, dispensing abortifacient drugs or even performing “gender reassignments” or sex-change procedures. 

Clause 4.18.1 of the sub-lease as it was shown to the hospital’s board and the Charity Commission as well as trustees of Brampton House, obliged the doctors “not to do or suffer anything to be done at the Demised Premises which would contravene any of the rules regulations and guidelines contained in the Code of Ethics.”

The crucial missing clause, added after the hospital had approved the loan and signed the sub-lease, added the proviso, “provided that the Tenant shall not be in breach of this clause 4.18.1 by carrying out its contractual arrangements as Registered Medical Practitioners.”

The result is that the hospital is now unable, under its own Catholic code of ethics, to lease the premises to the NHS group and consequently faces substantial financial penalties, having signed the lease and spent the funds developing the property for the purpose.

Another option for the board to resolve the crisis, suggested by Lord Bridgeman, amounted to an ultimatum. The board could “face economic dissolution” and approve the revised code of ethics.

Nicolas Bellord wrote, “So effectively, Lord Bridgeman was proposing either that abortion be accepted or the hospital goes bankrupt. Well who borrowed the £11 million for this morally unacceptable project?”

Bellord told, however, that Bridgeman’s prediction of financial ruin if the hospital retains its Catholic character is a bluff. The board resolved to consult with HSBC to explore options and a member of the board told Bellord that the bank is open to restructuring the hospital’s financial situation.

It is unclear at the moment who added the opt-out clause to the sub-lease but Lord Bridgeman had warned that the hospital would face financial repercussions if it were forced to give up the income of the NHS practice. Nicolas Bellord, however, told that a board member has produced a paper showing various options for Brampton House and that the NHS doctors would only have brought in £250,000 a year, not enough even to cover the interest on the loans.

But Restituta is apprehensive that a recently passed law governing charities in the UK could add pressure to secularize the hospital. As reported earlier this year, the new law would require religious charities to “prove” to the heavily secular government’s satisfaction that they are of “public benefit”, or face losing their charitable tax status.

The Restituta group has sent a letter to the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, complaining of the irregular practices at the hospital and the actions by Bridgeman and the board.

The hospital’s board is meeting again next week.

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