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Cardinal calls for tighter ethical governance of Catholic hospital
posted on 20 March 2006
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor

A revised Code of Ethics and a new ethical governance framework are the key demands contained in a 6 March letter from the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-OConnor, to the Chairman of the Hospital of St John & St Elizabeth.

The letter to Robin Bridgeman follows a confidential report submitted to the Cardinal by a four-member committee of inquiry headed by Lord Brennan. The Cardinal ordered the inquiry last year after the hospital - popularly known as John and Lizzie's - decided to allow GPs to operate NHS practices from its premises in St John's Wood, north  London.

In the letter the Cardinal thanks Lord Brennan and his Committee for having looked in some depth at a difficult matter and for having given me succint and well-founded advice.

The Cardinal writes:

It is clear that everyone involved with St Johnand St Elizabeth wishes it to continue successfully with a Catholic ethos, that is, in accordance with the spiritual and ethical principles of Catholic teaching and tradition.

But he adds: 

What is less clear however is that all involved accept the implications of the tensions and conflicts between Catholic moral teaching and contemporary secular medical practice (and the expectations and attitudes of many non-Catholic and Catholic patients).

In fairness to healthcare professionals, patients, and benefactors, the Cardinal continues, there must be clarity that the Hospital, being a Catholic hospital with a distinct vision of what is truly in the interests of human persons, cannot offer its patients, non-Catholic or Catholic, the whole range of services routinely accepted by many in modern secular society as being in a patients best interest.

The Archbishop of  Westminster has legal responsibilities in relation to the Hospital both as its Patron and as Adjudicator on differences of opinion regarding ethics and their implementation.

Cardinal Murphy-OConnor tells Viscount Bridgeman: Differences of opinion have arisen about how the Codes provisions about consultation apply to referrals for direct abortion, for amniocentesis for purposes other than safe delivery, and for contraception, and to prescribing with contraceptive intent, particularly when what is prescribed is or may be abortifacient (e.g. by impeding implantation).

The Cardinal goes on to call for a revision and clarification of the Code of Ethics in specific ways in order to make clear that the kinds of referral and prescription mentioned above are inconsistent with the Code because they are inconsistent with Catholic ethical teaching and therefore with adherence to the governing objects of the Hospital.

The revision should make clear that anyone who while in the Hospital recommends such procedures, arranges for them to be carried out elsewhere or does anything with the intention that it be preliminary to or an initiation of the carrying out of the procedure elsewhere would be formally and therefore always wrongfully cooperating in the unacceptable procedure or other activity, he says.

The Cardinal also asks that in revising the Code it should be made clear that its requirements apply to any facility within the Hospital, its precincts or its ownership.

The second part of the Cardinals letter calls for a tightening of the mechanisms for implementing the revised Code. 

A hospital which is Catholic in name and ethos must invest time and energy in its ethical as well as in its clinical governance, he tells Viscount Bridgeman. It is therefore particularly important that the Hospital institute effective structures and procedures of ethical governance so that the application of the revised Code is audited in ways analogous to modern best practice in relation to financial and medical governance. 

He then spells out a series of mechanisms for ensuring more effective compliance, emphasising the need to make both consultants and patients aware of the Code, and calling for a periodic review and regular monitoring of its application.

The Cardinal acknowledges in his letter that the Hospital will need a period of adjustment to meet the two demands and says he will be asking Lord Brennans Committee to review the progress made after a specific time.

The Cardinals letter concludes:

Achieving clarity inevitably involves some discomfort and some commercial risk, but these are challenges which if accepted, will secure the Hospital of St Johnand Elizabeth as a Catholic Institution in the tradition in which it was founded.

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1. The Hospital of St. John & St. Elizabeth was founded by Cardinal Wiseman in 1856 in Great Ormond Street. In 1901 the new Hospital of St. John & St. Elizabeth was opened by the Lord Mayor of London in its current location in St. John's Wood, north London. It is the third largest independent hospital in the United Kingdom.

2. The terms of the hospitals Trust makes clear that the objects of the charity to serve the sick and the dying are to be carried out in accordance with the spiritual and ethical principles of Roman Catholic teaching and traditions and in accordance with the ethics of the Roman Catholic Church in communion with the See of Rome. In the event of a difference of opinion over those ethics, the terms of the Trust make clear that the Archbishop of Westminsters decision is final and conclusive.

3. Although 70 per cent of the Board members must be Roman Catholics, most of the staff (including doctors) are not.

4. The Hospital has a statement in response to this. Contact Louisa Stanton, Senior Account Executive at Clear Communications, Tel: 020 7432 2500, email

Contact details:
Austen Ivereigh
Director for Public Affairs
Telephone: 020 7798 9045 or 07905 224860

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