Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has accused the government of trying to cover up aspects of the decision to exhume the body of 19th century Catholic clergyman Cardinal Henry Newman.

He claims the Catholic Church “put the government under sustained pressure” to grant it a licence to exhume and rebury Cardinal Newman in Birmingham Oratory Church, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI).

The head of the Church in England and Wales,Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, conducted a service for Newman at Birmingham Oratory on Saturday as part of the process of having him declared a saint.

Cardinal Newman, Britain’s most famous Catholic convert, died in 1890.

He was a pillar of the Oxford Movement, which tried to bring the Anglican church back to its Roman Catholic roots. After this failed he converted to Roman Catholicism.

The decision to remove his remains from their final resting place was controversial as the Cardinal had stipulated he wanted to be buried with his longtime companion, Father Ambrose St John.

No physical remains were found in the grave when it was opened last month.

“The documents show that the Ministry of Justice worked in close cooperation with the Catholic Church to deflect criticism of the reburial plans, which violated Cardinal Newman’s expressed wish to remain buried with the man he loved for over 30 years, Father Ambrose St John,” said Mr Tatchell.

“They reveal high level collusion between the government and the Catholic Church, including devising a ‘Media Plan’ to rebut criticisms.

“It is now apparent that the Ministry of Justice was initially slow and hesitant about granting the licence and delayed a decision until July this year.

“It took repeated emails from Peter Jennings of the Catholic Church, and reference to the concerns of the Vatican, to get ministerial authorisation.

“The licence application was approved by Catholic Justice Minister, Bridget Prentice MP, which raises conflict of interest issues. Did she show unwarranted favouritism towards the Vatican-backed request for
the reburial of Newman?

“Most of the FOI documents are heavily censored, with whole pages blacked out. This suggests the Ministry of Justice has something hide.

“Nevertheless, we can see that the Catholic Church subjected the government to constant and strenuous lobbying to get its way.

“Fifty-five documents concerning legal advice have been withheld. Other documents have been suppressed by the Justice Minister under section 36 of the FOI, which concerns ‘Prejudice to effective conduct
of public affairs’.

“The government has declined to state the content of the suppressed documents.”

Though Cardinal Newman was a lifelong celibate, and many scholars argue that his love for his fellow priest was merely Platonic, this move by the Catholic Church has fuelled speculation that they are embarrassed by the close nature of the friendship between the two men.

Newman and St John shared a house together and were lifelong friends. They share a tombstone with the inscription “out of shadows and phantasms into the truth” etched across it.

The Catholic Church claims the move is in preparation for his beatification, the third stage of recognition of sainthood.

Martin Prendergast, a homosexual campaigner in the Catholic Church, claimed the relationship had caused misgivings in the Vatican: “I don’t think they can just pretend the relationship didn’t exist,” he said.