ARE the Masons sinister men of mystery or bighearted, community-minded fundraisers?
In this special report by DAVID HOLMES one woman voices her suspicions about the movement's influence on society while leading Chester Masons speak out proudly about their membership of what they describe as a 'worthwhile organisation'.
PROUD Mason Brian Crowe has been a member for more than 20 years and regards allegations that the organisation is self-serving as 'a load of rubbish'.
The city councillor said the 22 lodges in Chester and 300 craft lodges across Cheshire gave thousands of pounds to good causes.
'They are very, very nice people. I would not have anything to do with them unless they were 100% above board. They are sociable people and it's a major part of my life.
'It hurts me that people are trying to do the Masons down. There might be individual cases where people have gone off the rails and they deserve to be kicked out - but that's nothing to do with what the Masons is about,' he said.
Cllr Crowe, a former Lord Mayor of Chester, said those who were found to have acted inappropriately were disbarred.
As someone in public office he has no problem divulging his connection with the Masons. He said there was a directive from the United Grand Lodge of England, the governing body, to be open.
He gave examples of how the Masons contributed to the Merseyside Prostate Cancer Appeal and purchased wheelchairs for Dorin Park Special School in Upton.
'I have been a Mason for 20 odd years and I am very, proud to be a member of such a worthy and worthwhile organisation,' he said.
Cllr Crowe, whose Lodge of Independence meets at Cheshire View in Christleton every month said, as well as charitable work, there was a social aspect to what he describes as a private members' club rather than a secret club.
'I won't do anything unless there is a social side,' he commented. Asked why it was men only, he joked: 'I've wanted to join the WI all my life and the Mothers' Union won't have me!'
Cllr Crowe, who shells out hundreds of pounds each year to belong the group, denies the Masons are a secret society saying 'the secret is there are no secrets'.
But he won't divulge the names of other members or talk in detail about the rituals: 'If you listen to the history and people understand the background then there is a relevance.'
Chester MP Christine Russell says Free-masonry stands in conflict with public life but she believes its influence is on the wane.
The MP, former chairwoman of Chester City Council's planning committee, said: 'It was a major issue in Chester during the Thatcher era. When I was on planning, my line was that (Masonic) members should register their interest and question whether they should be on the planning committee.
'There is, I believe, the potential for a conflict of interest.
'People have brought allegations but it's usually been impossible to prove.'
She said there used to be a lodge at County Hall called the Palentine Lodge and about 20 years ago there was said to be aMasonic influence within the highways department.
Ms Russell said the complaint from 'Claire' was the first she had dealt with as an MP but admitted she handled more as a city councillor. She said her constituent's complaints related more to North Wales and thought most of it was fairly historic.
However, she has agreed to carry out research and pass on relevant information.
While admitting it was 'perfectly true' that the Masons did good deeds for charity, she added: 'I think the Masons are their own worst enemy because of their obsession with secrecy.' The MP said the other point was that the organisation had a highly selective membership.
Her Tory opponent Paul Offer, the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate, is not a member of the Masons but said he was once asked if he would like to join.
'I had no real interest in joining a secret club. I was more interested in working for Round Table, Rotary and the Lions. In days gone by I'm sure there was a handshake club which one could use to one's advantage but I doubt that's the case nowadays.'
Chief Constable is 'not a Mason'
CHESHIRE Chief Constable Peter Fahy is quite happy to declare he is not a Mason.
And he would encourage any of his officers who are members to declare their interest so the force can be seen to be open and transparent in all its actions.
Mr Fahy said: 'Certainly I remember it being an issue about 10-15 years ago. I was aware generally of Masons in the force and the police service generally. To be honest I have heard very little of it in recent years and I have never been approached to join.
'I encourage officers to declare if they are Mason. There have been attempts to force officers to declare their membership but that fell foul of human rights legislation.
'I'm happy to declare I'm not a Mason and most forces have a register to say if you are a Mason or if you have any other interests. We keep hospitality and gift registers.'
He said he had not heard even a mention of the Masons since he joined the Cheshire force. But he accepts that many years ago there were networks within the service.
'It was supposed to be secret but in a lot of cases you knew who was in and out,' he said. Asked whether people had used member-ship to further their careers, he commented: 'I'm not aware of it, but that sort of thing was insinuated. In my career it's never been an issue. I've never heard of an individual getting on because they were a Mason.
'There was one comical incident where a PC and a superintendent were both Masons and the PC was higher up in the Masons then the superintendent!' He said like any organisation there were 'relationships and power bases' and the police had to be mindful that they acted impartially in all cases.
Inspector Nick Adderley, staff officer to the Chief Constable, commented it was 'difficult' to say whether Masons had an influence in the modern police service because of the secret nature of the organisation.
But he added: 'Maybe some years ago some people did see it as a way of getting promoted or into specialised departments because of membership of the Freemasons.
'Now in terms of the process of application and recruitment, it is so rigorous and robust, even to the point that interview panel members are selected at random, that it doesn't happen nowadays.'
'If we can get enough bad publicity, things might happen'
A BUSINESS woman wants to set up a pressure group to undermine the 'secret society' known as the Freemasons after claiming to have gained an insight into its clandestine world.
The woman visited Chester MP Christine Russell who warned her to 'be careful' and agreed to undertake research into the subject after passing on her own experiences.
'Claire' decided to speak out after personal experience of the Masons from family involvement and after going out with a Mason for five years.
That relationship ended acrimoniously which is why she has asked us to change her name in our story. She is also concerned about the reaction of the Masons to her speaking out.
She accuses the Masons of using their influence to pursue the interests of the Brotherhood within the police, the judiciary, local councils, the Inland Revenue, the medical profession and business organisations.
Chester resident Claire said: 'We are going to be up against it. What I would suggest is for other people to come forward and tell their stories about how the Masons have acted against their interests. If we can get enough bad publicity, things might happen, and there might be changes, or they might be deterred from carrying on like this.'
Claire, a self-employed business consultant, accused the Masons of employing the façade of being 'brotherly and charitable' to pursue self-serving activities.
'As far as I am concerned in this day and age something needs to be done,' said Claire.
She said the Masons had traditionally held influence within the police service.
'If somebody in the Masons decided to wage a vendetta against you, you feel you would have no redress. But you feel there should be somebody or a group where someone can go and get some support or backing.'
For legal reasons The Chronicle can only refer in vague terms to Claire's allegations which would require in-depth investigative research and may be impossible to prove.
She claims that while working as a tax inspector for 20 years she saw and heard of many examples of Masonic activity.
'Worst of all was someone who went round closing down investigation cases where fellow Masons were the subject of inquiry. These were people fiddling their tax - usually self-employed business people,' she said.
She claimed the person concerned was sacked but reinstated after another Mason within the Inland Revenue destroyed the evidence.
In another allegation, she told of a relative who was appointed to a senior post on his local council in Wales shortly after joining the Masons.
'He was not qualified to do this but was promoted up and up. Instant grants are made to relatives and not paid back when they should have been.'
Claire also gave another example of a Chester area professional accused of embezzling money from a business organisation. She claims her former partner told her it was 'covered up' because he was a Mason.
She also alleges court cases have been thrown out by Masonic judges, including one in Wales involving a Mason accused of child abuse.
'Judges are notorious for finding favour with Masonic defendants,' she said. 'They also have a big presence in the medical world.'
In a separate case, a leading Chester Mason unofficially told The Chronicle he had arranged for a district judge to cover a case instead of the usual bench of lay magistrates. He said he could not determine the outcome but could influence the process.
There was no way of proving or disproving the claim either way.
Claire said in her experience, many members were small business people and many, like her ex-boyfriend, were members of the Conservative Party and had military connections.
She claimed the cost of joining would be prohibitively expensive for most ordinary people.
'I say to myself sometimes 'am I going bonkers?' You make associations. Should I be making these associations or am I being paranoid? Maybe some of the conclusions I jump to are not right, but I just don't know.' Anyone wishing to contact 'Claire' can do so by writing to The Chronicle Newsroom, Chronicle House, Commonhall Street, Chester, CH1 2AA, or by e-mailing: firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 01244 606412.