Comment on the Comments
William Oddie FAITH Magazine July – August 2012
Two recent and contemporaneous news stories, though from different worlds, nevertheless ought, I suggest, to have been considered together. In both cases, the story was about religion and the sexual exploitation of children. The stories were, however, reported very differently. I refer, first, to the media obloquy heaped on the head of the Irish primate Cardinal Sean Brady for not reporting a Catholic priest for paedophile offences 40 years ago even though it was not his responsibility to do so; and, secondly, to the sentencing to varying terms of imprisonment of nine Muslims for the gross sexual exploitation of a group of wretched, helpless, underage girls.
Cardinal Brady first. Consider an article by Jenny McCartney in The Sunday Telegraph. I choose her piece from many others, first because she is normally a fair-minded and well-informed commentator; secondly because she conveyed well enough the general tenor of the obloquy which for a time rained down on Cardinal Brady's head.
"It has become", she wrote, "a painfully self-evident truth - surely, even to the silent onlookers at the Vatican - that the longer Cardinal Sean Brady stays in place as Primate of All Ireland, the greater the damage inflicted on the reputation of the Catholic Church in Ireland and beyond. This is not simply because his presence has become a reminder of the cover-up of paedophile abuse by priests, but also because it illustrates a continuing problem: that, after all this time, Cardinal Brady just doesn't get it. By 'get it' I mean that he still seems to believe that he personally behaved appropriately in the circumstances by which the late Father Brendan Smyth, a rapacious paedophile of almost unimaginable moral corruption, was tacitly permitted by the Church to continue brutally abusingchildren for 40 years, long after the ecclesiastical authorities knew what he was up to."
I wonder, I really do wonder, if anyone in the media really thought through the implications of all this. What we had here, it seems to me, was very evidently nearer to the phenomenon we call today a "witch-hunt" than to a common understanding based on an equitable analysis of the reality of the situation. The mass psychology of these affairs is rarely based on reason or justice; and such, I suggest, was the case here.
Father Vincent Twomey, the eminent retired professor of moral theology at Maynooth, said, with some justice: "There is a sense of a Greek tragedy in all of this. In the Greek tragedy, people do things intending to do the good thing but instead some awful, dreadful things happen as a result of their actions and they have to pay for it.... I think for the good of the church, I'm afraid I am of the opinion that he should resign...."
But even that perpetuated the notion that it was because of something the young Fr Brady actually did, or failed to do, that Brendan Smyth carried on abusing children, as though Fr Brady had episcopal responsibility even then. But he wasn't the bishop, he was the bishop's secretary: I wonder how many of those calling for his resignation had read the statement he issued following the BBC programme which triggered off this furore. As he put it, surely entirely reasonably: "I had absolutely no authority over Brendan Smyth. Even my Bishop had limited authority over him. The only people who had authority within the Church to stop Brendan Smyth from having contact with children were his Abbot in the Monastery in Kilnacrott and his Religious Superiors in the Norbertine Order. As MonsignorCharles Scicluna, Promoter of Justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, confirmed in an interview with RTF.... it was Brendan Smyth's superiors in the Norbertine Order who bear primary responsibility for failing to take the appropriate action when presented with the weight of evidence I had faithfully recorded and that Bishop McKiernan subsequently presented to them...."
The documentation of the interview with the first child to be identified as a victim of Fr Smyth identifies the then Fr Brady simply as the "notary" or "note taker" of the proceedings. He did not formulate the questions asked in the inquiry process. He did not put the questions. He simply recorded the answers.
Even within the more stringent state requirements existing today in Ireland, he would not have been what is now called the "designated person" whose role would now be to report allegations of child abuse to the civil authorities. There was no such defined role, of course in the Seventies, when all this happened; and it is worth remembering that that wasn't the only thing that was utterly different then. It seems incredible to think of it now, but in this country, quite respectable people (some of whom later became senior politicians) campaigned for "paedophile rights". This was the decade in which organisations such as Paedophile Information Exchange and Paedophile Action for Liberation became affiliated to the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL, today known as Liberty). NCCLitself campaigned to reduce the age of consent in the United Kingdom and argued that court cases could do more damage than the acts themselves, arguing that "childhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in, with an adult result in no identifiable damage".
There is much more that could be said in defence of Cardinal Brady: but who would listen? It seems to me, nevertheless, that he suffered, at the hands of the BBC This World programme in particular, and the media in general, a profound injustice, and that this injustice was made possible only because it fed into a narrative which Catholics have endured over recent years for the most part without protest, so great has been their numb horror at the seemingly endless procession of abusive clergy who have been dragged from the shadows by police and media. This narrative says not that a tiny number of clergy, shamefully, have had their share in the paedophile guilt of society at large (though if anything, judging by the figures for the general male population, a somewhat lesser share)but that there is some essential connection between paedophilia and the Catholic priesthood.
The fact that this is a general problem of our times and our society is of course no excuse. As Dr Pravin Thevathasan wrote in his book The Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis (CTS): "It is true that the abuse of minors is rife within society. But we claim, by the grace of God, to be members of the one Church founded by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and we are therefore called to a higher standard than that found in society at large." But that doesn't mean that this is a problem that can be seriously addressed by mounting witch-hunts against senior clergy for what they did or failed to do 40 years ago - particularly when it is absolutely clear that they had no direct responsibility for making decisions in the particular case concerned.
Cardinal Brady endured, as I say, a witch-hunt of a kind Catholics have had to get used to and others have not. This was dramatically illustrated by the other major sex abuse story involving religion which was obsessing the media at about the same time. In the case of Cardinal Brady, the media made the most of the anti-Catholic hysteria it stoked up; in the other, they scarcely dared mention the religion of those accused, only - and for a very particular reason - their race. The oblique mention of race here offered the perfect opportunity to avoid discussing the very sensitive issue of the religious dimension of these offences. The accused were "Asian", if you like: never "Muslim".
What became very evident as the trial unfolded was the absurdity that the well-known attitude of some Muslims (particularly some Muslim men) towards some non-Muslim women - a centrally important consideration in the whole affair - was consistently and with deliberation brushed under the carpet. When the Muslim journalist Yasmin Alibhai Brown tried to describe this attitude from her own experience, recalling, during a radio discussion, many conversations among ordinary Muslims about white women and their alleged promiscuity, she was shouted down by another Muslim participant, the otherwise admirable Mohammed Shafiq. Shafiq, chief executive of the moderate Muslim organisation the Ramadhan Foundation, had actually received death threats for accepting that sexual abuse of vulnerable underagewhite girls was a phenomenon of particular concern to the "Asian" community: "In the early days", he says, "the Asian community thought the exploitation was all made up, just BNP propaganda. Then they realised that it was actually going on and they found it abhorrent."
He even pointed out that the offenders were predominantly Pakistani men. Such offenders "have a respectable life in the community and then they have their night life. Asian girls are not available to them and so they look to Western girls. They think they're easy. They see them as tarts who are there to be used." All true, and almost exclusively a Muslim attitude. I make no judgment here concerning the extent to which these attitudes result from their faith, western decadence and other influences, but just affirm that avoiding rational discussion on the issue is a dangerous game.
We need to get back to the use of the term "race" and its misuse as a pseudonym for "religion": deny it has anything to do with race, and you deny by implication that it's a Muslim problem. This confusion of race and religion, however, has itself undoubtedly been part of the problem. As the former MP for Keighley, the admirable Ann Cryer (who has been courageously campaigning on the issue for many years) said of the failure by police to act before now: "This is an absolute scandal. They were petrified of being called racist and so reverted to the default of political correctness. They had a greater fear of being perceived in that light than of dealing with the issues in front of them."
One girl told police that she had been raped and provided DNA evidence from her attacker. But the CPS twice decided not to prosecute him. The 15-year-old's abuse continued and at its height she was being driven to flats and houses to be raped by up to five men a night, four or five days a week. She was, says Mrs Cryer, singled out because she was white, vulnerable and underage.
And, it also has to be said, because she was non-Muslim and therefore, in the eyes of the perpetrators, not worthy of care or respect. As the judge told the nine men while handing down exemplary sentences, they had contempt for these children because "they were not of your community or religion." As Brendan O'Neill said in his Telegraph blog:
"The fact is that in a secular-humanist, and often anti-religious civilisation, religious targets have to be carefully chosen. In a specifically anti-Catholic (or in the case of modern Ireland simply anti-clerical) culture, the Catholic clergy are the perfect target. Muslims are a little frightening, even dangerous; avoid mentioning their religion if at all possible, even when it is directly relevant: that's the rule."
What can Catholics do about all this? Probably it just has to be endured. But we also have to carry on plugging away at the truth: which is that in a society in which child sex abuse is a major problem, our clergy have collectively become scapegoats. And where there are scapegoats, the real problem isn't being addressed.
We need to worry, too, about all those children who are being abused but not by the clergy: who cares about them?