The newspapers, radio and television are once again sagging under the weight of a ‘Priests are child abusers’ report. This one is the Murphy report and details how reports of child sexual abuse by priests in the Dublin diocese were covered up by the Catholic bishops and by the gardai of the day. No one in their right mind would want to see a child sexually abused (or anyone else for that matter), but there’s something unedifying and undiscriminating about the way the media are handling the story.
A few questions that spring to mind:
1. What is the nature of paedophilia – is it a straight-forward crime or a condition? This is crucial, if we’re to judge the legal or moral guilt of those who perpetrated these actions. If they freely chose to commit the crimes, they deserve to be punished, probably by imprisonment. If they suffer from a psychological condition, they’re not free to choose and deserve not prison but hospitalization and treatment.
2. What is the nature of the evidence that made the people who wrote the Murphy report confident that things happened as those who brought charges claim? Is there material evidence? Is it the word of the accuser against that of the accused? An important distinction to draw, for just as the accused can be guilty of vile crimes, the accuser can be guilty of lying.
3. Why are people surprised that the Catholic hierarchy seem to have been engaged in cover-up? All institutions instinctively do this when attacked – universities, schools, broadcasting corporations, local communities. It doesn’t make it right but it does make it common.
4. Is it true that most instances of child abuse – over 90% – occur within the immediate family circle? If so, shouldn’t abuse within the Catholic Church be set in that context? That is to say, that there are as likely to be abusers among the ranks of, say, journalists, as among Catholic priests?
5. What constitutes child sexual abuse? If an adult strokes a child’s face or kisses them, is that abuse in the same way that forced sexual intercourse is abuse?
6. Child sexual abuse is particularly shocking in that it is the violation of an innocent, defenceless person. Are blanket attacks on Catholic priests, including the majority of priests who appear to lead selfless, dedicated lives, another instances of abuse of innocent, defenceless people?
The last time I raised questions like this I received abusive emails for not joining in the undiscriminating condemnation of the Catholic clergy. In other words, if you’re not for us you’re against us. Now when did I last hear that forced choice being voiced?