This is a very interesting and important debate. Is the Catholic church a force for good in the world? If you have about 50 minutes to spare, make yourself comfortable and watch. This is part one, and the links to the following four parts will appear in turn. The Archbishop and Anne Widdecombe were very sincere in what they said but they were almost steamrollered by the eloquence and beautiful use of language by Hitchens and Fry.
I have three stories to pass on that have been in the news in recent days, all concerning religious idiocy. The first is stupid, but easily passed over. The second is reckless, not to say potentially disastrous, and the third is downright disgraceful, and unforgivable.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, has criticised Facebook and MySpace as being harmful. He is very uneasy about the communication they enable and the friendships that are formed through it. There is here an element of despising something one does not understand, but it’s not forget how the church has always been opposed to the free traffic of thoughts and ideas. A tight control on what people could read, how they could think, and therefore what they would believe, was essential to the continued flourishing of the church and through it the control of the people.
I have always believed that clergymen should say what they have to say in church, on Sundays, and for the rest of the time just shut up. This sort of thing does nothing to convince me otherwise. The Archbishop says that friendships formed online are “not rounded” whatever that means. Online friendships can be just as strong as face-to-face friendships. How can it be wrong for a person to have friends from around the world? I know that in all probability I will never meet most of my online friends in the flesh (which is a shame because I think some of you are utterly lovely and wonderful) but that does not devalue those friendships in any way. And since religion requires one to communicate with an imaginary friend, I’d have thought that communicating with online friends by computer was immeasurably more rounded by comparison.
Ignorance and lack of information breed superstition and an environment in which religion can thrive. In one part of India, it seems, people believe that they can protect their babies from harm and ensure their future health and prosperity, by dropping them from the roof of a mosque 50 (yes, fifty) feet high, to have them caught in a bed sheet. This annual ritual has been going on for at least seven centuries. Ok, we can understand why people may have believed that in the year 1300, but today? How indoctrinated by religion can a person be to be able to believe this drivel nowadays.
And from exotic India to not quite as exotic Wisconsin, where something truly disgraceful happened. An eleven year old girl, suffering from undiagnosed diabetes fell ill and her parents decided that she didn’t need a doctor, didn’t need to go to hospital. No, what she really needed was to have them pray for her to get better. So they did. And as these two morons sat there wishing their little girl would recover, because that is what praying is, the poor girl died. According to medical evidence, she would have responded to treatment had she received it. But she didn’t. Her parents were too busy asking their imaginary friend to help them. As her condition worsened, they did make a phone call – to the owner of a religious website, who prayed with the down the phone, but that did no good either. Now the parents have been found guilty of second degree homicide and face a long term of imprisonment when they are sentenced in the autumn. I hope they get it. .
I was going to do a meme or something equally fluffy today. It’s the weekend, after all, and not many people pass through here on Saturdays or Sundays. But then my attention was drawn to this. Actually, I saw an brief article about it in the University of Florida’s student newspaper, and with a but of Googling I tracked it down. What happened was, a disabled man – confined to a wheelchair, but still able to move from the chest up, and therefore able to drive a modified car, was stopped by Tampa police and arrested for a traffic violation. They took him back to the Orient Road Jail and a security camera captured what happened next. Have a look.
It goes without saying that that she did was utterly disgraceful. There can be no excuse. Almost as bad was the conduct of the other officers there who stood by and watched. I served for ten years in a real police force, and encountered hundreds of fellow officers, but I can’t think of a single one who would have thought that doing such a thing was even remotely acceptable. It just make me wonder what sort of brainless morons they recruit in Tampa, who manage somehow to con their way into a uniform.
I am pleased to tell you that the deputy concerned, Charlette Marshall-Jones, has been arrested and charged with felony abuse of a disabled person, and if convicted could get up to five years inside. Three others have been suspended without pay. I am posting this here because I don’t want the story to go away. In spite of the swift action of the Sherriff’s department in arresting her, I still feel rather uneasy. After all, not so many years ago six cops beat Rodney King to a pulp on camera, and therefore in full view of the world. Yet they were still able to convince a jury that they didn’t do it.
I can’t say I like children all that much. I’m not sure I agree with the late Kenny Everett that they are noisy, wet, smelly things, but I am happiest when I am not in their vicinity and I do not seek out their society. My own daughter was an exception, of couse, as are the well-behaved offspring of a few close friends, but as a general rule I have little interest in what they do or in anything they may have to say. However, I do want to mention something in the news, something serious, that does involve children and one child in particular.
I was listening to “Any Questions” a couple of evenings ago, as I often do of a Friday night when wife and I are not out dancing till dawn and whooping it up in one or other of our town’s premier nightspots. The first question that was put to the panel by a member of the audience asked whether or not they thought that the case of Madeline McCann was being treated like a circus. Most of them answered yes, and maybe they are right. Now, I expect most of you will know what this is all about: the 4-year-old daughter of a couple of British tourists disappeared from her parents’ holiday villa in Portugal last May, and not only has she not been seen since, but no one knows what happened to her. You can find a pretty good summary of the case so far here, and I won’t go into all the details. Just to summarize: her parents left her and her younger twin siblings alone while they went to a tapas bar a few hundred yards away. When Mrs McCann came back to check on the children, she found Madeline missing. Since then, they have made several appeals on TV for her safe return, have visited the Pope, have been very vocal abut the case, as any parents would whose child has vanished.
But circus? Well, it does seem to have been handled strangely, but I am not an expert of Portuguese law, so I have no idea if the authorities are following correct procedure or not. It is a very disturbing case, and the parents seem to be far more in the limelight than one would expect. In the absence of hard news, rumours are substituted for fact as journalists try to come up with something new for their next copy. We have been told, with what truth I do not know, that the police know that Madeline’s neck was broken, that they plan to dig up a stretch of newly laid roadway in the town where Madeline disappeared, that the poor girl’s DNA was found in a car that the McCanns rented three weeks after their daughter disappeared, and even more fanciful possibilities are suggested: she was kidnapped by an illegal adoption ring or by a group of paramilitary paedophiles.
When we ask what facts of any substance we know, there is very little. We do know that the Portuguese police offered Madeline’s mother a short sentence (4 years) if she confessed to having killed her daughter by accident. She didn’t, and we don’t know if the police had any facts or if they were just fishing. Then earlier this month, Kate McCann and, a day or two later, Gerry McCann were formally named by the police as suspects, a formality that carries with is several implications, rights and obligations. After that, the McCanns, who had vowed to stay on Portugal till their daughter was found, returned to England.
The “Any Questions” panellists, though, who all appeared to me to be pretty level headed, all seemed to agree on one thing: that it would be a national trauma for Britain if it turned out that the McCanns did kill their daughter. One woman went as far as to say that no one with any shred of decency could believe that they had anything to do with it. I don’t know, though. Opinion certainly is divided. Over 17,000 people have signed an e-petition demanding that the McCanns’ twins be taken into council care (luckily such decisions are not made on the basis of lists of names on the internet) while the inhabitants of the town where the McCanns live have publicly stated that they know that Kate and Gerry McCann are innocent.
Now, they don’t know whether the McCanns did it or not, and neither do you or I, but I think we must at least admit of the possibility. There is nothing unheard of in the annals of crime for a parent, or parents, to kill a child and then make a show of calling for his or her return. There was one case in London sometime ago (sorry, I can’t remember the name) of a woman whose 5-year-old daughter and her best friend went missing, and she made an impassioned plea for their safe return on TV, while all along the poor girls were lying under her bed, where she had hidden them after strangling them; which is where they were found by the police when they did the routine top-to-bottom search of the location where a missing child was last seen. She tried to blame it on hormones but got sent down for life. It is standard police procedure in cases of murder or abduction, to suspect spouses or parents first, because that is what previous incidents have shown are the most likely explanations. The police need to be able to rule out these obvious suspects as they widen the scope of their investigations and clearly there is something that is preventing the Portuguese police from ruling the McCanns out.
I hope that this will all be academic. I hope, as does everyone, that Madeline will turn up alive and well, and if the worst should have happened, I do not want to see her parents guilty; the crime of a stranger or strangers would be far less hard to deal with. Meantime, though, let us open our minds to all possibilities because the news, when it comes, may be very hard to bear. We will only make it harder if we invest the McCanns with some sort of undeserved sanctity.