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 see the French have come up with another good idea: banning the burka. It seems consistent with their current national mindset. They have, after all, banned all religious symbols in schools and even though France is a country with a large population of observant catholics, they do seem to have the right idea in the main – that apart from in church on Sundays, if you have to do religion then you do it privately at home, like stamp collecting or cake baking, and you shut up about it.
So a woman in pubic in a burka runs contrary to that. The surprising thing is how many people whom one would have thought would object, seem curiously silent, or at least mealy mouthed. If it’s an ethic custoim, apparently, it’s racist to criticise it. No western democracy would stand for the idea of seeing women in public wearing handcuffs and keg irons, with signs round their necks saying “My husband can rape me with impunity. My husband may assault me with impunity. My husband may abandon me any time he wishes.” But for some reason when they do wear this sign, i.e. the burka, the liberals vanish, the feminists find something else to occupy their thoughts. I find it mystifying. A woman in Somalia was sentenced to be flogged for wearing trousers. I would have thought that the protests from the west would have been deafening. But no, just a grumble or two. For those of us who are revolted by this, it’s very frustrating.
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. .
. When I was nineteen or twenty, I worked in the X-ray department of a general hospital in Ladbroke Grove, London. One of the radiographers there (the people who actually take the see-thru photos, as opposed to the doctors who interpret them, who are called radiologists) was a very nice lady from Ireland, who would have been about forty then. She told me a very interesting story. She came from a small village in the west of the country, and all her young life, while she was at school, she longed to join a convent. All she ever wanted was to be a nun. So after she left school she packed a bag, kissed her family goodbye and went to a local convent to join, as a novice, or whatever girls are called before they become novices – before they take their final oaths.
But she left after a short while. She told me she enjoyed the devotional side but what she could not tolerate was that every evening, some nuns would come to the girls’ dormitory and get into bed with them and make use of them. And apparently, abuse was always followed by a prayer and a threat not to tell anyone. Mary (let’s call her that) stuck it for about 2 weeks and then walked out. However, accusing nuns of any wrongdoing was unthinkable and such was the stigma of failing to stay the course, that Mary couldn’t stay in her village. She had to go somewhere. So less than 24 hours after leaving the convent she was aboard a ferry to England, to stay with relatives. It all worked out for her in the end, and she ended up with a home and career in London.
Even at the very worldly wise age of nineteen, I wasn’t at all surprised by Mary’s story because on family holidays in Ireland when I was younger I had seen the way the clergy ran the place rather like the mafia. They controlled everyone’s lives – maybe not in Dublin, but certainly in the countryside, in the Rural Ireland that Eamonn Devalera was so keen to create. A priest or nun only had to walk into a shop or restaurant and the staff would all drop what they were doing and hurry over to fawn over them, while the grinning objects of their grovelling helped themselves to whatever they wanted, very often without having to pay. I saw it several times and even as a child I knew enough to be outraged. No one dared resist – one word of condemnation from the pulpit and a person could become an outcast in their own community. It was not until the 1990s that Ireland suddenly began to snap out of it and throw off the suffocating influence of the church.
So, I was not at all surprised at this news feature from the BBC, and this one too. A report has been released by the Child Abuse Commission in Ireland that has taken nine years to compile, and has revealed 2000 victims of sexual and violent abuse by priests, monks and nuns in that country over the last few decades. Reading other reports on this I see that they can identify over 500 culprits – so the excuse that it’s just a few bad apples won’t apply. We are talking about a significant minority of the Irish clergy -- and those are only the ones who have been found out. The experiences related here give just a taste of what boys and girls had to go through.
Sadly, even though this report has been released, and the state has paid compensation to many hundreds of victims, there does not appear to be any plan to search out and prosecute any of these priests and nuns. Of course, a great many of them must be dead by now, but there must be hundreds still alive. The church used to protect them by shielding them, and moving them from one parish to another if there was any hint of scandal – sound familiar? Some of those people need to do prison time, age and ordination not withstanding, but I am not optimistic. The church has had centuries of practice of looking after its own perverts.
Meantime, it is worth remembering that apart from convicted sex offenders and pimps, one of the highest risk groups for child sex abuse is the clergy. Never leave your child alone with one of them. .