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Demonising any class of people is wrong

Lynley Hood, of Dunedin, is the author of A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case. Wednesday, 29-May 2002 [Read more about Lynley Hood and his book and the Ellis Case in the Register of the Ipce Library]]

***** A CITY POSSESSED is now available on ***** 

Demonising any class of people as devoid of humanity and beyond redemption is wrong, writes Dunedin author LYNLEY HOOD. There are dangers in the parallels between the Christchurch Civic Crèche case and the recent conviction of Raymond White that we ignore at our peril.

The willingness of some our more righteous citizens to make a scapegoat of Raymond White calls to mind a question that exercised me throughout my seven-year study of the Christchurch Civic Crèche case: when a spark of outrage is tossed into an already-anxious community, how do you stop it setting off a firestorm? However you look at it, the civic crèche case was a disaster.

It began with the ambiguous comment of a 3-year-old boy, and ended with a bitterly divided city, scores of families thrown into turmoil, 12 child care workers stripped of their jobs and their previously unblemished reputations, four workers arrested and discharged, and one (Peter Ellis) convicted and sentenced to 10 years in jail. Whether Ellis was guilty or innocent, that was too high a price to pay. There are lessons to be learnt from the crèche case that we ignore at our peril.

These relate to the harm being inflicted on our society by current campaigns to protect children from vaguely defined sexual dangers by criminalising and scapegoating a wide range of people and behaviours. Such campaigns ignore the realities of childhood and adolescent sexuality. They distract us from serious problems related to the health, education and welfare of children. They erode essential freedoms for everybody. But the hysteria surrounding the issue is so pervasive that anyone who suggests more thoughtful discussion risks being branded a child abuser.

To truly protect children, and to empower them to be themselves, we must insist on a more sensible and compassionate approach. In particular, we need to consider the following points: Recent child sex abuse campaigns make little or no distinction among diverse behaviours and circumstances. Any sex equals violence. Anyone under the age of 17 is a "child". The brutal sexual violation of a 5-year-old and an affair between a 15-year-old girl and an 18-year-old boy are clearly very different cases, yet both are portrayed as rape by law and in the media. Demonising any class of people as devoid of humanity and beyond redemption is wrong.

Currently any transgressor of under-age sex rules is branded a "sexual predator", even when no violence or force is alleged, and even when the young person is a month or a day shy of the legal age of consent. In addition, society's fears and hatred of homosexuality often leads to a scapegoating of gay people, falsely stereotyping them as child molesters. Demonisation is destructive even when applied to violent offenders. Those who commit truly violent crimes do not come out of a vacuum. They come out of our communities and families.

To view dangerous offenders as totally "other" than us prevents us getting to the roots of such crimes. Permanent stigmatisation not only prevents rehabilitation, it signals the breakdown of civil society. The battle cry "protect the children" has been used to dramatically expand coercive state power. Currently, ACC-funded therapists use counselling techniques that are known to encourage false memories of sexual abuse; CYFS interviewers use investigative techniques that cannot distinguish between true and false allegations; prosecutors use quackery masked as "expert psychological evidence" to encourage juries to convict on unreliable evidence.

Despite repeated calls from legal authorities and the public to address these problems, the Government has refused to do so. The power and capriciousness of the laws and attitudes wrought by these campaigns have put up a destructive barrier between adults and children. Currently, caring adults may reasonably fear than any affection will be branded as abuse. This fear means that adults - whether parents, teachers or strangers - often withhold that which all children need most: affection, respect and attention.

Many of these concerns have surfaced in the debate surrounding the Raymond White case. In so far as they affect the relationships between all adults and all children, they affect us all. None the less, it is all too easy for those of us who do not know or care about White to remain silent at this time. Like Peter Ellis, Raymond White is an easy target. From the safety of our comfort zones, it is easy to persuade ourselves (with appropriate expressions of regret) that if the price of peace in our city is that we must allow our fellow citizens to pillory a single man with a tarnished reputation, then so be it.

But the history of the Christchurch Civic Crèche case shows that sacrificing even one individual to the outraged minority would be a terrible mistake, because a vengeful few with the smell of human sacrifice in their nostrils can become a mob out of control. Regardless of what we think of Raymond White, if we want to live in community that values compassion over cruelty, tolerance over prejudice, forgiveness over vengeance, love over hatred; and if we want to dowse the flames of panic before they explode into a conflagration that consumes our city - then our message to the small-minded bigots who seek to pillory Raymond White must be: call off the lynch mob. 'Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.' John Milton

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