[Overview - Priests]     Start Omhoog      [Articles & Essays - A]

It's time to reform the sex laws and our minds

Priests are not the only paedophiles among us

Why did we allow the abuse in Islington care homes?

Why are policemen so well-represented in recent internet child-porn cases?

David Aaronovitch, The Independent, November 20, 2002

To my surprise, the cancellation of this week's school trip to Hampton Court was welcomed by some of the parents in my daughter's class. It turned out that one or two had been worried about their nine-year-olds going anywhere near Wolsey's Palace, because of the maze. What was there, they wanted to know, to prevent paedophiles from taking advantage of the leafy cul-de-sacs and lying in wait for disoriented children?

I had only just managed to clear this disconcerting image from my mind when I read that many department stores are now having Father Christmases vetted by the police, and that one has closed its grotto altogether, opting for a more visible transaction between Santa and his customers. Did this sound a bit like the famous Brass Eye parody?

Yesterday came the publication of government proposals heralded as the biggest shake-up in our sexual offences laws for 50 years. A new offence of "grooming" is to be created, specifically aimed at adults who cultivate internet relationships with children for the purposes of luring them into sexual activity. It will also be a crime to induce a child to undress (eg for "modelling") "outside the bounds of normal family life", with possible 10-year sentence attached even where there is no physical contact. And having sex for money with youngsters under 18 will be subject to heavy prison sentences, with the tariff rising sharply the younger the child. It will not be considered to be a defence to claim that one did not know how old the prostitute was, which will I imagine be excellent news for ancient-looking whores.

So are we going mad? I wouldn't say so. The Hampton Court concern may be a bit overblown, and I'm not completely sure about banning transactional sex between those over the age of consent, but the rest (Santas, grottos and anti-grooming measures) seem reasonable enough. I am bit worried about a neurotic reverse-sexualising of childhood nudity (as, say, when kids are on the beach), but we still seem to be pretty sensible about things like that. Sexual abuse of a child is a form of psychic murder, causing lifelong damage, and it appears reasonable to me to take effective measures to protect children from it.

Even so, my initial reaction to the renewed charges by the BBC against the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, was to feel rather sorry for him. Twenty years ago, before he had his arch, C M-O'C was the bishop of Arundel and Brighton. One of his priests back then was a Father Michael Hill. Hill was accused of sexually abusing children but, instead of being reported to the police, was moved to a chaplaincy at Gatwick airport, where he continued his abuse. Hill was imprisoned for five years in 1997, released and remanded in custody again on Monday after having admitted other offences.

Back in July 2000 the Archbishop made a statement about the Hill case, regretting what had happened, but then adding (by way of explanation and self-exculpation), this sentence: "With hindsight, what still surprises me is the amount of genuine ignorance that there was... in society at large, including the medical profession, about the compulsive nature of child abuse." In other words, back then we didn't know that molesters couldn't be reformed, so we acted as if we knew that they could.

In several interviews BBC interlocutors seemed to dismiss this defence out of hand. Yet if it were true, would it not considerably mitigate the guilt of the Church? How could a bishop be expected to act on knowledge that nobody else had?

For a brief period in the 70s, paedophilia looked to some as though it was the next love that would soon dare to say its name. The Paedophile Information Exchange was set up in 1974. Tom O'Carroll's PIE pamphlet, Paedophilia: The Radical Case, was favourably reviewed in a number of left journals. This moment, and the brief fashion for celebrating the sexuality of under-aged girls (anyone remember the Blind Faith album cover?) was also brilliantly satirised in Brass Eye.

O'Carroll a teacher recalled in his book an incident at the end of the Sixties, after he had professed his love to an 11-year-old pupil. The parents demanded his resignation and the head agreed. But, O'Carroll relates,

"the director of education for the city and the school governors appeared anxious not to sack me, and an extremely generous offer was made. I was to receive sick pay for an indefinite period, under psychiatric attention, until such time as I was deemed medically fit to work again. At that point I was to be transferred to a teaching post elsewhere in the city."

This happened just a few years before the Hill case. By the mid-80s, of course, things were changing, thanks largely to charities such as Kidscape and Esther Rantzen's hugely important Childline. Even so, it wasn't until 1994 that the Catholic Church in England and Wales decided automatically to refer complaints of child abuse by priests to the police. In the year 2000, following a number of scandals, the church set up the Nolan inquiry.

Why so late? Internationally, the Catholic Church seems to have had a huge and almost unique problem with the amount of child sexual abuse and with covering it up. Furthermore, almost every admission of guilt and responsibility has had to be forced out of it by angry victims and their press allies.

Some of this is because of the ideology and structure of the Church itself, described by the Catholic writer, Garry Wills, as possessing "a structure honeycombed with pretence, hypocrisy and evasion". But a lot of it must be about the strange sexuality of the institution. Even this summer, as the cover-up crisis mounted in America and Australia, there was a strong rearguard action by the most senior Catholics to deny the scale of the problem. In April the Pope wrote to the American cardinals reminding them of the "radical determination to turn from sin and return to God, which reaches the depth of the human soul and can work an uncommon alteration". This is, of course, the alteration that according to the Archbishop of Westminster we have recently learnt is practically impossible.

The unique thing about the Catholic priesthood is, of course, its celibacy. This means that priests have no realistic understanding of sexual relationships or of parenthood, and may very well, like the Church, idealise both. Indeed, celibacy could be classified as itself being a perversion, since the desire for sexual relationships is one of the most basic and necessary human responses. The priest may as a result of his inexperience idealise children, not understanding them as the shitty, howling kids that parents see and love. The equal idealisation of womanhood through the Virgin Mary (and the association with their mothers, and thus all women) may make sex with young boys seem to be the least transgressive form of sexual expression available. And priests have a formidable armoury of supernatural arguments that they can deploy against a child.

A word of warning though. Why did the rest of us allow some gay men to abuse boys in Islington care homes well into the 80s? Why are policemen so well-represented in recent internet child-porn cases? Tempting though it is to point the finger at the Church, we need to take a good look at our secular priesthoods too.

[Overview - Priests]     Start Omhoog      [Articles & Essays - A]