The Stumbling Block

For once, knowing that fools rush in, I write with some hesitation. I am aware that what I want to say will be open to misunderstanding, and that there may well be some angry response. Nevertheless, there are some things which, I genuinely believe, have long needed to be said; and I hope that I can do so without being insensitive to genuine concerns and distresses.

To my mind, the most disturbing feature of the media’s interest in the current transition in Rome and the forthcoming Conclave is the widespread insistence that all this is being played out in an atmosphere of crisis and intrigue.

You have only to look at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram today (March 8) to see how superficially, dismissively, cheaply the Church – the Bride of Christ – is regarded by those who have been inundated by a tsunami of press reporting on the pedophilia scandal, all of this being set within a context of the relentless sexualizing of our culture, for which the media can hardly plead innocent.

To say this is not to belittle the badness and sadness of what has been revealed about the pedophilia scandal. But one recent event was, to my mind, very telling: Pope Benedict referred to the terrible stories of priestly sexual abuse of children as part of “the mystery of evil”, an observation which, coming from such a source, is certainly charged with the most profound spiritual and theological meaning. One of the abuse victims’ support groups immediately responded tartly that there was no mystery about it, and that the Holy Father’s reaction was an evasion. Such a reaction reveals an incomprehensible shallowness – and it encourages me in my suspicion that the primary motive of such groups is the compensation which can be extorted.

The Catholic Church has been horribly damaged by the scandal, and it has been a disaster for the cause of the Kingdom of Christ. A set-back, certainly; but it does not mean that Christ does not reign, that His will will not ultimately be done.

O Cross, our one reliance, hail!
Still may thy power with us avail
To save us sinners from our sin,
God’s righteousness for all to win.

However difficult, in all the circumstances, the Gospel of our salvation remains the truth and it remains our duty to proclaim it. But it is also true that the sins of hypocrisy and hard-heartedness are by far the most mercy-resistant.

The Catholic Church is far from being alone in facing the pedophilia problem, which is pervasive in many organizations and places; but it is regarded by secular culture as the enemy, to be belittled and humiliated in every possible way. And it is thought to have deep pockets. The fact that those pockets contain the devout and sacrificial offerings of those faithful ones who gave for a purpose far removed from the settlement of millions of dollars of “compensation” is of no concern to the cynic who promotes such radically disconnected cashing in. And though we will never know what the legal professionals have made out of all this, it would be interesting to know, would it not?

Some years ago, the late John Peel – a disc jockey, radio presenter, record producer and journalist – revealed in his autobiography that he had been raped at an English “public” (i.e. elite, private, boarding) school. Those of us who went through that same “public” school system were not entirely surprised – though I must add that rape per se was exceedingly rare, and that I, personally, was in no way a victim of any kind of abuse (unless, of course, the disciplinary thrashings administered to me with monotonous regularity by my housemaster – an austere ascetic, by the way — might count as such). Following this dramatic revelation, the respected Guardian newspaper (often referred to as the Grauniad: see my recent post) asked seven prominent former public schoolboys “to spill their dormitory secrets”. Their responses, published in the paper in 2005, shone some light on life at Eton, Harrow, and elsewhere; but it contained no surprises. We learn that various schoolmasters took various kinds of advantage of their charges, and some lost their jobs as a result. But it would appear that the boys received no permanent psychological or other damage; and this confirms my own observation over much the same time period. Certainly, any suggestion that Tom Brown should receive compensation of thousands of pounds sterling or dollars for the experience of his schooldays would have been regarded as preposterous. The fact is that the pupils at these schools were worldly and wily enough to know what was going on and how to handle it. And the more dubious members of the masters’ common room were regarded as appropriate subjects for ribald humor.

The April 2013 issue of the BBC Music magazine reports that a well-known British music teacher, conductor, and director of the National Youth Choir has been found guilty of abusing a pupil over a number of years, and his wife has also been convicted of indecent assault. They have yet to be sentenced. It is yet a further indication that this plague is not only – or even principally – located within the Church; and it raises again the question about why more research is not being undertaken to discover the nature and source of this sickness in our culture and society.

Elsewhere in the same issue of Music there is an article, reflecting on all this, by Richard Morrison who is the chief music critic of the (London) Times. He says that of the four music teachers who shaped his own life, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, three were perverts – “a not especially large percentage for a musical boy to encounters in that era”. He goes on to refer to the improper activities of others – an organist, a professor at a London conservatoire, his own university tutor. “And at that time, musical children – especially choirboys, or those in hot-house music schools – simply accepted this low-grade but continual molestation from teachers as par for the course … and their groping did no lasting harm.”

A final aspect of this sad and problematic matter is the way in which culpable offenders are to be treated. Justice must be done; it must be seen to be done; justice delayed is justice denied; and the quality of mercy – an attribute of God himself — must not be strained.

Charles Moore, the respected former editor of the Daily Telegraph and now columnist for the (London) Spectator, reflected recently on the media’s reporting not only on the Church but also on others in political and public life. Naturally, as a journalist, he believes that if anyone in power or fame is corrupt that fact should indeed be exposed. Such “accusations often turn out to be true,” he writes. “Power corrupts. But there is actually something vile about it. It is to do with the righteousness of those doing the exposing. …. ‘Whistleblowers’ will sometimes be brave truth-tellers but they may equally well be people with grudges, liars or narcissists …. By being completely merciless, we turn people in power into mere fighters to survive.”

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