Jude Collins

Monday, 2 November 2009

Justice and hysteria

So we’re going to have a northern version of the Ryan Report, checking out the abuses of children in Catholic (and maybe state-run) homes and institutions. Since the pursuit of child-abusers has now taken on quite a few of the trappings of a witch hunt (remember the paediatrician whose home was besieged by a mob who thought that was the same as a paedophile?), I hope (but don’t expect) that a number of factors will be weighed in the investigation:

1. A clear distinction is drawn between sexual abuse and physical abuse. Thirty, forty, fifty years ago, what we would consider physical abuse was commonplace and accepted. Part of it was the ‘clip around the ear’ that the local bobby was supposed to have administered to wayward youths, but far more prevalent was the physical punishment of children by their parents and by their teachers. I don’t suggest for an instant that it was good or even ‘didn’t do me any harm’ – I’m opposed to all physical punishment, by parents and teachers – but when uncovering institutional punishment, the tenor of the times really should be factored in, and if it isn’t, an injustice has been done.
2. The nature of any sexual abuse needs to be made clear. All sexual abuse is of course wrong, but if an adult forces a kiss on a youngster it’s a different thing from rape. Too often in newspaper accounts the degree of nastiness/vileness is obscured under a general ‘abuse’ title.
3. The nature of the evidence for abuse, both physical and sexual, should be made clear. If it is the testimony of those who suffered or say they suffered, is there sufficient triangulation of testimony so that conclusions of guilt are firmly founded?
4. The fact that charges of physical and/or sexual misconduct by adults against children are not always truthful – those who claim to be victims can and sometimes do lie. The evidence gathered by teachers’ unions show this. The unions also make clear – as if it were necessary – that once someone is tarred with the charge of paodophile or physical abuser, it’s uncommonly difficult to get rid of it, regardless of findings in the courts or elsewhere.
5. Finally, the cruelty of sexual or physical crimes against children by some members of religious orders should be set alongside the heroic and selfless work of all those members of orders who gave their lives to helping children. It’s a poor recognition of their sacrifice if the witch-hunt sweeps them up in its hysteria. The guilty should be punished, the innocent spared and the heroic acknowledged.

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