Monday, 30 November 2009

The crime of inaction

Vittorio Bufacchi has written an excellent piece The Crime of Inaction on the Guardian website about the paedophile scandal in the Catholic Church in Ireland. Here are some key points.
While all cases of child sex abuse are devastating, there is something about this story that is particularly disturbing. When children are systematically sexually abused for a period of decades by men wearing the collar, the perpetrators of violence are not only the deviant priests serving in parishes and religious orders. Violence is also done by those working at all levels in the Catholic church, both in Ireland and outside, who knew that these abuses were taking place and did nothing to stop this crime, or to bring the paedophiles to justice.
In an institution as rigid and hierarchical as the Catholic church, it is hard to believe that the cover-up stopped within Ireland. Sexual abuse cases involving cover-ups have also been reported in England, France, Australia and the United States.
If there is one lesson that must be learned from this report, it is that violence can be done in many ways: either by way of a direct action, or by an inaction. Paedophilia is unquestionably one of the most sickening forms of direct violence; but knowing that children are being sexually abused and doing nothing about it, therefore forbearing to prevent the crime, is arguably an even greater evil.
I can't fix the whole world, but I can try and improve my own small corner of it. That is why I will not rest until I get full cooperation from the Abbot of Ealing concerning past abuse at Ealing Abbey and St. Benedict's School, safeguards against any repetition of this abuse, and proper apologies and support for the past victims of abuse.

But I can't do it alone. So if you wish to help achieve this and have any kind of support you feel able to offer or any kind of influence you might be able to bring to bear, please contact me by email.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Open Letter concerning Child Protection at St Benedict's School (part 2)

(continued from part 1)

The second issue I wished to discuss with you is the school’s Child Protection and Safeguarding Policy document. I notice that this has been recently revised and published on the school website. (Regulations requiring publication of the child protection procedures of independent schools on school websites came into force in February 2009.) Nonetheless, it is a seriously inadequate document, and I dread to think how much worse its predecessor was. I have the following comments.

At many points within the document, it is stated that this or that action “should” be carried out. Where no discretion is intended in terms of the procedure to be followed or action taken, the word “should” is inappropriate. Instead, use the word “shall”. Every use of “should” within the document needs to be reviewed. Either the word should be changed to “shall” or guidance should be included indicating the circumstances under which the action might not be performed. Given the large number of occasions where “should” is used in the document, it hardly qualifies as a procedure at all.

Paragraph 3
This paragraph appears to be detached from any relevance specifically to child protection.

Paragraph 4, bullet 3
When Fr Pearce was moved from the position of Junior School Headmaster following complaints about him, was a “prompt and detailed report” made to the Independent Safeguarding Authority as specified in the policy? If the policy has been changed since then, why was this change made, and if the policy was in place at the time, why was no such report made?

Paragraph 4, bullet 11
This bullet refers to protecting children who have been abused, in accordance with an agreed child protection plan. However, there is no mention in the procedures of how a child protection plan can be agreed and implemented.

Paragraph 5
This paragraph states that “every complaint or suspicion of abuse from within or outside the school will be investigated and in all proper circumstances will be referred to an external agency”.
Were such complaints concerning Fr Pearce investigated? If not, why not? If so, what were the results of the investigation?
Were such complaints referred to an external agency? If not, why not? If so, what was the result of that referral?
How are “all proper circumstances” defined, and who has the authority to decide whether the circumstances are proper or not?

The problem with this paragraph as it stands is that the “all proper circumstances” phrase, not qualified or defined, in effect leaves the school with unlimited discretion to decide whether or not to make a referral of a case to an external agency, no matter how serious it might be.

Paragraph 6: The designated teacher
The duties in paragraph 6 conflict with the duties in paragraph 7, in that in paragraph 6 the duties are undertaken are on behalf of the child, while the last bullet point in paragraph 7 indicates that duties are carried out on behalf of the school. This is a clear conflict of interest and must be resolved.

Bullet 8 of this paragraph requires that “appropriate action is taken” in actual or suspected cases of child abuse. Was appropriate action taken when suspicion fell on Fr David? If not, why not?

Paragraph 10: Possible signs of abuse
Most of the descriptions of possible signs of abuse appear to be make the assumption that the likely source of abuse is the home. Additional signs which ought to be included are an unwillingness to attend school, and a loss of respect for the authority of teachers.

Paragraph 11: Physical abuse
Saying “possibly made by a belt” is attempting a diagnosis of a physical injury which no teacher (including the designated teacher) is competent to make. The wording of this paragraph should not explicitly or implicitly encourage the making of such diagnoses.

Paragraph 12: Emotional abuse
It would appear that since all abuse involves emotional abuse, then the possible signs of emotional abuse should be the same as paragraph 10. (By the way “principal” is mis-spelled). Again, the parenthetical notes all have the effect of tilting the perception of the reader towards a diagnosis of possible abuse in the home. No such diagnosis should be made or attempted.

Paragraph 13: Sexual abuse
It is beyond comprehension that the initial paragraph is included with its present wording.
[Sexual abuse] Is the involvement of dependent (legally under 18), developmentally immature children and adolescents in sexual activities they do not truly comprehend, to which they are unable to give informed consent.
Where on earth did that definition come from?

First, any sexual contact with those under the age of consent is illegal and should be regarded as such.

Second, the phrase “developmentally immature” is entirely subjective, and suggests that unless the sexual activity is something which the child does “not truly comprehend” then it is not sexual abuse. It is hard to even start to describe how utterly wrong and misguided this is.

It has to be made clear that any sexual contact between a pupil of the school (including any who have passed their 18th birthday) and any teacher, governor, volunteer or any other person acting in any kind of official or supervisory capacity for the school should be regarded as sexual abuse, whether or not there is any complaint about it from the victim, and irrespective of the developmental maturity of the child. This is because of the imbalance in the power relationship between staff and the pupils they are in authority over. Because of this relationship of authority, no consent can be regarded as valid even if given in what the child considers to be good faith.

Using the phrase “developmentally immature” in the definition of sexual abuse in this way is in effect a sexual abuser’s charter, in that the claim can always be made that the child is sufficiently mature to consent, and the phrase is sufficiently vague as to be interpreted in any way that you wish.

Given the recent case of Fr. Pearce, I am staggered that this wording remains as it is.

The various definitions of abuse (particularly sexual abuse) should be updated to be consistent with the government’s guidelines What to do if you’re worried a child is being abused, and to make it clear that any kind of sexual contact or other activity with sexual overtones between staff and children must be treated as sexual abuse.

In the various possible signs of sexual abuse, “Truanting/running away from home” should be separated out into two bullets, since truanting is an avoidance of schools, and may therefore be indicative of sexual abuse whose source is in the school, while running away from home may be more indicative of a problem at home.

Paragraph 15: Staff responsibility
Much of this paragraph is concerned with further definitions of abuse, particularly emotional abuse. The contents of this paragraph should reflect its title and describe the responsibilities of staff, where they are distinct from “Duties of employees, governors and volunteers” as described in the following paragraph.

Paragraph 16: Duties of employees, governors and volunteers
It is not stated how employees, governors and volunteers will initially acquire the knowledge necessary to carry out their duties. It should be stated that they shall take up their duties only after they have undergone an induction in which they are made aware of their duties in respect of child protection, the school’s policies and procedures, and the relevant people to contact.

This paragraph is also a curious mix of general statements of legal duties and rather vague descriptions of procedures to be followed. The duties and the procedures for executing them should be separated for clarity and the avoidance of confusion. Where there are two descriptions of the same procedure (as for instance here and paragraph 18) there is inevitably scope for confusion as to which is the correct procedure to follow. To avoid such confusion, procedures must be kept separate from other text, must be stated only once, and should be entirely clear as to the extent of discretion available to a staff member when following the procedure.

Paragraph 17: Whistleblowing
The current text is too weak.
All staff are required to report to the Designated Teacher, any concern or allegations about school practices or the behaviour of colleagues which are likely to put pupils at risk of abuse or other serious harm. In exceptional cases such reports should be made to Ofsted. There will be no retribution or disciplinary action taken against a member of staff for making such a report provided that it is done in good faith.
Given that it appears that there was “sort of” knowledge of Fr. Pearce’s activities for a considerable time before he was arrested, this is inadequate. The text should be re-worded so that it is clear that there will be no retribution or disciplinary action in the event of a report unless it can be proved that the report was made maliciously.

Paragraph 19: Preserving Evidence
Mobile phones and computers not already the property of the school cannot be taken from their owners without consent, even if they contain evidence of possible abuse. To do so is theft. In the event that evidence is contained within such items, the safeguarding of evidence must consist of copying the information and promptly returning the device to its owner. Furthermore, in the event of an allegation or suspicion of a crime, it is not the task of the school to investigate, but instead to immediately refer the matter to the police, who have both the duty and authority to obtain and safeguard evidence in the way described.

Paragraph 22: Action by the Designated Teacher
It is unclear by what criteria the Designated Teacher will decide how to proceed. There are various items listed which should be taken into account, but nothing is stated as to the way these considerations affect the required course of action.

Furthermore, the second bullet suggests that no further action is taken by the school in the event of a complaint involving a serious criminal offense once a referral is made to the police or SSD. This is seriously inadequate. The evidence may be strong enough to require action to safeguard a child from a staff member or volunteer without necessarily being strong enough to undertake a prosecution for a serious criminal offense. In such a case, the child would be left unprotected if the school takes no further action. The second bullet must therefore be altered to make it clear that the lack of further investigation does not apply in the event of a complaint or suspicion regarding a staff member or volunteer within the school. However, any investigation must be carried out in co-operation with external agencies, and in such a way as not to compromise any criminal investigation.

Were the complaints regarding Fr Pearce referred to SSD or the police?

Paragraph 23: Referral Guidelines
This paragraph is rather woolly and contains too many double negatives. It should be rewritten to clearly state the circumstances under which the Designated Teacher shall make a referral. Use of terms like “normally” should be avoided unless it is specified what sorts of abnormal cases would require a different course of action.

Paragraph 25: Monitoring of Low Level Child Protection Concerns in School
It is not sufficiently clear where the dividing line comes between insufficient and sufficient grounds to make a referral to an outside agency. The sentence “Often there are insufficient grounds or evidence to suggest referral to an outside agency” should not be there in its present form, as it is leading the reader to expect that a preponderance of cases should not be referred, and therefore to make a first assumption that a case is not serious. It should be re-worded to start with “Where there are insufficient grounds to suggest referral to an outside agency…” followed by the action that should be taken instead.

Paragraph 26: Allegations against staff members
The school’s “procedures for dealing with allegations against staff” referred to in this paragraph should be published. In fact, in as far as they apply to allegations of abuse against children they should be incorporated into this document. Otherwise, there is no means by which parents and pupils can have confidence that the procedures do in fact “strike a balance between the need to protect children from abuse and the need to protect staff and volunteers from false or unfounded allegations”.

The fact that the first sentence of this section refers to false and unfounded allegations against staff suggests that this remains a higher concern than the protection of the children in the school’s care.

It should be made clear that when a staff member is suspended pending investigation of an allegation, the suspension must not be regarded as a disciplinary action, must not be recorded as such on the staff member’s personnel record and must not be considered to be indicative of the staff member’s probable guilt. Instead, it must be regarded as an administrative procedure pending the outcome of any investigation. It would appear in the past that there has been great hesitation over suspending any member of staff lest this imply a belief of that person’s guilt. A clear statement to the contrary will make it far easier to assure the protection of children while protecting staff from the adverse consequences of unfounded allegations. This is standard procedure in many organisations (including schools) in the event of an allegation of wrongdoing by an employee, pending investigation of the allegations.

This section contains passages within square brackets suggesting that they have been copied and pasted from some external source and that the bracketed passages should have been edited to make them applicable to the school’s specific documents.

This entire section requires detailed review and revision. It is seriously inadequate as it stands. That it should have been reviewed and republished since Fr. Pearce’s arrest and conviction and still remain in this state is astonishing.

Paragraph 27: Early years – pre-preparatory school and nursery
It is unclear why informing Ofsted of allegations of serious harm or abuse by persons on the premises should be restricted to the premises of the pre-preparatory school and nursery.

To state that “the School” will inform Ofsted leaves the responsibility unspecified. The responsibility for informing Ofsted should be given to a specific person, probably the Designated Teacher, so that there is no mistaking who must take the action.

Paragraph 28: Allegations against pupils
A double standard is being applied here regarding the actions towards staff and the actions towards pupils when an allegation has been made. The difference in the language between this paragraph and paragraph 26 suggests that the criteria for suspending a pupil are far lower than for suspending a member of staff. Furthermore, any suspension of a pupil must be carried out in accordance with the school’s legal obligations regarding temporary exclusions and the process by which they are carried out. Reference to the school policy on exclusions should be made here, and the policy and procedures for exclusions should be publicly available.

Paragraph 29: Suspected harm from outside the school
This paragraph appears to contradict earlier paragraphs suggesting that all conversations or other concerns must automatically be reported to the designated teacher, specifically paragraphs 18 to 21. It is unclear what paragraph 29 adds apart from confusion.

Paragraph 30: Monitoring
The Designated Teacher cannot adequately monitor his or her own actions, which form a very large part of the operation of the policy and procedures. Therefore, responsibility for monitoring the operation of the policy and procedures must be given to some other person, probably the Headteacher, since he has overall responsibility for the safety of pupils within the school.

Paragraph 32: Agencies
The names and addresses of the governors should also be included, since they also have a legal responsibility and a supervisory and monitoring role in ensuring that the child protection procedures are maintained and adequately implemented.

I trust that you will act with some urgency in respect of these comments, since they indicate a serious inadequacy in the child protection policies and procedures at the school. It is particularly troubling that the two weakest sections concern sexual abuse (paragraph 13) and allegations against staff members (paragraph 26) despite what appear to me to be an obvious need to give these sections special attention in order to prevent any kind of repetition of abuse such as was perpetrated by Fr. Pearce.

I recommend that in reviewing these procedures, you contact the Ealing Safeguarding Children Board and ask their advice regarding best practice, and also contact other schools in the area (both state and independent) and obtain copies of their procedures so that you can make use of the best of them.

Yours sincerely

Jonathan West

Open Letter concerning Child Protection at St Benedict's School (Part 1)

I had hoped to get Abbot Martin Shiperlee's co-operation in improving child protection at St. Benedict's, but it seems that he is putting up the shutters and refusing to speak to me. So instead I'm going to have to make my point in public. To that effect, here is an open letter to the Abbot. I am publishing it here in two parts, since the two parts deal with two separate topics. This will make it easier for any subsequent comments to be kept in separate threads each concerned with a different subject.

Dear Abbot Martin

I am extremely disappointed that you have refused to meet me, and have taken four weeks even to summon up the courtesy to make any response to my requests – two requests by email and two phone calls.

There were two matters that I wished to discuss with you in your role as chairman of governors concerning child protection issues at St Benedict’s School.

The first matter I wished to discuss is the “independent review” you announced in your press statement and in your letter to parents. I have the following questions regarding this review:
  1. Who will conduct it?
  2. On what date will they start? (or have started if the review is already underway)
  3. What are the terms of reference of the review?
  4. Will the school and abbey make all records available on request to the persons conducting the review?
  5. Can victims or their families make direct contact with the people conducting the review in order to give evidence? If so, how should they do this?
  6. When is it expected that the review will be concluded?
  7. To whom will the report be provided?
  8. Will the report be made available to the public?
  9. Will the Abbey and the school act on the recommendations of the review?
You may be aware that a significant number of people have been publicly expressing concern about the lack of any public statement regarding this review since it was announced. When we met in September, I suggested an independent review to you, and it appeared at the time that the idea of one had not until then occurred to you. It seems strange that you have chosen not to engage in further discussions in person with me on this subject since I first suggested it to you, and this can only give rise to suspicions that your intention in announcing the review may be to appear to be doing something to improve child protection while in fact ensuring as little information as possible about past abuses is permitted to come to light.


Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Blogosphere responses to Ruse

I just did a quick google blog search to see who else is responding to Michael Ruse's Guardian piece.

The results are quite interesting. The following blogs take an anti-Ruse line, usually berating him for errors of fact or logic and accusing him of putting up strawmen. Each has a slightly different detailed take on it, but broadly thy are all saying much the same thing.

Michael Ruse and Faitheism
Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute
Schisms, rifts, and apologia for insanity
Ruse gibbers on. . . .
Ruse, Again
The supposed atheist schism
A Confused Philosopher (Part II)
Philosophy, Science and Law
Ruse's Seven Deadly Sins
Reflections on A Ruse

On the other hand, these blogs are cheering him on.

Schism! Denial! Infighting! Name calling! And that's just among the atheists...
'The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist'
Is there an atheist schism? – Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute
My kinda atheist

The interesting thing is that there is not a single atheist blog that support Ruse. All those who support him are Christian blogs, and they don't support him because they agree with his brand of atheism, but either because they relish the idea of dissension in the ranks of the competing "atheist religion" or just want to cheer on all enemies of Dawkins.

eChurchwebsites is a typical example
As I rather enjoy dipping into the atheist worldview from time to time, I have come to relish this activity more and more lately, as I note their growing internal divisions. It would certainly seem that all is not rosy in the belief systems of; ‘there is no God’.

Maybe there will be an atheist ‘reformation’, or perhaps they will simply schism into different denominations, as some atheist ‘believers’ seem unable to accept the doctrine of Dawkin’s (pbuh) infallibility?
They seem to have undergone an irony bypass...

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Michael Ruse and Faitheism

Michael Ruse is doing his faitheist thing again - saying that atheists are right about God but really ought to shut up about it lest they frighten the horses.

He doesn't start well.

As a professional philosopher my first question naturally is: "What or who is an atheist?" If you mean someone who absolutely and utterly does not believe there is any God or meaning then I doubt there are many in this group.

As I pointed out in I'm an atheist, OK?, that definition of atheism is mainly used by theists who want to find ways of minimising the impact of atheism. For Michael to start out with that definition does not augur well.

The body of his argument starts with this

First, non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting.

I'm rather struck by the insertion of the word "necessarily" there, given the direction his argument takes later. Of course, its insertion allows for the possibility that all religion is in fact evil and corrupting, even if there isn't anything that makes it necessarily so. But even so, he is constructing a strawman. New atheists don't take the view that he is ascribing to them. They merely believe that (almost all) religion is based on a premise that is false, specifically the existence of a supernatural God. That belief without evidence has certain consequences, including a greater susceptibility to the calls of moral absolutism, which means that in practice some religion is evil and corrupting. I've described the New Atheist position as I understand it in Six atheist theses for light, not heat, so I shan't repeat it all here. Most atheists commenting on that article seemed to be broadly in agreement with it.

Ruse goes on with his second point.
Second, unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, "What caused God?" as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery.

There's that word "necessarily" again! I have taken the trouble to read a fair bit of theology and philosophy, especially the philosophy of religion, and I have also read the God Delusion. There is always the danger of regarding somebody as being wise and learned if they say something you already happen to agree with, and to regard somebody as ignorant and foolish if they say something you disagree with. It takes a great deal of detachment to set that aside and to see whether there might in fact be something in the opposing view. To do that, you need to look at the evidence.

So let us do that, and examine the Christian claim that God exists necessarily, and understand what it fact it means. I've been reviewing Richard Swinburne's "The Existence of God", and Swinburne does have quite a bit on the necessary existence of God, God's necessity is a central plank of his argument. Swinburne's version of the God proposition is this:

There exists necessarily a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient , perfectly good, and the creator of all things.

He goes on to describe "necessarily" at greater length.

The theist holds that God possesses the properties described in some sense necessarily, and that he is in some sense a necessary being. That is to say, God could not suddenly cease to be (for example) omnipotent. While God is God, he is omnipotent; nor could he cease to be God while remaining the same individual (as for example, the Prime Minister can cease to be Prime Minister while remaining the same person).

Further on he says

To say that some being necessarily or essentially has certain properties is to say that without these properties he could not exist. ... To use Kripke's well-discussed example, a person is an essential kind. If John is a person he could not be anything else; because if John ceases to be a person, he ceases to be. Let us call a person who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free, perfectly good and the creator of all things a divine being. The theist must claim that God is a being who belongs to the essential kind of divine being.

That deals with the necessity of God's properties, if he exists. If he isn't all that is described above, then he isn't God. All of the above consists of an extended definition of what God would be, if he exists. It doesn't make his existence inevitable, and so none of the above explains Ruse's view that Dawkins is fatuous in asking "What caused God?" Swinburne is obviously aware of this, and goes on as follows.
To say that 'God exists' necessarily is, I believe, to say that the existence of God is a brute fact that is inexplicable - not in the sense that we do not know the explanation, but in the sense that it does not have one.
So, according to Swinburne, there is no answer to Dawkins' question - you just have to accept the fact of God's existence, if in fact he does exist. Swinburne, throughout the whole of his book, does not claim that there is a valid deductive argument for the existence of God. So by Swinburne's definition, although God's existence and properties are both necessary, this does not mean that God's existence is real, i.e. that on the available evidence it is inevitable that God does in fact exist. Swinburne spends the rest of the book looking at various bits of evidence for and against God's existence and comes up with his view on the balance of probability of God's existence.

Now, in my view, to say that God's existence is inexplicable and expect people to leave it at that is just the sort of call to ignorance I described in the 4th point of Six atheist theses for light, not heat. Swinburne's account of "necessary existence" is quite different from that which you might imagine from Ruse's throwaway use of the phrase, which one might take to be synonymous with "inevitable". It isn't, but you would never know from Ruse's article. Ruse claims that he has gone to the trouble of understanding what "necessary existence" means. Maybe so, maybe not - but we cannot tell, because he hasn't gone to the the trouble of explaining to us what he understands by it.

Ruse continues.
Third, how dare we be so condescending? I don't have faith. I really don't. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever.
Another strawman. Nobody denies that there are some very good people who have faith, and nobody denies that there are some very clever people who have faith. But the only way by which we can decide whether atheists or theists are correct in their beliefs is (as I described in The cosmic detective) to have a look at the evidence, and see what it tells us. And Ruse, since he thinks that Williams, McMullin, Plantigna et al are wrong, has presumably concluded that the balance of the evidence points to the nonexistence of God.

Ruse finishes with this point.
Fourth and finally, I live in the American South, surrounded by ardent Christians. I want evolution taught in the schools and I can think of no way better designed to make that impossible than to spout on about religion, from ignorance and with contempt. And especially to make unsubstantiated arguments that science refutes religion.
Nobody says science refutes religion. Dawkins certainly doesn't. As I understand it, the New Atheists take a view encapsulated by Laplace. On being asked by Napoleon "they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator", he replied "I had no need of that hypothesis.". (Of course, this rather gives the lie to the use of the word "new" in the name "New Atheists". Although I don't have an exact date for the comment, Laplace probably made it in the first decade of the 19th century.)

Scientific evidence does demonstrate that various factual claims in the Bible interpreted literally (such as the 6-day creation) are false. But that is not quite the same as saying that science refutes religion, and Ruse as a philosopher ought to know better than to suggest that it does.