Monday, 21 September 2009

Swinburne: Teleological Arguments

Swinburne goes on next to look at teleological arguments, the arguments from design. He goes through several of them: the Argument from Temporal Order, the Argument from Spatial Order, the Fine Tuning Argument, and slightly curiously the Argument from Beauty is tacked on the end.

The Argument from Temporal Order looks as the fact that there are regularities in time - i.e. that one event causes another in a regular way, such that we are able to predict the future.

The argument from Spatial Order looks at the fact that atoms arrange themselves in regular patterns spatially to form a variety of substances. Although he makes a generally approving reference to Michael Behe’s “Irreducible Complexity” and describes the idea at more length in an appendix, Swinburne is careful to say that the argument from Spatial Order as he describes it does not depend on Behe’s ideas, and is fully compatible with Darwinian evolution. Swinburne’s version of the argument concerns inorganic materials of the right sorts to form themselves into organic compounds, and later into life and eventually into us humans. According to Swinburne, it is amazing that inorganic materials of the right sort, particularly carbon with its very special abilities at being organised into long chains in large molecules, should exist in the first place so that Darwinian evolution can get started.

The Fine Tuning Argument is about how amazing it is that natural laws are adjusted in such a way that multiple elements are created so that chemistry can happen.

The Argument from Beauty is that it would make no sense for God to make a universe that wasn’t sufficiently beautiful for us to appreciate it.

All these argument are made in much the same form. All these varieties of order are the sorts of things a God would create if he wanted to create beings like humans, and therefore the conditional probability of each of these is high given God, and the probability that these would arise in a Godless universe is accordingly much lower. Therefore each provides what Swinburne calls a C-inductive argument in favour of God. Remember from the previous chapter that this isn’t what most people think of as a C-inductive argument but instead it is a line of argument that suggests that the conditional probabilities, when fed through Bayes’ Theorem, will result in a higher than previous overall probability.

If you define a sort of God who you think would do these sorts of things, then of course you will assess as quite high the probability that God has done it. But for this to have much effect on the outcome of Bayes’ theorem (even if you accept this use of it, which I don’t) you would have to assess the prior probability as significantly greater than zero. Time for another down-to-earth example, this time taken from Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, for no better reason than I’m a fan of his book and blog. I’m going to use his particular example of datamining to identify terrorist suspects.

In this example, Ben Goldacre is looking at the use of data about individuals to assess whether they should be considered to be terrorist suspects.

Let’s imagine you have an amazingly accurate test, and each time you use it on a true suspect, it will correctly identify them as such 8 times out of 10 (but miss them 2 times out of 10); and each time you use it on an innocent person, it will correctly identify them as innocent 9 times out of 10, but incorrectly identify them as a suspect 1 time out of 10.

On the face of it, that sounds quite promising. But let’s go on.

These numbers tell you about the chances of a test result being accurate, given the status of the individual, which you already know (and the numbers are a stable property of the test). But you stand at the other end of the telescope: you have the result of a test, and you want to use that to work out the status of the individual. That depends entirely on how many suspects there are in the population being tested.

If you have 10 people, and you know that 1 is a suspect, and you assess them all with this test, then you will correctly get your one true positive and – on average – 1 false positive. If you have 100 people, and you know that 1 is a suspect, you will get your one true positive and, on average, 10 false positives. If you’re looking for one suspect among 1000 people, you will get your suspect, and 100 false positives. Once your false positives begin to dwarf your true positives, a positive result from the test becomes pretty unhelpful.

I agree. A test that gives you the wrong result 10 times out of 11 is getting to be less than entirely useful. But it gets worse.

Remember this is a screening tool, for assessing dodgy behaviour, spotting dodgy patterns, in a general population. We are invited to accept that everybody’s data will be surveyed and processed, because MI5 have clever algorithms to identify people who were never previously suspected. There are 60 million people in the UK, with, let’s say, 10,000 true suspects. Using your unrealistically accurate imaginary screening test, you get 6 million false positives. At the same time, of your 10,000 true suspects, you miss 2,000.

So, using Swinburne’s notation, this means that that even if P(e|h & k) is very much higher than P(e|~h & k), if P(h|k) is very low, it doesn’t help you very much. In the terrorist example above, P(h|k) is 10,000 in 60 million, or 0.017%. Even though P(e|h & k) is greater P(e|~h & k) by a factor of 8, the false positives still swamp your numbers. The overall probability is still dominated by the prior probability, so processing the numbers through Bayes means that the probability that a person testing positive actually is a valid terrorist suspect has only been raised from 0.017% to 0.13%. That isn’t all that useful.

Swinburne, as part of his version of the Argument from Spatial Order, regards it is very unlikely that a godless universe would come into being sufficiently fine-tuned that would allow “humanly free agents” to appear, even through the process of Darwinian evolution. He helpfully defines what he regards as the necessary characteristics of humanly free agents as follows.

1. Sense organs with an enormous variety of possible states varying with an enormous variety of possible inputs caused by different world states

2. An information processor that can turn the states of sense organs into brain states that give rise to beliefs of prudential or moral importance

3. A memory bank, to file states correlated with past experiences (we could not consciously reason about anything unless we could recall our past experiences and what others have told us)

4. Brain states that give rise to desires, good and evil (desires to eat and drink, to care for others or to hurt them, and to discover whether or not there is a God)

5. Brain states caused by the many different purposes we have

6. A processor to turn these states into limb and other voluntary movements (to turn, for example, my purpose of telling you that it is Friday into those twists of lip and tongue that will produce an English sentence with that meaning)

7. Brain states that are not fully determined by other physical states

Clifford Longley quoted Professor David Deutsch out of context to support the fine-tuning argument in favour of God when Longley complained to the Advertising Standards Authority against the Atheist Bus Campaign. I took the trouble to contact Professor Deutsch at the time to find out his true views on the subject. He responded as follows.

I do not believe that the 'fine-tuning' of physical constants provides any sort of argument for the existence of God or anything else supernatural. That is because if the constants had been set intentionally by supernatural entities, then the intentions of those entities must themselves have been at least as 'fine-tuned' when they set the constants, and that fine-tuning would remain unexplained. Hence that supernatural hypothesis does not even address the fine-tuning problem, let alone solve it.

Think about that for a moment. Something as complex as a human needs quite a lot of explaining, and a universe with natural laws that permit Darwinian evolution to get going also needs much explaining. But God, as Swinburne describes it, has all of the characteristics of “humanly free agents”, on a far greater scale and with infinitely more complexity and capability than is possessed by mere humans. Humans have sense organs that can detect light, sound and smell passing through a very small corner of the universe. According to Swinburne, God has sense organs that can directly detect anything happening going on anywhere in the whole universe. Humans have a processor that can turn brain states into limb movements. But God has a processor that can by means of “basic actions” (i.e. unmediated direct actions) affect any atom in the entire universe. If the probability of a Godless universe capable of supporting humans is regarded by Swinburne as being very small because of the complexity involved, then Swinburne’s own argument against uncaused complexity applies equally and with even more force to the prior probability of God’s existence, or the intrinsic probability of theism as Swinburne describes it.

Swinburne earlier airily described God as being immaterial (i.e. not made of matter) and as being all of one substance (presumably an immaterial substance, whatever that might be) and therefore simple. But whatever substance God consists of, to be God he still needs all the capabilities Swinburne describes as being necessary for humans, but with a scale and capability vastly increased. Moreover, since God is omnipresent, omnipotent and eternal, by Swinburne’s definition there is not even any means analogous to Darwinian evolution by which God could have come into existence. It would all have to have been there in full from the very beginning. If it is improbable for a universe to exist uncaused with sufficient order and complexity to support a Darwinian process resulting in us, then a God with even greater capabilities coming about uncaused directly is even more improbable, by many, many orders of magnitude.

Swinburne of course says nothing about the effect of teleological arguments on the prior probability of God. He has already addressed in a previous chapter the intrinsic probability of theism, being the probability of God on no evidence at all, and has no intention of revising his estimates of it. He has declared God to be simple and that is that. Instead, he concentrates solely on the conditional probabilities of the universe given God’s existence or nonexistence.

But this hides the fact that the line of reasoning he follows renders the prior probability of theism so low that even deciding that the conditional probability of the universe being as it is, given God, is quite high, it isn't going to shift the Bayesian calculus very far in the right direction, even if Swinburne were to go the whole hog and say that the probability of God creating such a universe is 1.

So he’s continuing to make up numbers, but now he’s not even being consistent about how he applies his own rules concerning how he makes up his numbers.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Swinburne: Cosmological arguments

In Chapter 7, Swinburne finally gets round to looking at the evidence for or against God. He starts with the Cosmological argument, in essence looking for answers to the question “Why is there anything rather than nothing?”

It is of course a very good question, and one we don’t know the answer to. We know that the universe does exist if only because we are part of it and observing it. At this point, Swinburne is concerning himself solely with the existence of the universe, not with any of its properties.

Swinburne is very keen on quoting 18th-century philosophers. He frequently quotes Hume (whom he doesn’t like) and Liebnitz (whom he does like), but broadly speaking he doesn’t draw on anybody more recent except in as far as they comment on Hume and Liebnitz, or on Aquinas. There is one exception to this. He likes to quote himself, extensively.

But this gives his arguments are rather mechanistic feel to them, as if his understanding of atoms is that they are Newtonian billiard balls. He is aware of the Big Bang theory but if he knows anything more about it than the name of the theory and the approximate age of the universe (which he puts at 15 billion years) then he doesn’t let on.

Swinburne discusses the regression to the first cause. He spends about 10 pages on this, but after all the quotations and arguments, it boils down a fairly simple point. Either the universe is infinitely old or it isn’t. If it is infinitely old, then it is ultimately uncaused. If it isn’t then it had a first cause, which either comes from God, or is ultimately uncaused. So we ultimately have a choice of explanation, either the universe exists uncaused, or the universe was created by God, who exists uncaused.

And not surprisingly, he prefers the latter explanation. He conveniently summarises his reasons in the last paragraph of the chapter.

There is quite a chance that, if there is a God, he will make something of the finitude and complexity of the universe. It is very unlikely that a universe would exist uncaused, but rather more likely that God would exist uncaused. Hence the argument from the existence of the universe to the existence of God is a good C-inductive argument.

His assertion that the universe existing uncaused is less likely than God existing uncaused is based on his belief that God is simpler than the universe, and that simpler things are more probable than complex ones. At the end of Chapter 5, Swinburne said that the intrinsic probability of theism was low, but because he regarded theism as a simple concept, it was more probable than any one of many other individual hypotheses for the existence of things. He reached that conclusion without examining or even naming any alternative hypothesis, so if we are to agree with him, we have to take his assertion on trust, without evidence.

But now, in Chapter 7, this has suddenly transformed itself into a 2-way choice between the universe existing uncaused and the universe being caused by God, with the latter being judged more probable. It is almost as it he expects us not to have read (or at least not to have remembered) what he wrote in the previous chapters.

Note that he characterises this as a C-inductive argument. Remember that back in chapter 1 he gave an example of a C-inductive argument, where the premise that 100 ravens have all been observed to be black is a C-inductive argument towards the conclusion that all ravens are black.

A C-inductive argument is characterised by the existence of a hypothesis where all the relevant evidence confirms the hypothesis and none of it disproves it, but where the possibility remains that some evidence at present unknown might someday disprove the hypothesis. Irrelevant matters do not contribute to the C-inductive argument, so for instance the colour of seagulls is not relevant to the hypothesis that all ravens are black. Seagulls of any colour are equally consistent both with the hypothesis that all ravens are black and with its converse, that there exists at least one non-black raven.

At the moment, we don’t know enough about the universe to know its first cause. Therefore, so far as we can tell, the existence of the universe is consistent both with God’s existence and with God’s nonexistence. It is therefore a piece of irrelevant evidence just like the colour of seagulls. To call the existence of the universe a C-inductive argument for God is incorrect.

However, Swinburne’s definition of a C-inductive argument has morphed a bit. It now isn’t anything to do with the example he gave. In terms of how he is actually using the phrase, a good C-inductive argument is one which results in a conditional probability greater than the prior probability you had before you evaluated the new evidence. In other words, a C-inductive argument is one where you feed the numbers into Bayes’ theorem and come out with a probability greater than you started with.

In this, he is demonstrating again this fundamental misunderstanding of what Bayes’ theorem does. As I described in the previous chapter, Bayes allows us to refine our understanding of the population of a certain class of entity, by allowing us to eliminate on the basis of evidence certain proportions of a larger population whose characteristics we are aware of. In the example I gave in the previous article, we were able to refine probabilities by eliminating from consideration skirt-wearers and children with short hair from an overall population of schoolchildren, in order to assess how many long-haired trouser-wearers were girls.

We don’t have a population here. We don’t have a bunch of universes, some of which exist uncaused and some of which are made by God. We don’t have a way of distinguishing caused universes from uncaused. All we have is Swinburne making numbers up again.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Swinburne Chapter 6: The Explanatory Power of Theism

Swinburne pauses for breath here, and goes over Bayes’ Theorem once again. He repeats the original formulation

P(h|e & k) = [P(h|k)P(e|h & k)] / P(e|k)


P(h|e & k) is the probability of the existence of God, given all the various bits of evidence we will come to,

P(h|k) is what he calls the intrinsic probability of God (i.e. the probability before we consider the evidence),

P(e|h & k) is the probability that the evidence would be as it is, given that God exists,

P(e|k) is the intrinsic probability of the evidence.

He expands this last term (correctly) as follows

P(e|k) = P(e|h & k)P(h|k) + P(e|~h & k)P(~h|k)

The first term is the same as the top line of the equation. The second is the converse, i.e. the probability that the evidence would be as it is, given that God does not exist, multiplied by the intrinsic probability of God’s nonexistence.

So overall we get the following equation

P(h|e & k) = [P(h|k)P(e|h & k)] / [P(e|h & k)P(h|k) + P(e|~h & k)P(~h|k)]

Now, if it is a while since you last did any maths & algebra at school, all these letters and symbols might look a bit intimidating. Of course, they are intended to look that way. So let me show you how the theorem actually works on a more down-to-earth example.

Suppose that at a particular a school, 60% of the pupils are boys, and 40% are girls. There is a school uniform, and all the boys must wear trousers, but the girls have a choice between trousers and skirt. A quarter of all the girls choose to wear trousers. You see a child in the distance wearing the school uniform, and can see that the child is wearing trousers. What is that probability that the child is a girl?

We use precisely the same equation.

P(h|e & k) is the probability that the child is a girl, given the evidence of wearing trousers. This is what we are trying to calculate.

P(h|k) is the prior probability that the child is a girl. We know that number, it is the proportion of girls in the school, i.e. 40% or 0.4.

P(e|h & k) is the probability that any particular girl wears trousers. We know this is 0.25.

P(e|~h & k) is the probability that a boy wears trousers. This is 1, since all boys must wear trousers.

P(~h|k) is the prior probability that the child is not a girl. We know this is 0.6, because we know that 60% of the children in the school are boys.

So we have all the numbers we need, and can plug them into Bayes’ equation.

P(h|e & k) = ( 0.4 x 0.25 ) / [ ( 0.4 x 0.25 ) + (1 x 0.6 ) ]

Get the pocket calculator out (or multiply it out in your head), and it comes out at 1/7, or about 14%.

You can check this out by another method. Out of every 100 children, 60 will be boys, and 40 will be girls. Of the girls, 10 wear trousers, and 30 wear skirts. We aren’t interested in the skirt-wearing children – we can see that the child has trousers. Of the trouser-wearing children, 60 are boys, and 10 are girls. So 10 out of every 70 trouser-wearing children are girls, or 1/7.

You can extend this to cover multiple pieces of evidence. For instance, taking the above example, suppose that 80% of the girls in the school have long hair and only 10% of the boys, and you can see that the child in the distance has long hair and is wearing trousers, you can make the calculation simply by plugging the new numbers into Bayes’ theorem. First, you calculate for the trouser-wearing (as shown above). That gives you a new set of prior probabilities, for the probability that a trouser-wearer is a boy or a girl. Our new evidence is the long hair. Modify the definitions above, replacing trousers with long hair, and plug the numbers into the equation. We now get this

P(h|e & k) = ( 0.14 x 0.8 ) / [ ( 0.14 x 0.8 ) + ( 0.1 x 0.86 ) ]

0.14 is the proportion of girls among trouser-wearers, and similarly 0.86 is the proportion of boys (i.e. 1 – 0.14). 0.8 is the proportion of girls with long hair, 0.1 is the proportion of boys with long hair.

Calculate this out, and it turns out that the chance of a long-haired child wearing trousers being a girl is about 0.57, or 57%.

How can that be? The chance of any trouser-wearer being a girl was only 14%! Well, by being aware of this new piece of evidence, we can now eliminate from consideration a much larger proportion of the children i.e. all the short-haired ones.

We can check it out using the other method as well. We previously worked out that for every 100 children in the school, there were 70 trouser-wearers, of whom 10 were girls. 8 out of 10 girls have long hair, but only 6 out of the 60 boys have long hair. So among the long-haired trouser-wearers, 8 out of every 14 are girls, i.e. 57%.

And that in essence is what Bayes’ theorem is all about. There is a whole load of algebra which I shan't bother to go into here which shows why Bayes' theorem works. If you're interested in probability and statistics you shouldn't just take my word for it, I recommend that you look up the maths and understand it for yourself. But the fact is, Bayes' theorem does work.

What Swinburne hopes to do is to make estimates of the various probabilities regarding God, feed them into Bayes’ theorem, crank the handle and produce an overall probability for God’s existence.

In the previous chapter, Swinburne was trying to make an assessment of the prior probability of God’s existence, which he called the intrinsic probability of theism. In the example of the schoolchildren described above, we know the prior probability that any particular child is a girl. We know that because we know how many girls and how many boys are at the school, we can simply count them. Even when we can’t count an entire population, we can sample it – that is what opinion polls are all about. And with that sample we can get a fairly accurate estimate of probabilities which can be fed into Bayes’ theorem.

But we don’t have a population of gods, nor do we have a population of universes, some of which have been made by God and some of which haven’t. We have a hypothesis regarding the existence of just a single God, and evidence in the form of just one universe whose existence we know of. And yet, Swinburne wants to make use of Bayes’ theorem in order to assess the “balance of probability” of God’s existence. In order to do that, he will have to put a number on each of the following concepts.

  1. The prior probability of God’s existence
  2. The probability of God’s existence given each of the various “pieces of evidence” that he puts forward (the cosmological argument, the teleological argument etc)

In the previous chapter, Swinburne was working his way towards suggesting a figure for P(h|k), the prior probability of God’s existence. Even to describe it in those terms is to show the futility of the effort. Either God (by Swinburne’s definition) exists or he doesn’t, and scientific investigation should in principle be able to uncover evidence one way or the other. For instance, if God performs miracles, we might reasonably hope that one or two of them would happen while scientists have their instruments pointed in the right direction. Because Swinburne’s hypothesis is not looking for what proportion of all gods have a particular set of characteristics, there isn’t any way of expressing it as a numerical probability.

The same applies to the various conditional probabilities he is looking to assign numbers to. We know what proportion of girls at the school wear trousers, we can count them. In a larger population, we could sample. Either way, we would have a statistical method by which we could come up with a number. But how can we estimate the probability of whether God would make the universe the way it is, if he exists? There is only one way available, and that is quite simply to make the numbers up.

And that is what Swinburne does, though he disguises the fact under a huge torrent of words. By the end of this chapter, we have been through 132 pages of argument which describe Swinburne’s reasons for saying that it is justified to make up the numbers, and on what basis he will choose one number over another. In the latest chapter he describes various reasons for thinking it probable that God would want or need to create a universe containing humans. I’ll paraphrase it rather than directly quoting. He thinks that it is a good thing that humans exist, and since God is perfectly good by definition, creating humans is the sort of thing that we might reasonably expect God to do. God might also want to create animals as well, but there isn’t such a good reason for him to want to do that, so animals don’t tip the matter much one way or the other. Swinburne then for the first time in the book goes on to actually assign a number which will get plugged into Bayes’ equation. This really is worthy of direct quotation.

I have argued in this chapter that there is a modest probability intermediate between 1 and 0, to which I will give the artificially precise value of 1/2, that a God will create humanly free agents located in a beautiful physical universe, perhaps also containing animals.

If you understand probability and statistics it is possible to decode this. It means that by his own admission none of his arguments are sufficient to make any kind of estimate of probability in the matter (it's impossible by definition to have a probability outside the range 0 to 1, so he is in fact ruling nothing out at all), but because he needs a number in order to proceed to the next chapter, he's going completely arbitrarily to decide to use 1/2.

Yes, that really is how he proceeds.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Meeting with Abbot Shipperlee of Ealing Abbey

I spent a little over an hour with Abbot Martin Shipperlee on Friday morning, discussing issues arising out of Fr David Pearce’s conviction on charges of sexual assault and indecent assault.

The Abbot was aware of my blog, and I made it clear from the outset that I would write down my impressions of the meeting. He told me that Fr Pearce is to be sentenced on October 2nd, and a public statement will be made then, and that there would be some things he couldn’t say now in a discussion with me because they would pre-empt that public statement. I think that is fair enough, it is obvious to me that a further public statement must be made then, and we can only wait to see what it contains. Furthermore, my blog is not an appropriate vehicle for formal public statements from the Abbot about the case.

I started out by presenting to him the comment from the anonymous abuse victim. Although he had read the blog, it was before that specific comment had been put up, so he hadn’t seen it. I pointed out that this was (to the best of my knowledge) an entirely characteristic reaction to abuse of this kind. It is very difficult to come forward, and the pain doesn’t go away. I pointed out that this being so, it is certain that there are more victims who haven’t yet come forward, and who perhaps may never do so. It is very likely that these greatly outnumber the victims he is so far aware of. I also commented that while the anonymous commenter and I agree about the non-existence of God, I regard it as an absolute tragedy that somebody should be driven to that belief as a necessary psychological survival mechanism. He didn’t disagree with any of that.

We then looked at the public statements as they were reported in the local papers at the conclusion of the civil case in 2006 and on the occasion of Pearce pleading guilty to the criminal charges last month.

At the conclusion of the civil trial, the Ealing Times included the following in its report.

In a statement written to parishioners and obtained by the Ealing Times, Abbot Martin Shipperlee from Ealing Abbey said: "A High Court judgement was given against Fr David Pearce and Ealing Abbey, and damages awarded to a former pupil of our school.

"In addition, allegations relating to 1984 have been made against Fr Stanislaus Hobbs, and he has now been charged with an indecent assault."

He added the Abbey "deeply regrets" anything which could have led to such allegations being made, and said the incidents were being investigated in "full co-operation" with the diocese and police in accordance with the recommendations of Lord Nolan's report on the protection of children in the church.

Both Fr Pearce and Fr Hobbs have been relieved of any ministry and are currently away from the monastery.

The Ealing Gazette included this in its report on Fr Pearce’s criminal trial.

Westminster RC diocese said: "Ealing Abbey is deeply saddened by the case."

I have quoted above the sum total of the church’s statements as included in the two reports.

I asked him whether these reports were a reasonable representation of what had in fact been said, or whether they had misrepresented him or the church in any way. He agreed that they were a fair summary of the statements given at the time, and that there was no misrepresentation. He said that the statement following the criminal trial was as brief as it was because the criminal case doesn’t actually end until sentence is passed, and so his full statement will come then.

I then described the impression that those statements had had on me when I first read them. I said that they sounded like weasel words. He initially bridled somewhat at the phrase, saying that they were truthful words.

I explained that they sounded like he was being extremely careful to be as unspecific as possible about what exactly he was regretting. I said that it could easily be interpreted as regretting that the case had come to light, but not actually regretting the harm that Fr Pearce had done, since he didn’t offer any description of that harm. I said that whether or not that was what he intended to convey, or whether he thought the way I received the words was fair or not, that was an honest description of how it came across to me, and that it was entirely likely that others will have formed the same impression.

I made a comparison with confession, that a true and valid confession cannot be made until the sinner has a full understanding of what he has done wrong, and that once that full understanding has been achieved, the confession has to avoid the use of euphemisms and circumlocutions that minimize the magnitude of the sin. The use of euphemisms is a sure sign that the repentance is not genuine. I said that the same applies to apologies, and that anybody who has suffered at the hands of Fr Pearce will treat any apology that uses euphemisms as an insult and as a sign that the apology is not genuine. I commented that statements such as have been provided to the press so far quite probably serve only to increase the pain of the victims.

He promised to take my thoughts into account when preparing his statement for October 2nd.

During the conversation, we both repeatedly caught ourselves slipping into the use of euphemisms to describe the abuse.

We then moved on to the question of whether he is now in fact in a position to know what has been done wrong. By this, I meant not only the extent of the abuse perpetrated by Fr Pearce, but also the actions (and inactions) of the Abbot and others which resulted in Fr Pearce continuing unchecked for so many years, and the full extent of the harm that has been caused to the victims of abuse. In other words, I asked whether he is yet in a position to fully understand what he has to apologise for.

I asked what had been done (aside from the criminal investigations) to review the past and uncover the extent of the abuse. This merged into the next issue that I wanted to discuss, the measures being taken to prevent any repetition of the abuse, and particularly to ensure that any reports are promptly acted on so that any abuse gets stopped immediately instead of being given a chance to continue.

First of all he acknowledged his past failures. Quite clearly, the measures he had taken when he first received reports of abuse had been insufficient. He acknowledges that he had believed himself competent to act to bring an end to the abuse when with the benefit of hindsight he clearly wasn’t. He had thought that the steps he had taken to prevent a continuation of the abuse would be effective, and clearly they failed.

He said that the procedures have now been changed, such that for instance whenever there is a report of abuse, the police are now brought in immediately. We didn’t go into detail of what precise changes have been made. I saw little point as I’m not an expert in the field and therefore not competent to carry out an audit.

So I asked instead if he had requested or received external expert assistance in reviewing the Abbey’s and schools’ procedures for child protection. Agencies external to the Abbey have been brought in. He briefly described to me the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service and the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, and told me that both had been in to review procedures and policies. He said that changes have been made and there is still much work to be done to make sure that the policies are not only implemented but that everyone involved is used to effectively operating them. He said that the work of these two bodies is being carried out on a systematic basis though the whole of the Catholic Church in this country.

I pointed out a major problem of perception. It may be that those organisations are extremely effective in what they do, or they might not. I have no way of telling. But both are Catholic organisations, set up to be part of and to provide a service specifically to the Catholic Church. Given that the failures of the church to prevent and respond to sexual abuse are tragically common and widespread, with horrifying cases popping up all over the world, many people will understandably have grave doubts as to the church’s ability to reform itself by turning to organisations set up by the very church in need of reform.

In addition, I pointed out there has been a highly public and major failure resulting in great harm to children in the church’s care, which has happened on Abbot Shipperlee’s watch here in Ealing. Even if the two organisations he mentioned are doing an effective job, for him to earn a restoration of trust requires more. In my view, it requires that he go an extra mile beyond what the rest of the church is doing, and call in non-Catholic secular agencies who are experts in this field to provide an independent review and report. Otherwise, many people will understandably think the various church agencies are colluding in a cover-up. I said that I didn’t know who would be the best people to do that review, but that a phone call to the NSPCC to discuss it might be a good starting point from which he could find out.

Abbot Shipperlee didn’t promise to do that. He said that in this context he perhaps had not yet given adequate thought to the need not only to set things right but also to be clearly seen by the outside world to do so, and that this was an issue that he needed to reflect on further. He saw where I was coming from and accepted that the idea had merit, but felt that since he hadn’t thought this through sufficiently, he wanted time to reflect before deciding, and so he didn’t feel able instantly to say that he would go ahead and do this.

We then discussed the matter of providing care and support to the victims. One of my objectives in giving him that comment right at the start was to fix in his mind the fact that there are almost certainly very many victims who are at present unknown to him, who through shame or disgust or fear have not come forward, or who were unaware of the criminal investigation and so did not make a statement to the police. If Fr Pearce’s abuse started in 1972, the victims are hardly going to be restricted to the five boys he has been convicted of assaulting.

I also expressed the opinion that the letters he has sent to parents of the Abbey’s schools and the statement he has made at Mass cannot be regarded as public apologies, since many of the victims will have moved away from the parish or even left the church in disgust, and so would have been in no position to hear the apology, no matter how heartfelt and sincere it was. (By the way, I don’t yet know what form of words he used in his statement in Mass or the letters to parents. He has promised to forward a copy of both to me. Since again it would pre-empt his October statement, I am not going to publish them here even once I receive them.) Once children leave the school, they scatter to the four corners of the earth, and if the abuse has been going on at least since 1972, there are undoubtedly a far greater number of victims amongst ex-pupils than among those still attending the school. Apologies read out at Mass and notices posted on the boards in the Abbey don’t constitute an effective way of reaching out to those victims. I pointed out that modern technology, in the form of the web, offers a means of reaching out that simply wasn’t available to past generations, that an apology on the Abbey website has the scope to reach far more past pupils than the efforts made so far.

His response to this was that it simply hadn’t occurred to him to do that. He said that on reflection he has concentrated too closely on himself and Fr Pearce and the actions necessary to stop the abuse, and on the victims he is in contact with and for whom support is being provided. He wasn’t specific about what this support was, and out of consideration for the privacy of the victims I did not ask for details. He acknowledged that on reflection too little has been done so far to offer support to victims as yet unknown.

Finally, I asked about his motivations, whether in his public statements so far he could with complete honesty say that the care and support of the victims was his primary concern, or whether trying to salvage the good name of the church was also in his mind. He was surprisingly slow to answer. He acknowledged that in retrospect, concern for the reputation of the Abbey was one of the matters on his mind, and that the statements as they have been reported in the press have not adequately communicated concern for the victims, partly because he himself did not make it sufficiently clear, and partly because the message has been attenuated through the medium of newspapers who have other agendas. I replied that concern for the Abbey’s reputation is also concern for the Church’s reputation, and that the Abbey’s reputation deserves to be no better than is justified by the actions of its clergy, and that his expressions of concern for the victims and tangible actions to help them form part of that reputation. He agreed.

I closed by saying that I was in no way convinced that all would be well, and that I would be following the situation with interest. I said that I would far prefer that the Abbey learned and was able properly to protect those in its care, but that if I concluded that this wasn’t happening, I would have no hesitation in calling for the Abbey to sever its links with the schools if thought that would better assure the safety of the pupils. I said that I might wish to visit again in a few months to discuss progress with him, to which he agreed.


I wrote up the notes above as soon as I returned home. I then decided the leave them overnight and review them again and make any necessary additions or corrections that I spotted. It isn’t a verbatim transcript of the discussion, but it is an account of the meeting which is as honest and accurate as my memory permits. I took notes of a few specific items during the meeting (the names of the organisations called in to help refine the child protection policies), but in order to keep the conversation going, I decided not to attempt to take notes of everything else during the meeting. I’m not a journalist and I don’t have shorthand.

I’ve deliberately avoided as far as possible mixing my opinions as to the Abbot’s responses in with the narrative, except in as far as I provided responses to him at the time. I felt it better to put my opinions down separately here at the end, so as to give people the opportunity to form their own impressions first.

I found the discussion somewhat frustrating. He was very cagey in many of his replies, and there was no means by which I could tell whether this caginess was simply for the reason he gave (that he cannot pre-empt the public statement he will give when Fr Pearce is sentenced) or whether there was some other reason as well.

He said the sorts of things I would expect to hear if he was essentially a good man trying to do his imperfect best to rectify a terrible situation, one brought about in part by his own failures in trying to do things he was unqualified for. But they are also exactly the sorts of things I would expect to hear from a person who is looking to restore the good name of the church by telling people what he thinks they want to hear. And until I see the actions, I have no way of knowing which of those two possibilities is nearer the truth, or whether it is in fact all a bit of a muddy mixture of the two.

Given the catastrophic extent and the duration of the Abbey’s failure to protect the children under its care from a monk and priest under the Abbot's authority, I don’t think that he can fairly expect to be given the benefit of the doubt. For the Abbot and the Abbey to regain public trust, fine words are needed, but even more important is that they are matched – and seen to be matched – with fine actions.

I left the meeting quite tired and feeling somewhat angry, for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Having read through my notes, I think I now recognise the source of that anger.

In describing his failures to stop Fr Pearce earlier, Abbot Shipperlee was of course stating no more than is blindingly obvious to anybody with a passing familiarity with the case. What he said was fine as far as it went, but it didn’t actually go very far.

And this is symptomatic of what I see as the main problem, the true source of my anger. It is that the scope of the Abbot’s actions so far seem always to have been as narrow as possible, and aimed at dealing with the most immediate problem.

  • His original actions to try and bring an end to Fr Pearce’s abuse were kept within the church, and as far as I can tell were aimed solely at preventing future abuse and not aimed at punishing past abuse or at identifying or supporting victims. And what is more, they didn’t even succeed in that limited aim.
  • His public statements have focussed solely on the immediate issues at hand, and have been restricted to a relatively narrow audience in most cases.
  • He appears to have done no more than is now being required across the whole Catholic Church to put in place procedures to prevent and halt future cases of abuse.
  • He appears to have shown little or no curiosity regarding the wider picture – how far has the abuse extended, who else might have been involved, how many people have been harmed, how can they be helped.

I was most shocked about his response to the idea of putting something up on the website to reach out to scattered victims. If he were lying, and had up to now made a conscious decision to try and let sleeping dogs lie and not reach out to victims so far unidentified, then that would be a terrible betrayal of the idea that Christians should conduct their lives so as to be a witness to the love of Christ. On balance, I think it overwhelmingly probable that he was not deliberately lying to me. He struck me as a person who would find it difficult to tell a deliberate and outright lie.

But it is not all that much better if he is telling the truth and that the idea of trying to use the website to reach out beyond the current parishioners and parents simply didn’t occur to him. The Abbey already has a website, the existence of which he can hardly be unaware. It contains material concerning matters such as messages to prospective new parishioners and to people considering a vocation as a monk. It provides a weekly letter from the parish to all who wish to read it, and the text of the week’s homily. It has a regularly-updated notice board concerning parish events. In other words, the website is already attempting to reach out beyond the boundaries of the parish.

For it not to occur to the Abbot to use the website as a means of reaching out to victims of Fr Pearce is an extraordinary failure of imagination. He put it down to being an elderly cleric who is not all that up-to-date with the developments of the world. On reflection, I find that excuse to be hard to swallow. If he’s that out-of-touch with the world, he is hardly a fit person to have responsibilities concerned with the running of a school which is preparing children for their place in that world.

From the criminal case we know that the abuse started at least as early 1972. That is the date of earliest crime to which Fr Pearce has pleaded guilty. I don’t know when Fr Pearce first joined the Abbey or started teaching at St Benedict's School, but if it was some time before 1972, I think it unlikely that the police have managed to successfully prosecute the very first case of indecent assault that Fr Pearce ever committed. And it is beyond belief that the cases which have come to court are anything other than a very small proportion of all the assaults and other abuses Fr Pearce has committed. The oldest of his victims are quite probably now in their 40s or 50s, and they could be living anywhere in the world.

No, I’m not satisfied. Not by a long chalk.