Saturday, 13 February 2010

Disturbing parallels

Laurie Taylor has written an article in this week's Times Educational Supplement, very bravely describing the abuse he suffered at Sacred Heart Boarding School in Droitwich. It is titled 'If you keep quiet, I won't say anything...'

He describes the moment when he and a friend finally summoned the courage to report the abuse
Somehow we plucked up courage to go and see the headmaster, Father Lythgoe. We stood nervously in his office and made our complaint. Said that we didn’t like to be touched. Said that we thought it was wrong.

He told us that we were making very serious accusations. These priests were very holy men. Didn’t we know about the missionary work that Father Dunworth had done in Africa? And why were we the only ones who had ever complained? Were we really so free of sin ourselves that we could afford to accuse others of wrongdoing?

Laurie Taylor recognises in his own experiences parallels with what he has read in the Murphy Report into abuse in Ireland.
As you read this report, you are gradually aware of one glaring omission from all the accounts given by bishops and archbishops of their reasons for inaction: a concern about the damage these serial abusers were inflicting upon young children. Whenever any mention is made of harm or damage, it is always in reference to the standing and reputation of the priest. It is this that must be protected at all costs.
Those of you who are familiar with the events at St Benedict's may recognise other parallels. My immediate reaction on reading this was to recall the Abbot's press statement and letter to parisioners.
The crimes perpetrated by Fr David were a betrayal of the trust placed in him as a teacher and priest. His exploitation of the most vulnerable was brought to an end by the courage of those of his victims who came forward and revealed what had been happening.

We have cooperated fully with the police throughout their investigation and I would like to express my thanks to them for the professional way in which they have dealt with this matter.
This is all extremely convenient. Nothing can now be done to protect Pearce's reputation - he's been convicted. But by heaping all the blame for everything on Pearce, the Abbot aims to paint the Abbey and the church in general as being whiter than white.

But we know otherwise. Mr. Justice Field was highly unimpressed with the veracity both of Pearce himself and of the other witnesses on behalf of the Abbey in the civil case undertaken by "C" in 2006. You can read the full text of his judgement online.

In it, the judge refers to answers which sounded rehearsed and did not have the "ring of truth", mislaid documents, failure to check memories against documents and a variety of other evasions which led him to believe that "C"s allegations were both true and did not admit of an innocent explanation.

"C" was one of the victims of assault to which Pearce eventually pleaded guilty last year. When the prosecution barrister summed up the charges against Pearce, he referred to a letter from the Abbot describing the reasons Pearce had been placed on a restricted ministry. It would seem in fact that the restriction was in fact a part of a promise to the Charity Commission following their Statutory Inquiry. But the public reason given was "To protect Father David from unfounded allegations".

Parallels, anyone?

Monday, 8 February 2010

Should the church be allowed to discriminate in employment?

There have been a bunch of threads on CiF Belief on the common subject of Does faith trump equality? The question basically is whether (and if so, to what extent) should churches be exempted from legislation banning discrimination in employment.

Jonathan Bartley argues broadly no.

Michael Scott-Joynt, Joel Edwards and Jonathan Chaplin all argue for exemptions, but in their respective articles have been notably unclear as to what examptions they want: in essence what kinds of people they want to be able to discriminate against, and what kinds of jobs that discrimination should be able to apply to. So I have a challenge to them and to anybody else to clarify this.

Let us consider the following categories of people.

1. Women
2. Celibate homosexual men
3. Celibate homosexual women
4. Homosexual men in a civil partnership or similar stable relationship
5. Homosexual women in a civil partnership or similar stable relationship.
7. Unmarried heterosexual men or women living together in a stable relationship
8. Hindus
9. Muslims
10. Atheists
11. Catholics

Now let us consider the following paid jobs within the C of E.

a. Ordained clergy
b. Teacher of religious education in a C of E secondary school
c. Teacher of science in a C of E secondary school
d. Junior or infant school teacher (all subjects) within a C of E school
e. School nurse
f. School caretaker
g. Administrative assistant
h. Press officer
i. Cleaner
j. Computer technician

So, please indicate for which combinations of person and job category should it be legally justifiable for the church to discriminate, where another employer is not so permitted?

If we can have a discussion that gets away from generalities and into describing specific categories, then there is a much better chance that in due course legislation can be written that is clearer.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Complaint to the Guardian reader's editor

Andrew Brown (the editor of the CiF Belief website at the Guardian) has been in the habit of taking ad hominem potshots at prominent atheists. His latest diatribe (that really is the only word for it) is on the subject of the complaint made by Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society concerning what appears to be Cherie Booth's decision to take a person's religion into account in giving a more lenient sentence to a man who had committed an assault, breaking the jaw of a member of the public.

Andrew Brown seems to have parlayed this into a belief that the NSS is calling for offenders who are religious to have increased sentences!
In Sanderson's world, judges should say things like "Although you have no previous convictions, you are none the less a follower of Pope Benedict XVI and so unable to tell right from wrong. I therefore find myself compelled to impose a custodial sentence"
At the time of writing, the article has collected 630 comments. The number is rising fast, and they are almost uniformly highly negative. Andrew has commented below the line as well, and in the process has been digging himself even deeper into his hole.

It is one thing to write an inflammatory article. It is quite another to be quite so cavalier with the facts. I've therefore written a complaint to the Readers' Editor of the Guardian, as follows.


Andrew Brown's piece on this subject ( spends less time on Cherie Booth's actual remarks than on entirely imaginary remarks supposedly by Terry Sanderson of the NSS.

In doing so, Andrew Brown grossly misprepresents the public views both of the NSS and of Terry Sanderson. Examples are
The real disagreement is whether being a devout Muslim (or Christian) is in itself a sign of good character. Cherie Booth seems to be arguing that it is, though less important than his previously spotless record. For Sanderson and those who think like him, being a devout believer is quite the opposite. It's evidence of bad character.

In Sanderson's world, judges should say things like "Although you have no previous convictions, you are none the less a follower of Pope Benedict XVI and so unable to tell right from wrong. I therefore find myself compelled to impose a custodial sentence"

Later, in comments below the article, he says (describing Sanderson)
Yes, but I was talking about the one who works full time for a pressure group trying to drive religion out of public life.
And later
The NSS is trying right now, FFS, to stop the Pope's visit to this country because he's the Pope.
And later
The people claiming that he and the NSS are indifferent to religion, and perfectly happy for the Pope to come here, providing he pays his own way, I find hard to take seriously.
Except that this is precisely the position of the NSS and the subject of a petition to that effect.

On being hammered about that in comments, he appeared to retract to some extent, when he said:
OK. On reflection, the NSS is not campaigning to stop the Pope coming here. If their campaign were to succeed, and he were to be treated as someone who was not a head of state, he might not come; but that would rather spoil the theatre of the whole thing.
But then he rather spoiled the effect by saying in a later comment
"On reflection" meaning that the Pope's visit will mean lots of publicity for the NSS. So of course they want it to go ahead.
He also misrepresented a comment by "helen01" who said that she was a JP and who commented on Charie Booth's comments. She decidedly did not appreciate the distortion of her words, replying
I didn't say anything about being insulted as an atheist - I said, as you yourself quoted:

Cherie Blair was quite clear that the defendant's religion affected her decision to suspend the sentence.

I was talking about justice being seen and heard to be done!

You are good at this distortion thing aren't you????
My complaint concerns the following matters

1. The article and subsequent comments are not restricting themselves to commentary, but are making up facts, which is against the spirit of CP Scott's essay which supposedly underpins the ethos of the site.

2. The article and his subsequent comments breach item 1 of your community guidelines "We welcome debate and dissent, but personal attacks (on authors, other users or any individual), persistent trolling and mindless abuse will not be tolerated."

It is perfectly clear that this is a personal attack on Terry Sanderson.

3. The article and his subsequent comments breach the spirit of item 2 of your community guidelines "We acknowledge criticism of the articles we publish, but will not allow persistent misrepresentation of the Guardian and our journalists to be published on our website. For the sake of robust debate, we will distinguish between constructive, focused argument and smear tactics."

It seems that you will not allow persistent misrepresentation of the Guardian and its journalists, but you do permit persistent misrepresentation by them. Andrew Brown is very much in the habit of deliberately distorting and misrepresenting the views of prominent atheists. This is but the latest in a long series of articles in which he has engaged in similar tactics. Three common targets are Sanderson himself, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If you require it, I can provide a list of relevant articles.

4. The article and his subsequent comments breach the spirit of item 5 of your community guidelines. "We will not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia or other forms of hate-speech, or contributions that could be interpreted as such. We recognise the difference between criticising a particular government, organisation, community or belief and attacking people on the basis of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation."

Strictly speaking secularism or atheism is not a religion, but since it is a philosophical stance concerning religion, it ought to be protected in the same way. Andrew Brown appears to be in the habit of attacking atheists and secularists because of their views, rather than making any attempt to engage with the views themselves.

5. The article and his subsequent comments breach the spirit of item 5 of your community guidelines. "The platform is ours, but the conversation belongs to everybody. We want this to be a welcoming space for intelligent discussion, and we expect participants to help us achieve this by notifying us of potential problems and helping each other to keep conversations inviting and appropriate. If you spot something problematic in community interaction areas, please report it. When we all take responsibility for maintaining an appropriate and constructive environment, the debate itself is improved and everyone benefits."

It can hardly be said that the article is engaging in intelligent discussion.

6. You may also recall that some months ago, there was an article Your views on Cif etiquette which described a number of supplementary guidelines that had been suggested by readers.

Matt Seaton, in a comment on that thread, said

we'll be recommending to ATL contributors that they abide by the spirit of them

Andrew Brown's article has broken the spirit of points 1, 2, 5, 6 (arguably), and 7 (grossly). I shan't rehearse the details, I'm sure you already get the idea.

The overall issue is one of hypocrisy. You quite reasonably expect good behaviour on the part of below-the-line commenters. I am all in favour of that. You engage in debate with readers concerning what those guidelines should be. I'm all in favour of that as well. But it seems that the same standards are not applied to above-the-line comment pieces written by the paper's own editors, even when you claim that your policy is otherwise.

It is hypocrisy specifically on the part of Andrew Brown for acting in this way, as in the past he has appealed for a more civilised discourse, for instance in his article David Hume's comment policy. It seems that this applies only to others, and not to himself. It is also wider hypocrisy on the part of the editorial team as a whole, since it is hardly the first time that Andrew Brown's activities of this kind have come to notice.

I have commented on this topic in the "What do you want to talk about? threads, and received a response from Jessica Reed to the effect that the appropriate route for a complaint is to write to the Readers' Editor.

Jonathan West