Monday 6 September 2010

The Pope is coming to Britain: two dilemmas.

The Pope is coming to Britain, which causes me two dilemmas. I doubt he cares. I don't figure on his radar. But he does figure on mine.

I don't think he should have been invited. I don't think he should be invited to anywhere in the world until he has put the hierarchy of the Catholic Church completely to rights over the issue of sexual abuse. For the record, I don't the church has done anything more than it has been forced to do by publicity and the horror of the outside world. I don't think they have changed their basic view that the reputation of the church (reputation - ha!) must be preserved by all means, and if that means ignoring law breaking and the most disgusting and immoral behaviour then so be it. I still think they see this as a PR exercise, not a moral one, and I find that just as disgusting as the original crimes.

Recently evidence has been put forward in defence of the current Pope that in more junior days he tried to do something about one priest in particular, but was thwarted by higher authorities in the church. That doesn't cut it for me. Faced with gross abuse like this, "obeying orders" is not a defence. He let them stop him doing anything. The deliberate and persistent covering up of these crimes over a long period of time still haunts the church, and will continue to do so as long as they remain so secretive. A good deal more transparency is necessary.

The church has now said that such crimes, if committed nowadays, should be reported to the police. But it has not met with universal agreement. Apparently bishop Grings of Brazil responded by saying that he thought it should still be a matter for internal church discipline. And that has received no reaction from the Pope. The reaction should have been swift and loud: "If you ever fail to report a case of child abuse to the police, you will no longer be a bishop". But no, we have had nothing.

You can't actually stop people abusing children. I have had my own brush with the issue. When I was a social worker in Cambridge, I sent children regularly to an assessment centre, the head of which was given a twenty year jail sentence in 1997 for having abused the children in his care. (As far as I can ascertain, none of the children I sent there were abused.) It took a while for suspicions to harden into action, but the County Council eventually did something about it. The Catholic Church on the other hand has had to be pushed all the way. And it's still pushing back.

Taking an opportunity to put the whole affair behind him, the Pope managed to make it clear just how archaic the thinking of the church hierarchy is. It speeded up the process for investigating priests accused of child abuse, but, crucially, did not make it obligatory to report such crimes to the police. Which century do they think they're in?

And it is notable that they did not give the issue of child abuse by priests its own declaration, which it surely deserved, but included it as part of a decree in which among other things,they upgraded the sinfulness of trying to ordain a woman to a "more grave delict", a tastily ancient phrase for saying it's one of the most horrible things you can do. And putting that in the same document is a slap in the face to every choirboy that's ever been felt up by a randy Catholic priest, not to mention the pain given to the female half of the world's population by the Vatican's misogyny.

So it's pretty clear where I stand. The Pope should be given a raspberry wherever he goes, till he does something that says the church is taking this as seriously as it deserves. But that brings me to my two dilemmas.

The first is that I want to protest when he gets here. I want to go somewhere where my presence tells him that his presence here is contemptible. But the only organised protests that I can find are those beholden to the National Secular Society, and others', alternative agenda. I'm a Christian and I do not want to be associated with those who would tar all religious with the same brush. But the response of religious bodies who disagree fundamentally with the Pope's actions seem to be too wishy washy by half. They have criticised the secular protests for being too confrontational (I agree) but they do not appear to have organised an alternative. Can anybody tell me different?

And my second dilemma is with regard to my Catholic friends. I have several, all good people. I have debated the issue with them before. I have always been absolutely clear that I have no problem with Catholic people as such, but I do have a problem with the structure of the church and the vindictively patriarchal nature of some of its hierarchy. But with most of them I find it very difficult to get this distinction across. They do not see a distinction at all; an attack on any part of the church is taken as deeply wounding to them personally. They're all nice people and I do not see how to take this forward, because I cannot in all honesty think of the Pope and some of his underlings as anything but contemptible.

Lewes Cycle Challenge

I'm taking part in the Lewes Cycle Challenge. Organisations take part, and the idea is for them to get their employees on to bikes, if only for ten minutes during the period of the challenge, which is 10th to 26th September. I was going to upload a picture of me holding a cupcake, but my image button has gone awol. Not sure what the cupcake has to do with it, but it tasted very nice.

We're going to be making our major effort on Septenber 20th, which is the day after International Talk like A Pirate Day, so we're pirate theming it. Look out for photos, if that button has come back by then.

Friday 3 September 2010

Inglorious and a bit fishy; and a question

Inglorious refers to media (both social and commercial) treatment of William Hague over the last few days. What has been done is not only inglorious but shameful and unhelpful. The story has concentrated on the salacious details of sexuality which has served to hide a more pertinent question. The more pertinent question is now being expressed but largely overlooked in the wave of reaction that follows his personal statement.

There are three features to the story - sexuality, privacy and judgement. Homosexuality should not be news, but it is, largely because it sells millions of newspapers to the mentally challenged half of our country. I don't give a stuff whether Hague is straight, gay or a bit of both. I also don't care if he has cheated on his wife: that's an issue for them, not for the rest of us. He says he hasn't. Fine, let it be.

It is shameful that Hague has now been driven to making a statement that reveals his and his wife's private - I emphasise that word, private - grief. I know that there are a lot of people who have put them in that position who unfortunately won't feel the slightest remorse. Politicians lives will always be public, but somewhere there is a limit and we have strayed beyond it here.

But underneath all that froth, and the somewhat sanctimonious response when the true details of the Hagues' situation came out, there is a genuine and serious question. It may not be a big question, but it is a question. Is Hague's judgement as good as we thought it was? At the time of the hotel incident he was shadow Foreign Secretary. He is now Foreign Secretary. He is an important enough person for us to ask small questions about.

He admits now that it was an error of judgement to share a hotel room, because he did not think through how it would look. That's a minor issue. As has been said, if you really are having a secret affair, the last thing you do is share a hotel room. It's how it *looks* that escaped Hague's notice. To me that incident is a cause of puzzlement more than anything. It seems to be generally accepted that sharing a hotel room is a normal thing to do. In some classes and for some purposes that will be true. People share at conference time, for instance, because of the lack of affordable hotel space. But you can bet your life Hague won't be sharing at conference, and never has since he's been an MP. It was a campaign trip, I understand, so it wasn't a hair shirt issue about saving public money, which some people have suggested it was. Hague is one of the Conservatives' biggest guns; he spearheads their election campaigns because he is so popular. They look after him. They plan his trips really carefully. He was also, if I remember rightly, one of the best funded opposition politicians of the last government. So why on earth did they not book enough rooms to go round? Maybe somebody will tell me that this is normal for high status, high value politicians. I don't see it, though. Which leaves a question mark over how on earth did it happen that Hague ended up sharing a room. That is, in the end though, probably more likely to be in the "of interest to the public" category than the "in the public interest" category.

What is in the public interest though is how Chris Myers got his job as a special adviser. He became Hague's third when everybody else was limited to two. Being driver to the shadow Foreign Secretary is one thing. Being special adviser to the actual UK Foreign Secretary makes you one of the most powerful people in British politics. To get that job, and to get it specially created for you means that you should be somebody really special. But Myers' qualifications, while not as poor as some have suggested, don't appear to be stellar. So it is legitimate to ask Hague to justify his judgement. It is legitimate to ask how he arrived at the conclusion that Myers was the person best suited to the job, and how he got dispensation to create the post needed for the appointment. Because our Foreign Secretary has a tricky and demanding job to do and we need to know that he has the judgement for it. But that has been buried, and is likely to stay buried among the slop that the media, including the social media, have poured over the episode.