Abuse coverage reveals scapegoat mechanism
The misinterpretation and misreporting of the 1985 Ratzinger letter in the Kiesle case -- my points in this BBC TV interview over the weekend are similar to those in MSW's excellent analysis -- indicate not just poor quality coverage but something altogether nastier.
It was the great theorist René Girard who has shown us that the ancient human scapegoat mechanism -- when angry mobs formed to stone those on whom the tensions of the community had been projected -- is just as alive today as in primitive societies.
As he writes in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, the modern scandal excites
"a feverish desire to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent, to allot responsibilities, to unmask the guilty secret without fear or favour and to distribute punishment. The person who is scandalised wants to bring the affair out into the open; he has a burning desire to see the scandal in the clear light of day and pillory the guilty party …. Scandal always calls for demystification, and demystification, far from putting an end to scandal, propagates and universalises it … There must be scandal to demystify and the demystification reinforces the scandal it claims to combat. The more passions rise, the more the difference between those on opposite sides tends to be abolished."
The scapegoat mechanism comes into play when tensions -- often buried and unconscious -- accumulate, when those involved must ‘let off steam’ or the social fabric will burst. The energy of indignation and anger is fuelled, over this issue, by the fact that sexual abuse of minors is extremely common in families -- 70 per cent of victims have suffered at the hands of a relative -- yet almost never talked about, let alone dealt with. The Church has become a surrogate victim, unconsciously identified as the cause of the tension which society feels but cannot identify.
This is not a way of deflecting from the Church's real failures on this issue, which the media's relentless coverage has forced the Church to face. Nor is it a way of deflecting from some of the unique characteristics behind those failures in the Church -- not least clericalism, past and present.
But the coverage has now moved into a new, irrational phase. The media have merged with the mob. They are not standing outside the crowd, coolly examining the facts. They are standing in locus vulgi.
Take the way that The Times -- which in the UK has led the way in promoting hysteria and distortion in this issue -- reports that the taliban atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are planning to "arrest" Pope Benedict when he comes to the UK. In fact, as Dawkins spells out on his website, they are mounting a legal challenge aimed at whipping up public opinion against the papal visit. Rather than report this as a publicity gimmick, or at least point out how dubious are the legal arguments, The Times reports this as if it is a perfectly sensible response to established facts, and even enlists a semi-Catholic columnist to agree with the idea.
The mechanism of scandal exerts a fascination which increases in line with the tension. The accusations pile up; facts cease to be sacred; the distinction between truth and hearsay blurs. There is carte blanche to demonise the scapegoat, whose guilt is largely irrelevant to the performance of the mechanism. When it is not in thrall to the mimetic contagion, journalism is one of the best means of exposing the irrationality of the scapegoat mechanism, because it relies on facts and evidence. But when journalism jettisons its responsibility to detachment, it becomes an agent of the hysteria.
Normally journalists are wary of being used by lawyers who have an obvious vested interest in advancing a certain narrative. Yet many media have been supplied with documents -- such as the 1985 Ratzinger letter in the Kiesle case -- by lawyers bring class actions against the Church on behalf of abuse victims. The interpretations which the lawyers are keen to put on them are precisely those which the media then uncritically adopt. When the scapegoat mechanism is in play, contradictions between agendas vanish. The crowd becomes "one".
Yesterday two colleagues -- Jack Valero of Catholic Voices and Clifford Longley, columnist with The Tablet -- took part in a BBC TV debate on whether the Pope should resign. The very absurdity of the question and the way they were heckled and disbelieved as they coolly laid out the facts showed that the mechanism was in play. The crowd had made up its mind and anything -- including the Protestant prejudice that the papacy was "unbiblical" -- was uncritically accepted. Afterwards, a representative of the Protest the Pope coalition accosted Jack and told him he had no right to be defending Benedict XVI in public. Defend the scapegoat when the crowd is of one mind, and you'll pay the price.
It is sad to see Ruth Gledhill, Times religious correspondent, pander to the same feeding-frenzy culture of her newspaper when she posts on her website "the full text of a letter sent to the Pope in 1963 from a leader in the field of treatment of paedophile priests, warning that they were incorrigibly recidivist." She adds, breathlessly: "So much for repeated claims that the nature of the disorder was not understood until recently."
This is grotesque. The Church's explanation is not that paedophilia was not understood but that it was understood by the psychological profession as treatable. In fact the letter she quotes -- from the Superior General of the Servants of the Holy Paraclete -- does not remotely show what she claims it shows, but captures very well the confusion around how to deal with abusive priests at the time. The key paragraph --
The corrective remedies to be applied and their effectiveness will obviously depend upon the good will and character of the individual. Problems that arise from abnormal, homosexual tendencies are going to call for, not only spiritual, but understanding psychiatric counselling. Personally I am not sanguine of the return of priests to active duty who have been addicted to abnormal practices, especially sins with the young. However, the needs of the Church must be taken into consideration and activation of priests who have seemingly recovered in this field may be considered but is only recommended where careful guidance and supervision is possible. Where there is indication of incorrigibility, because of the tremendous scandal given, I would most earnestly recommend total laicization.
-- is hardly proposing a "zero tolerance" policy to the man who would later be Pope. It is, in fact, an interesting letter which tells us much. What a shame Ruth didn't analyse it properly.
It takes courage to stand out from a scapegoating crowd. That courage -- to deal in facts and perspective in a time of hysteria -- is a journalistic virtue sadly absent from the current reporting of clerical sex abuse.