Friday, May 29, 2009

Child abuse: time to read the Bible

Over the past few weeks, following on from the release of the Ryan report into child abuse by members of religious orders there has been a lot of clergy bashing in the Irish media. For what it's worth here is my perspective:

Growing up in Ireland in the 1980's, I frequently had interaction with catholic priests and nuns. Every single one that I met was pleasant, kind and I'm convinced that all were sincere in their intentions. They had a strong sense of right and wrong and wanted to do what was right. Invariably they wanted to give me 'the gift of faith'. As a child I believed what I was told.

I am now aware that many children Ireland did not have such a pleasant experience with priests and nuns. This is particularly so for the unfortunate children in the industrial schools. Those children were defenseless and had no-one to stand up for them. I was absolutely not aware of the abuse that was going on. However I do still remember the screams of boys who were beaten by the head-master of my school. His office was a scary place to be sent. He had a cane that he used on the naughty boys and although my class-room was a long way from the office, the sound of the strikes were very loud. The screams from the young boys were even louder.

I remember one particular day when I was about seven hearing a particularly nasty beating, with some piercing screams. The whole class flinched with the sound of each blow. Our teacher saw how upset we were and tried to comfort us, telling us only very naughty boys got the cane. The head-master was in fact her husband.

Today we would call that sort of thing child-abuse. Then it was called discipline. It reminds me of the way alpha male gorillas treat the young. If he ever sees their actions as questioning his dominant position, then they are beaten.

By the time I had reached secondary school, corporal punishment had been outlawed in Ireland, though for one of my teachers, the old habit died hard. If we hadn't remembered our lines of poetry we'd get a slap on the hand from a ruler. It was a mixed school and he didn't hit the girls. For the same offence, they'd have to write out 50 lines. There was a stand-off one day when one girl refused to do the 50 lines. She said she'd prefer to get the hit instead. The English teacher refused.

Another day the same English teacher slapped a boy at the back of the class. The lad asked what that was for. The reply was that it was to save him coming down later. In a really strange way I think it was a bonding moment between the boy and the teacher. There was humour in the violence.

My parents did warn me about talking to strangers. There was a fear of child abductions. Such events got huge coverage in the media, but in fact were very rare. It seems from the Ryan report that abuse by catholic clergy was much more common. The priests were the ones I should have been watching out for. I wasn't really in danger from strangers as I cycled to mass as a young alter-boy. The real danger existed once I entered the sacristy. Though as I said, to me, the priests that I met were always only ever kind.

The Ryan Report catalogues endemic abuse in Catholic run institutions. For Christians who want to try to understand it, I think a good place to start is the bible. In the old testament, God frequently advocates ethnic cleansing of the Amalekites. He wants their men, women, children and infants all slaughtered. Indeed Kind David is awarded his thrown because of his particularly thorough butchering.

But once they are dead, God leaves them alone. Then we come to the new testament where Jesus introduces hell and it's eternal flames. I have read of some particularly nasty people who choose to inflict pain on others, but even in Abu Ghraib prison, under both the Hussein and Bush regimes, the torture sessions would eventually come to and end though sometimes with death. There is some compassion which eventually kicks in. People weren't kept alive so that they would have 40 years of torture.

On the other hand Jesus promises ( or threatens ) eternal torture. Under some circumstances pardons are available. But that fact remains JC advocates the use of the eternal flames of hell for all sorts of minor crimes, such as calling someone a fool. If we teach children that Jesus should be held up as an example of virtue and he should be our moral guide, then the abuse that happened in Catholic institutions can be seen as very mild relative to what Christ has in store. The problem is that people used the Bible as a source of a moral guide which justifies horific eternal torture. The book has not served us well. Let's end the myth that Christ should be held up as an example of virtue.

I know that Hitler sought the slaughter of innocent men, women and children. So I make a moral judgement on him. I don't need to learn any more. I don't need to read his speeches to give him a second chance to see if in fact he has some great moral advice to give. He was a nasty ethnic cleanser. I don't hold him in high esteem. The same could be said for the old testament god. He advocated the slaughter of Amalekite children, I don't need to know anything else about him. I've made up my mind. Similarly for Jesus. He promotes the idea of eternal torture. That is morally reprehensible. There may indeed be some lines in the new testament which I would agree with. However the fact remains that much of what Jesus teaches is unethical.

One counter argument would be that the bible does contain some of the word of God, but it was in fact written by men. So it is not absolutely reliable. In some cases in the Gospels, Jesus may be quoted out of context or indeed the quotes may be entirely made up and that his real message is of love, forgiveness and compassion. But then if we say the bible is unreliable, we run into the problem that we don't know which bits are to be trusted. When it makes the extra-ordinary claim that JC is the product of a virgin birth, then we have to remind ourselves that the source of the information is a book which we've deemed to be unreliable.