A priest wrote to the Times a week or so ago on the subject of the abuse of children in the Roman Catholic church. His first point – that such abuse is inexcusable and represents a terrible misuse of clerical power – is uncontroversial.
His second point – that such abuse is something that only seems to happen in certain parts of the world – is much shakier:
…this widespread sexual abuse of minors seems mainly to characterise English-speaking countries: Ireland, Great Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia.
His blithe characterisation was challenged in today’s paper by a writer of another letter:
Unfortunately, Father Radcliffe joins the Vatican’s Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, who made the same point of blaming English-speaking countries in 2002, as though there is some connection between the language or culture and sexual abuse. Not so.
The reason abuse cases are more numerous in America, Ireland, Australia and Canada, has everything to do with the tradition of English common law that allows discovery proceedings where lawyers for survivors can obtain the production of secret church documents.
US judges have only recently begun to thwart church efforts to continue sealing records of criminality — either by the perpetrators themselves or complicit bishops who enabled their abuse. Documents provided the evidence. Other non-English-speaking countries do not have legal traditions that provide access to such evidence for survivors’ lawsuits, and so the media is unable to cover the stories there.
I think that’s a fair response to the charge. How do we know what happens in countries where evidence is so much harder to obtain? If only some states have laws which allow the relatively easy gathering of proof can we really assume that those which don’t have a lower level of offending?
The bizarre assumption that English-speaking countries are uniquely dysfunctional is not confined to this particular grisly subject though. A couple of years ago I went along to hear an author of popular psychology books give a talk on the subject of ‘Affluenza’ a nifty portmanteau word which was also the title of his latest work. The virus, according to Oliver James – the author, is the state of dissatisfaction some people fall into after pursuing a materialist, keeping up with the Jones’, status-led lifestyle.
Which countries suffered most from the psychological disease which leads to unhappiness and clinical depression? America, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom of course.
While James did pay lip service to the better record keeping and easier access to such records by third parties in countries with a common law heritage, he still breezily maintained that a greater proportion of people in English speaking countries were dignosed as suffering from Affluenza-related mental malaises because their societies are more ‘sick’ than others. It was the central premise of the book he was promoting after all.
But aren’t these societies just more open than others?
As information, statistics and various categories of potential evidence become ever easier to obtain in certain countries it’s sometimes worth pausing to remember that the shocking or depressing picture that’s sometimes uncovered isn’t necessarily evidence of a society heading down the toilet. Sometimes a light being shone for the first time in gloomy places is evidence of the opposite: a society strong enough to face unpleasant truths, one prepared to look bad in comparison with others if that’s the price to be paid for recognising that there’s a problem to start with.