Holier Than Thou

Who is being holier than thou again? Surely not the public, whipped up by our ignoble press?

I had decided to give everyone a break from my ranting blogs but was distressed to read headlines in a Sunday paper today, “Church reinstates priest who abused disabled woman”. I began to read with the dismay which usually overtakes an atheist reading of abuse under the protection of the cloth. What I read was not abuse. It was of a 14 year long sexual affair between a young catholic priest and a young adult woman with a PHYSICAL disability.

We, the public, need to make some clear distinctions about why and what is a crime (and abuse clearly is a crime) and also what are appropriate punishments in society for crimes. We are stuck in a time warp fuelled by our fears and the press.

This particular piece of media I was reading was appalled because the church had decided the priest had now been rehabilitated and had been appointed to a new position. And this is in an institution, one of whose basic (rather positive) premises is forgiveness .

I do not want to go all Foucaultian or even post-Foulcaultian in the suggested “Synopticon of the social media”, but I would ask us all to reconsider the basis of our society’s version of punishment.

Is it merely to protect society by keeping offenders away from society? In this particular case that this priest be kept away forever from adult women on the basis of a breach of his faith, or in the case of most crimes, that people are expensively locked up in prison so that society is safe from their future misdeeds? That the choice to use prison in our society seems to me to have been more of an historic accident than a considered decision, but I will accept it contains an element of Foucault’s point of view. What I consider important is that we, as a society, take responsibility and be aware that we are punishing, just as do those societies who punish openly by, for example, caning or whipping. However, unlike those other societies, we hide the punishment aspect of isolation and lack of freedom away from general contemplation.

Is it deterrence? The thought of deprivation in prison or other punishments might cause people to think again if they plan to  offend.

It it vengeance? (I deliberately avoid the softer word “retribution” as it has so many other overtones already included.) I think vengeance is much more prominent these days, particularly with the “victims impact statements”. A crime or other action must depend on the nature of what is done not on its impact on the victim. Surely it is no less a crime if the criminal is lucky enough to choose a resilient victim?

Is there any element of rehabilitation that should be included in punishment? The Catholic Church must have thought so in the fourteen months their priest was barred from doing active priestly duties in the community.

I do not know the answer to these questions but I have more questions that I ask myself as I try to find an answer. I do think people who commit crimes, and violent ones in particular, should be away from society until society can expect that they will no longer be violent. But how do we decide this? And in cases such as child sexual abuse, when there is still doubt about efficacy of treatments for this crime, can we punish people for life? I think not but we must develop methods of separating the perpetrators from society and/or children that can contain minimum punitive elements.

“Crime of passion”, or “provocation ” as a defense has been in the news lately. I do not know whether or not it should be a defense or not but I certainly think it should be taken to account on sentencing as it obviously makes the chance of reoffending much less!

I am a believer in rehabilitation, but of course this is an extra expense for society and society must be prepared to pay if this is to become an important element of our penal system.

When last I looked at any research, the deterrence aspect of punishment only works, in the case of the young particularly, with short sentences. 

And then there is vengeance. As a member of society I do not want my society to be a vengeful one, to be taking on elements itself of those very things we want stamped out.

But most of all, in my thinking, I never want to be involved in just more of that “us and they” mentality. I do not even want to condemn a male, religious priest without being able to feel what it might be like to walk in his shoes.  Religion does not give me very much but it does provide a rich language. I borrow from it to say about those offending, “There but for the grace of God go I”.*

* (That is a lot tidier than saying, “I was lucky I was born female without a particular defective gene, did not have an abusive mother, did not struggle for food, had a chance to shed myself of religion, was educated, did not have an IQ of under 80 and was not given the expectation that all in life was going to be fair etc.”)


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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