The Cover-ups That Happen When Sexual Abuse Scandals Threaten Your Values

By Andrew Brown
The Guardian
May 13, 2012

'It's hard to believe that these stories were not investigated for fear of upsetting Muslims; very much easier to believe that one motive for ignoring them was fear of giving comfort to the far right.' Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

I have been brooding on two cover-ups of the sexual abuse of children that have been uncovered this week. The first is the reluctance of the English secular authorities to prosecute gangs involved in the abuse of girls; the second is the reluctance of Irish clerical authorities to prosecute or expose the priests who were involved in the abuse of (mostly) boys.

One point is that it's very rare to come across people who think that none of the religious or cultural aspects are relevant in either case. Probably a majority of people blame both cultures and regard all Catholic priests with suspicion as a result of the misdeeds of some, and all middle-aged Muslim men as potential predators. Hardly anyone blames neither if you think one of the worrying things about the Rochdale cases is that they will be used to whip up sentiment against Muslims, you are very likely to see nothing wrong in blaming the Catholic church as a whole for the Irish scandals. Conversely, the people who try to defend the Catholic church in Ireland will tend to see the Rochdale cases as expressing something important about the culture behind them, and the religion too.

Much the same is true of cover-ups. Reliable observers have in both cases detected a reluctance to prosecute on the part of the authorities who should have done so. But the people who think political correctness is an absurd red herring in the Rochdale story will be happy to assume the worst of Vatican motives, and those who think the Catholic church is being persecuted will assume there was no good reason for any reluctance to prosecute in Rochdale, or Nottingham, or all of the other places where this might have been happening.

Yet there are large moral equivalences between these cases and that the same sort of reasoning must have gone into both cover-ups. In particular, the idea that scandal is harmful and something to be avoided isn't nearly as strange as journalists like to pretend. It isn't even entirely immoral.

There are obviously some wholly bad and discreditable reasons for ignoring reports of rape. There are some policemen, some judges, some prosecutors, some bishops who despise the victims of rape almost as much as the rapists do. Their conduct is indefensible. But it's not the real problem. If wicked decisions were only ever made by wicked people the world would be much better than it is. We need to understand how good people can sign up to wicked decisions. And here the reasoning from the avoidance of scandal becomes really interesting.

Anti-racism has become one of the load-bearing pieties of our society. It's one of the things we think is necessary for a decent life. We understand that racism is wrong, even when it is not explicitly illegal. But anti-racism is also under threat. Racists are out there. They will take advantage of any lowering of vigilance. The EDL, the BNP and their sympathisers have rioted in several cities. They are certainly strong in places like Rochdale. The mass rape of white girls by Muslim immigrants is a staple of far-right propaganda across much of Europe. And it has been one of the undeniable, inevitable and wholly foreseeable effects of this trial that these stories have gone into overdrive.

It's hard to believe that these stories were not investigated for fear of upsetting Muslims; very much easier to believe that one motive for ignoring them was fear of giving comfort to the far right.

Similar considerations applied in Ireland. The Catholic church there was run by people who believed they were the guardians of society's moral spine. We may know they were mistaken, but it's impossible to understand them without knowing that they meant it. Even the Irish constitution suggested as much. At the same time, they knew that their church, and their morality, had enemies who would be strengthened by any scandal. It's easy to see how this kind of reasoning can twist round until betraying and silencing the victim appears to be the moral response to a crime.

It's asking too much to imagine ourselves into the place of the victims. But it is a small contribution to moral hygiene to imagine how easily we might have been part of the cover-up, if it were our values that had been threatened by a scandal.








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