Trampling Down Death by Death

By Heather Elizabeth Peterson

While visiting England last autumn, I had a chance to talk with the editor of an ecumenical news service. While we were discussing current events, I reflected, "One thing that has always struck me about England is that your violent crime rate is so much lower than that of the U.S. yet you have periodic riots."

Indeed England does. The year 2000 marked the tenth anniversary of the poll tax protests, when, in a country renowned for its everyday courtesy, ordinary middle-class people expressed their dissatisfaction with government tax increases by rioting in the streets of London. Such incidents should be taken into account by foreigners who wonder how the citizens of England could have reached the point last summer of attacking the homes of suspected sex offenders.

Most people in our community have heard the story by now. Following heavy media publicity of the kidnapping of eight-year-old Sarah Payne, the girl was eventually found, naked and dead. Six days later, a tabloid newspaper with an eager new editor decided to correct the normal practice of the British police of not publicizing the addresses of people listed in the country's sex offender registries. The addresses of Britain's 110,000 released sex offenders partly, though, not entirely, people convicted of child sexual abuse began rolling off the presses.  Concerned parents were delighted.

Concerned child protection groups were not. Their worst fears were realized as small portions of the British public took the publication as a sign that it was open hunting season. While many of the parents involved in the picketing of houses were simply interested in making clear that sex offenders were not welcome in their neighborhoods, some decided to go further. Nightmarish scenes followed: families were hounded from their homes (including families with no sex offenders), sex offenders and suspected sex offenders became subject to firebombs and beatings, and inevitably some sex offenders took a long look at the situation and disappeared from police surveillance.

Amidst the tragedy, one shining feature does stand out. This was the strong stance taken by the English newspapers against the vigilante violence. Whether their concern was human rights or merely the need for keeping law and order, all of the broadsheet newspapers spoke out against what was happening, as did the police, child protection groups, and organizations for the rehabilitation of offenders. Moreover, the incident provided an opportunity for much soul-searching on how such violence could arise. Media sensationalism, police disdain of working-class parents' concerns, government hype, and citizens' witch-hunt mentalities were all brought into the light and condemned by writers in the secular newspapers.

By contrast, the churches were silent. 

Not entirely silent, of course. A bishop from the Church of England turned up at a press conference and joined secular bodies in condemning the violence, while at the same time an independent Anglican newspaper, the Church Times, issued editorials urging a peaceful solution to genuine concerns over whether sex offenders were being properly dealt with. Individual clergymen, both Anglican and Catholic, also spoke out against the violence. The Methodist Church of Great Britain, when approached by a small newsmagazine, willingly issued a statement condemning the violence. But for the most part, the churches remained silent amidst secular outrage at what had happened.

What is odd about this silence is that the place of sex offenders in faith communities has been a topic of conversation in Britain for the past year. In 1999, the Church of England published a report on the pastoral care of sex offenders; in 2000, the Methodist Church followed suit. 

"Each offender must be recognised as a human being, like each one of us," urged the Church of England. "Unless this deep identification happens, it is difficult to see the person as having the same needs and fears, hopes and possibilities, as we have."

"Within the wider community many known sex offenders find it difficult to rebuild their lives on release from prison," the Methodist Church noted. "They are not welcome. They may be hounded from one place to another. Nowhere is really safe for them. They are demonized. And the Church cannot condone this way of treating anyone. Indeed, the Church should bear witness to a different approach to all offenders from that of society as a whole."

Efforts to provide support to sex offenders are indeed ongoing in a number of churches, but the "witness" is conspicuously absent. As last summer's violence shows, when the glare of publicity over sex offenders arises, most Christian officials slip quietly into the shadows. Why is this?

The answer is not far to seek. At the same time that last summer's violence was taking place, the Catholic Church in England and Wales was undergoing unwelcome publicity: news reports that various child-molesting priests had been permitted to keep their jobs and had then gone on to abuse more children.

The Catholic Church reacted by mixing apologies with protests that it had done what seemed best at the time. Yet the publicity only increased people's distrust, not only of the Catholic Church, but of churches in general. Too many people have been lied to, angry members of the congregation reported. How could congregation members believe anything that the churches told them about child sexual abuse?

This, then, explains the churches' silence last summer. Partly, it seems, the silence was due to pure cowardice: a desire to avoid the spotlight of publicity over a sensitive topic. But partly too it was humility. How could the churches tell the secular world to clean up its act when the churches themselves have yet to deal properly with decades' worth of cover-ups and neglect of abuse survivors? Churches that may have unwittingly assisted clergy to commit child abuse are in no position to wag their fingers at the general public and tell it to treat sex offenders humanely.

This is, of course, a vicious cycle. As long as the churches feel that they must remain quiet on the topic of the inhumane treatment of sex offenders, the more likely it is that child sexual abuse will continue. Dangerous offenders will go underground, potential offenders will be reluctant to seek help, and most of all this is an aspect of the matter that has not yet occurred to the churches the churches will be deprived of the gifts of minor-attracted adults who are at little risk of offending but who do not feel welcome in their congregations.

Somehow, a way to break the cycle must be found. Ironically, the penchant of English citizens for rioting may have forced this problem to the surface in a way that cannot be ignored in the future. It may be that, in the years to come, victims of vigilante violence will echo the words of the Orthodox Church's Easter liturgy "trampling down death by death" and speak of how even the deaths of sex offenders and suspected sex offenders became a sacrifice that was not wasted.

This essay originally appeared in the Winter 2001 edition of Paraklesis.

Copyright © 2001 Heather Elizabeth Peterson. All rights reserved.
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