September 2000

    Religious Press Remains Silent as Vigilante Violence Rocks Britain
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson

    International readers seeking religion news from Britain during July and August were treated to articles on recycling awards, bats in churches, and Harry Potter . . . but virtually no articles on the violence against sex offenders that raged throughout Britain for three weeks.

    The violence, which started on July 23 after the tabloid News of the World started publishing the names of U.K. sex offenders, were not covered in most religion news services that publish on the Web. Only a few representatives of faith communities were quoted in articles published by the secular press.

    News of the World started its "Name and Shame" campaign in the wake of the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne, whose naked body was found on July 17. The police have had no success in identifying the murderer.

    Against the advice of police representatives, the newspaper decided to begin printing the names of all of the 110,000 persons on Britain's sex offender registries. Unlike in the United States, where such registries are often published officially on the Internet, in Britain such information has not been released publicly except at the discretion of police.

    News of the World stated that it hoped to educate parents about the people convicted of child sexual abuse who lived in their communities. 

    The newspaper's action was applauded by many parents but was opposed by several child protection agencies, who voiced their concern that sex offenders would be driven underground due to harassment. According to British police, this prediction proved to be true, as did the police's prediction that violence would break out.

    Although isolated incidents of violence continue in Britain, the worst violence took place from August 3 to 10 at a housing estate in Portsmouth, England. During this period, five families that did not have sex offenders living with them were driven from their homes after concerned community members compiled a list of people they believed to be sex offenders. Nightly riots resulted in homes and property being destroyed. 

    Throughout Britain, minor-attracted adults and people suspected to be pedophiles were threatened or physically attacked. A pediatrician fled her house after vandals mistook her professional title for the word pedophile. A disabled man who was not a sex offender had his house firebombed. A 29-year-old Asian man, also not a sex offender, was chased and beaten by fifteen vigilantes after he was seen talking to children. 

    John Potter, a 49-year-old under investigation for possible child sexual abuse, committed suicide. James White, a 54-year-old who had pled guilty to child sexual abuse charges, also killed himself after he and his family were forced to flee from a crowd of 70 men who threatened to firebomb their house. While dying, Mr. White told his wife and five children that he was killing himself in order to protect his family from further harassment.

    News of the World ended its "Name and Shame" campaign on August 4, under pressure from police and child protection organizations, but it vowed to continue its mission to press for public registries of sex offenders. The newspaper and its supporters say that present laws do not go far enough to protect children against molesters.

    Although the riots were heavily covered by the secular press, religion news services that post articles online published virtually nothing about the ongoing violence.

    Among the news services in Britain that failed to post online news about the violence were the Roman Catholic newspaper The Tablet, the Seventh-day Adventist Church's BUC News, the Salvation Army newspaper Salvationist, the Jewish Chronicle, and The Muslim News.

    Faith community Web sites that published news during July and August also ignored the riots. The Anglican Communion, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) were among the faith communities that remained silent about the violence.

    The Evangelical Alliance UK, an umbrella group for British evangelicals, posted an August 14 letter to The Sunday Times from its general director, Rev. Joel Edwards, with his sympathetic reactions to an interview with Sarah Payne's parents. No mention was made in the letter of the vigilante violence, although Rev. Edwards mentioned the Paynes' "refusal to wallow in vindictiveness."

    The lack of religion news coverage in Britain was exacerbated by the fact that fewer faith communities are online in that country than in the United States. Religion news coming out of Britain usually reaches online readers by way of secular news services.

    Britain's secular newspapers, though varying in their assessment of who was responsible for the outbreak of violence, took a strong editorial stance against the riots, arguing that such violence increased the possibility that child sexual abuse would take place. The news articles were numerous and wide-ranging, quoting Portsmouth protesters, politicians, police officials, child protection representatives, people working with sex offenders, and even offenders themselves.

    Noticeably absent from the coverage, though, was much news on how the faith communities were responding. An Anglican vicar in Portsmouth who deplored the violence was widely quoted; also quoted was the Rt. Rev. Richard Harries, Anglican Bishop of Oxford and chair of the Church of England's Board for Social Responsibility. The board published guidelines last year for Church of England parishes on how to provide pastoral care for released sex offenders in their congregations.

    No other faith community representatives, though, were quoted in the online articles of major secular newspapers. Representatives of the Methodist Church of Great Britain, which on June 27 approved a pastoral paper similar to the Church of England's, were not quoted in news articles.

    The Methodist Church did not publish any news releases on the violence, but at the request of Philia, the press office solicited and forwarded remarks from Rev. David Gamble, convenor of the working party that produced the pastoral paper. Rev. Gamble denounced the tactics of the rioters.

    The best online coverage of religious responses to the violence was provided by the Church Times, a Church of England newspaper, which published two editorials on the topic as well as a news article on Portsmouth clergy who condemned the violence.

    In the rest of the world, online religion news coverage of the riots was next to nonexistent. Ecumenical News International and Jewish Telegraphic Agency, two international news services, published no news on the riots at their Web sites. World Faith News an American database of press releases from 22 faith communities, mainly mainline Protestant denominations received no articles on the violence. Other major American media covering international religion news such as Charisma News Service, Christianity Today, The Lutheran, Maranatha Christian Journal, and Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly said nothing at their Web sites about what was occurring.

    The news service of the worldwide Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, which is noted for its strong coverage of vigilante violence related to sexuality, posted no articles on the riots.

    Catholic World News, which derives most of its news from other sources, published an August 10 article about a Portsmouth pastor's concern over the riots.

    Among the religion news services that link to international news from other sources, Classical Anglican Net News, Michel's Religion News Page (interfaith), USAJewish, Wren's Nest (Pagan and interfaith), and Yahoo! Religion News carried no stories on the violence. Only Anglican Online News Centre offered links to an August 10 article from The Guardian and an August 11 article from The Independent on the Portsmouth riots. Anglicans Online also linked to articles on Sarah Payne's funeral.

    Publishers of religion news from Britain did cover such topics during the three-week period as racism, human rights, and cases of sexual abuse against children.

    Peter Linford, editor of the ecumenical news service for Church Net UK, says that he is not surprised that Britain's secular newspapers offered so little coverage of the faith response to the violence. He believes that this is reflective of the secular newspapers' lack of coverage of faith issues in general. 

    "Generally speaking, the only church groups who get mainstream coverage in this country are the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church," says Mr. Linford. "Other churches . . . put out endless press releases and statements and reports and no one takes a blind bit of notice."

    Related Links

    News and Editorials on the "Name and Shame" Riots [Prevent Violence Against Pedophiles]

    How Lack of Vigilance Leads to Vigilantes [Church Times]

    Horrid Crimes That Require a Sane Response [Church Times]

    The Church and Sex Offenders [The Methodist Church of Great Britain]

    Meeting the Challenge: How Churches Should Respond to Sex Offenders [The Church of England]

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    © 2000 Heather Elizabeth Peterson
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