Vilification of Cardinal Wilfrid Napier and footballer Shane Duffy is over the top

We ought to be able to disagree without obliterating unacceptable opinions


Two very different men, two very different mistakes. Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, the Catholic Archbishop of Durban, and one of 115 cardinals who took part in the conclave to elect Pope Francis last week, has been vilified for his claim that paedophilia is a psychological “illness, not a criminal condition”.

A few days later, Shane Duffy, the Everton and Republic of Ireland defender, was excoriated for a pro-IRA comment which appeared on his Twitter page. The 72-year-old South African and the 21-year-old Irishman have nothing in common – other than becoming the latest targets for our collective hatred and scorn.

Certainly, they screwed up: Napier’s words were confused and ill-judged, Duffy’s comment (which he denies posting, claiming his phone was interfered with) foolish and distasteful. But I feel sorry for both men. The outrage heaped upon them is out of all proportion to what they said or did. It says less about them and much more about the overpowering modern hunger for someone to blame; the desperate need for a tacitly agreed dumping ground, on which to offload fear and rage, so that we can all feel better about ourselves.

Of the two, Cardinal Napier’s remarks, made on a BBC radio programme, are the more troubling. Speaking of two priests who became paedophiles after themselves being abused as children, he said: “Don’t tell me that those people are criminally responsible like somebody who chooses to do something like that. I don’t think you can really take the position and say that person deserves to be punished when he was himself damaged.”

Causes of paedophilia
Later, the cardinal took to Twitter to pursue his point, asking: “Do the church and society not have to consider the damage he suffered when deciding what to do? Or does the abused abuser lose all his rights?”

Regardless of the causes of paedophilia – and there is still surprisingly little expert consensus on this, despite the public obsession with the issue – the criminal culpability of the abuser cannot be absolved by any abuse he suffered himself. Of course it cannot be a get-out-of-jail-free card. The harm done to the victim is just the same, whether or not the perpetrator is also a former victim, and Napier should know this.

Perhaps he should also have realised that in the “hang ’em, flog ’em” popular consciousness, where the child abuser is the personification of all evil, there is little or no distinction between paedophile priests and those who appear to be their apologists. Essentially, Napier made the mistake of trying to have a rather woolly academic argument in a lurid tabloid world. Fending off bitter retorts and calls for his resignation, he’s paying the price for that now.

Ignorant and crass
Shane Duffy’s intemperate message,“Up the Ra!”, which appeared on his Twitter feed during the St Patrick’s Day celebrations, was ignorant and crass, particularly in the context of the 20th anniversary of the IRA bombing of Warrington, in which two children died. But it signified little more than the inebriated burblings of a foolish youth, or one of his mates (who supposedly got hold of Duffy’s phone and caused the mischief, according to the official narrative). Nonetheless, it quickly earned young Duffy 40 shades of semi-literate abuse on social media.

There is an almost ritualistic quality to the condemnation meted out to the likes of Napier and Duffy. Such furores tend to unfold in predictable ways. They begin when a public figure says or does something which is considered unacceptable – unspeakable, even – according to the unwritten rules of modern liberal society. This unauthorised act is then punished by highly visible and sustained vilification.

And it’s not just old cardinals and young soccer players with outdated ideas about sex or war who are in the firing line. Climate change deniers, creationists and people who believe that you can pray away homosexuality are all classic targets for the same blinding wrath. It is not sufficient to disagree passionately with such people (and, for the record, I do); rather, it appears that their views must be ritually obliterated, because they do not fit into the new, rigorously self-policing moral order.

In fact, as a society, we seem to have decided that they do not have the right to hold such irrational and anachronistic views at all.

What is behind this overwhelming urge to vilify and lambast? I believe that it’s driven by a search for the comfort of certainty in a painfully uncertain world. There is solidarity, as well as a reassuring sense of community, in finding someone we can all safely despise.

It’s ironic, though, in this age of enlightened secularism, that we’re still so keen on the Old Testament idea of the scapegoat: the animal sent into the wilderness, symbolically laden with the sins of the people. Perhaps we haven’t changed so much after all.

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