Thursday, 22 April 2010

Surprise. More Ethics.

I've been meaning to update this blog for a couple of days. Unfortunately, life has gotten in the way a bit. I'm going to rectify that now. With bonus pictures, because someone pointed out that there were no pictures on my blog and nobody reads blogs that do not have pictures.

Pictured: A Picture.

Carol Duncan and the NSW Ethics Trial

So, there's a lot to tell. It's an interesting story and it's supported by audio, so prithee, come along for the ride.

It all began on Tuesday when I sent Carol Duncan a tweet with a link to an article by Robert Haddad - Director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the Archdiocese of Sydney (why do religious folk tend to have the most outrageously long titles?). I asked her the following:

@carolduncan can you get someone on the radio to explain this? High takeup = a case for SCRAPPING ethics classes?

Carol, being a fantastic sport and always willing to give me a chance, wrote back shortly thereafter with thrilling news:

Carol Duncan carolduncan
@MitchSully Catholic spokesperson on 1.30pm (the guy in the story, feel free to call in & help!)

So, let me take a moment to thank Carol for her wonderful efforts on this - she has done her best to satisfy my whims and I'm nothing more than a regular old listener. She really does deserve to be thanked for her willingness to engage this topic, so if you get a chance send her a tweet at @carolduncan to let her know you appreciate it.

Robert Haddad Came On-Air at 1:30pm as promised and began to elaborate on his position. You can hear his entire interview here. I recommend listening - I have to say that, as I listened down the phone, Mr. Haddad appeared to become quite belligerent as the interview progressed. Listening back it probably wasn't as bad as all that, but it seemed clear to me that he was not interested in a clear and honest discussion about his objections to the trial. I may be wrong - you get to decide for yourselves. But what follows is a breakdown of my reaction to his arguments. (unfortunately my phone dropped out and I was unable to return the call to the station to continue my on-air comments. I would murder someone at Optus for this if it weren't so damn unethical).

Haddad Claimed That The Proponents of the ethics trial (the St. James Ethics Centre) made a promise that the ethics classes would only be offered to the parents of children that had already opted out of SRE. One of the primary objections he had was that the trial was operating dishonestly because, at one school, parents of all children were given a choice between an Ethics trial and SRE, with a 47% takeup of ethics in this particular school. Mr Haddad called this an 'abuse' of the trial. Carol, and I, disagreed with him.

For one thing - how can a trial of an ethics course for children be fairly and honestly assessed if only a fraction of parents are aware of its existence? I imagine that takeup rates are going to be discussed when the evaluation of this trial is eventually conducted. If we are not going to allow the parents of everyone to make a choice between SRE and ethics (or nothing at all), how are we to get an accurate picture of how many parents and families want this course to continue beyond the trial?

Robert Haddad - the Catholic Clark Kent.

Mr. Haddad chose to enter bizarre territory when he ventured here and two concerns immediately sprang to mind. The first is that it strikes me as incredibly hard to determine whether or not a parent has opted out of SRE because there is an ethics trial on offer - in other words, the ethics trial had a direct, causational impact on the decision to opt out of SRE - or whether a parent has opted out of SRE because they would have anyway and then enrolled in the ethics trial. How does Mr. Haddad propose we measure the difference between these two sides of one infinitesimally split hair? No matter how the parents found out about the ethics trial, whether by general media discussion or a letter from the school itself, their decision to enroll their child into the ethics class is not a matter for Mr. Haddad to police.

The second concern is that it seems that Mr. Haddad appeared to be advocating the withholding of information from parents on the matter of their options for their child's schooling. Are we seriously expected to believe that all parents who have not opted out of SRE (and please note the big difference between 'not opting out' and 'actively enrolling in') should be kept in the dark about the existence of this trial for the greater good of the trial itself? It seems to me that it serves only one stakeholder to this trial - the proponents of SRE.

In any case, Mr. Haddad did not ingratiate himself to the listenership. A flood of positive-NSWethics correspondence flooded in and only one negative text message was received in the immediate aftermath.

Sticking True To The ABC's Policy of fair and balanced reporting, Carol went on to interview Phil Cam - the man who authored the ethics trial - and get his response. I have to say, this interview was like a warm bath and a cup of tea after the Haddad wrestling match. You can hear it all here.

Phil Cam. Looking ethical.

There really isn't much to say about this interview bar the fact that it points out very effectively just how hysterical the media coverage and backlash from the Christian lobby really is. Point by point he details why the ethics trial is a fantastic step forward for children. He also insists - and this is the one thing I would love the Christian lobby to pay most attention to  - that the ethics trial is not a grab for student numbers.

Repeat, for those that missed it: The ethics trial is not a grab for student numbers.

I really want to thank Carol again for organising these two interviews and keeping me in the loop. She is wonderful. That's @carolduncan, readers. ;-)

A valid objection?

Stemming from all of this discussion, I have come across what I believe to be the single, almost valid argument against the introduction of an ethics alternative to SRE. That is, that children who do still attend SRE will not be able to also attend ethics classes. Unfortunately, the religious lobby groups seemed to have picked up on this argument and, to their detriment, are now pounding it into the ground.

Here is an editorial from the Sydney Anglicans website that really takes this ball and runs with it. They write thusly:

Imagine if the only time your child could learn water safety and surf life-saving skills was during the hour given for Special Religious Education?

Most parents would be tempted to send their kids along.

In effect, that’s the dilemma many parents will confront when they weigh up whether to sign their kids up to the new ethics classes.

The Australian Christian Lobby has similarly swooped down on this point, perhaps sniffing a winner in the 'discrimination' angle:

Parents will now have to choose between sending their children to school scripture or to ethics classes.  It will not be possible for a child to attend both.
We are calling on the Government to reschedule the new ethics syllabus and make it available to all students, regardless of their faith. 
Children shouldn’t be forced to miss out on such an important part of their education because of their religion.

I confess myself utterly confused here. It shouldn't surprise me that religious campaigners are being contradictory - they take their lessons from the bible, after all - but this one seems to be especially obvious. A quick, contextual off-site read would be this article here. It is written by the man who directs the ACL (the people who released the statement above this one).

It will be interesting to see how values such as loving one's neighbour, self-sacrifice, helping the poor etcetera are dealt with when the Bible stories that have shaped our understanding of these concepts for hundreds of years are excluded from the discussion.
It seems the ethics of the Bible and of the person of Jesus are now deemed so inconsequential that the Government must fund its own ethics curriculum and use its resources to draw students away from Scripture classes, which have been taught by dedicated volunteers for decades.

Rob Haddad, as you heard, refers to these ethics classes constantly as an 'unneccessary duplication'.

If this is my fault then I apologise profusely, but I have been operating for quite some time now under the impression that the faithful believe that religion provides them with a perfectly sound ethical and moral compass. It has been pointed out to me many times, for example, that you cannot have ethics and morality without god. Why now, so very suddenly, is this idea being abandoned? Is this finally an admission that secular philosophy has something to offer that religious studies does not?

The ACL would vehemently deny it, but then again what other impetus could be driving them to decry the fact that their children may not attend the ethics classes? Apart from, you know, the fact that they're terrified of their numbers plummeting and will use any argument to stop it.

Behind The Obvious, Snivelling Political Grab that the ACL is going for with this point of argument, I do find myself marginally sympathetic to it. I know plenty of parents who do not want their children to abandon SRE in school and yet would still like them to attend the ethics classes. They don't hold a special affection for scripture when it comes to imparting morals and values but, for whatever reason, find themselves unable to part with it. For these people I find room for some sympathy.

I know all of the counter-arguments to this already. The reason they may not feel able to part with scripture, for example, may well be that the alternative was always an ostracism of sorts to the school library with the 'others' - the scary denominations, the scary atheists, there might even be wiccans. A bona-fide alternative may go some way to mitigating this concern and allow them to let go of scripture with an easy conscience.

Wiccans. Satan's Mormons.

The other counter-argument is, of course, that if the ACL et al are so convinced their children are missing out on ethical instruction, perhaps it is time to finally admit that SRE really contains no such special instruction. That it really is just 'Christianity' (more specifically, your local church's take on Christianity), and that it would perhaps be best saved for learning on Sunday mornings. A public school is supposed to be a secular institution, and if SRE really doesn't provide the moral and ethical grounding that its instructors claim then it might be time to institute a special 'opt-in' method of instruction, perhaps after school hours. For years the claim has been made that ethics come directly from religion - why should they want for anything more?

The problem I have with this second objection is that it is undeniably petty in a way that I'd expect more from the religious lobby than the secular. In a sense, it's like saying 'you made your choice - live with it'. In a sense, this is fair enough. But that petty bit of 'you can't have your cake and eat it to'ism will have a real knockon effect to real kids, and I can't help but feel a little saddened that their parents may have to make a very politically charged choice between ethics and SRE. Yes, it is a rod that they made for their own back. Yes, it's delightful to see pious religious leaders turning themselves inside out and throwing tantrums at the first sign of a little healthy competition. But, I hate to go all Mrs. Lovejoy on you once again - won't someone think of the children?

Don't For A Second Think That I'm letting this argument stand against the ethics trial. In the scheme of things, it is a small issue when compared to the massive benefit that an alternative to SRE would bring into the lives of a lot of children around NSW. And above all - I do not believe the concern is genuine on behalf of the ACL. I do not believe they think secular ethics will even marginally provide something their religion cannot. I think they have raised the issue because it sounds moderate, and even people like me can find the uncomfortable hint of validity to it. It's a facade, in my opinion, for their real concerns, and to brandish it like a jousting stick as their leading argument is dishonest. It's about as far from ethical as you can get.

I tried to find a picture of irony. I couldn't.

My hope is that the trial is conducted to completion, is done in a fair way, is unhindered by political grandstanding from religious-leaning politicians, and evaluated on the results that it achieves. I am more than confident that, if this happens, the trial will be a resounding success.

It takes a special kind of person to object to kids being taught ethics.

Able to make tall leaps of logic in a single bound.

And I won't be one of them. The Ethics trial should be allowed to stand on its own. It doesn't need the ACL's programmable minions trying to rip the carpet out from under its feet.

Forward from here.

There is a lot to be said about the duress admission by the ACL that secular philosophy has something to offer that religion does not (despite what Jim Wallace had previously said about secularism being insignificant next to the great juaeo-christian tradition). I'm looking forward to this issue being explored by the blogosphere.

To go back to what the Sydney Anglicans said - it may well be a hobbes' choice to provide SRE and Surf Lifesaving at the same time. But then again, nobody ever claimed that to be a good surf lifesaver, you also have to be a good christian. They never further claimed that simply by being a good christian, you will be divinely appointed with the skills to be surf lifesavers. Like it or not - as petty as even I may think it is to say - this is the claim that the religious have always made, are making now, and will continue to make unto forever. For as long as the debate over the origins of our species continues, there will be a large community that make the claim that morals and ethics come exclusively from their particular deity.

It in fact seems that they are only willing to abandon this claim when it suits their political agenda. And I think that's pretty sad - for the children, if nobody else.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

It's Getting So Ugly Out There

A quick update.

Following my previous post - we got Robert Haddad onto the radio this afternoon. After outlining the concerns that he had in the article, I rang in to ask him about a statistic - I'll do a full post tomorrow, suffice to say it was about a high takeup rate when all parents are informed - and what followed was a disgraceful display of ugliness. Carol Duncan - who performed brilliantly in a tricky situation - challenged Mr Haddad and it was obvious he was not interested in such a challenge. It was lucky that nearly all the respondents via phone and text were sane, rational and generally normal people. I've never been happier with my community.

Monday, 19 April 2010

First email post.

I'm out of touch with a computer at the moment but I have set up remote posting. Which is lucky, because I have found a few things worthy of bringing to people's attention. Forgive the clumsy formatting - I can't control it very well from here.

The latest from the Catholics in NSW is that a high uptake in ethics class enrolment only proves their point that these classes are not needed or wanted. Perhaps some readers can help me - I can't follow this logic, though it seems to fit with the ACL's classic line from the past: "don't take weight of public opinion as indicative of wider community values".

I'm really at a loss here. I have emailed the link to Carol Duncan, my unsuspecting go-to broadcaster, with a request to get someone in to try and substantiate this concern. Because it sounds to me like an utterly baseless one that amounts to 'if you give someone a viable alternative they might take it, and then we would have less influence. Sad face.'

Penny Sharpe has tweeted the latest totals when it comes to emails and messages of support/dissent.

Ethics classes started today in NSW. In support: 258 emails: 84 facebook: 81 tweets. 64 emails against. Minister has all your messages.
20 April 2010 8:47:10 AM
from web

It doesn't escape my notice that the opposers seem to be those that do not have Twitter or facebook. A generational gap beginning to show, perhaps.

I do take heart from the statistics. For once, it seems that the the herd-of-cats unbelievers, skeptics and freethinkers have organized and made themselves heard louder than the shouts from the ACL's rent-a-crowd. It's a positive step forward.

Now all we need is a bit more mainstream media coverage. And if they'll print George Pell's bilge about the Pope, they'll surely print SOMETHING written by one of us.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

On The Subject Of Ethics

I've already made a post today - but now I'm angry.

I was going to write a little preamble here about how I used to be much slower to anger, whereas these days I find myself more quickly turning red and reaching for the keyboard. I was going to talk quickly, maybe even make a joke or two, about how I must be turning into a cranky old man before my time. I quickly abandoned any levity or inclination to consider myself overly-sensitive when the gravity of the subject really hit home.

The Pope - Cardinal Ratzinger - is criminally liable for obstructing justice and protecting pedophiles.

And the media - everywhere, but almost especially, it seems, in Australia - is missing the fucking point entirely.

I'm late to the party on this one, but I was spurred to try and articulate exactly what is on my mind by the latest blowhard tripe published by Archbishop George Pell - a man who is increasingly becoming the worst example of ignorance and arrogance that I can name in this country (Maybe besides Andrew Bolt and Steven Conroy). Go read that article - I promise you it is short - and keep it mind.

Many others have dealt with this media coverage better than I could. Among others, we have Miranda Divine, Piers Ackerman, Andrew Bolt - the usual right-wing suspects - all decrying media hysteria against poor Ratzinger, who they see as an innocent victim in all of this. Divine and Ackerman are hung up on this being a game of us versus them, atheists versus christians, and Bolt posts a list of questions that the media didn't ask about Ratzinger. (To give him his due, he has wisely left the issue mostly alone, sticking to a single line of his own dissent - he is a non-believer after all).  How dare these prominent atheists go so hard after the Pope, of all people, to get themselves some publicity? It seems to be the prevailing attitude around the usual suspect publications and blogs and, if the responses from catholic and other christian newsletters can be believed, the congregations.

The Defence of the Pope ranges from the ridiculous (influence of satan himself), to the offensive (it is homosexuality - not celibacy - to blame), to the subversively offensive (molestation levels are no worse than anywhere else), to the legalistic (quibbles over dates, names, places, signatures). Others still claim that the Pope ought to be congratulated (see Cardinal Pell's article) for the steps he has taken to make amends for the actions of the church in the past.

And every single one of them is missing the point entirely.

Certainly, there are those who do not believe that the Pope has done nearly enough. A group representing the molested majority in Ireland claim that Ratzinger's letter was absolutely not enough to satisfy their want for justice. A similar group in Australia is even less willing to accept a letter addressed to the populace of Ireland as a response to their claims against the Church. When Cardinal Pell writes thusly in one of our national newspapers:

Some recent coverage has been inaccurate or reported only part of the story. But when all this has been sifted through, the record shows the Pope has acted decisively and determinedly to care for victims and eradicate sexual abuse from the church.

I find I can only agree with half of the statement. The Pope has acted in some way to care for victims in that he wrote them a nice letter to apologise for what was done to them at the hands of their disgraceful excuses for child carers and moral guardians. But as for taking steps to eradicate sexual abuse from the church, I'm afraid he leaves a lot wanting. In fact, he leaves everything wanting - as he has done absolutely nothing to even reduce the abuse levels, let alone eradicate them. Apart from a stern warning that offenders will "answer before God and properly constituted tribunals for the sinful and criminal actions they have committed", committed to paper alone, he has done nothing. He doesn't mention what these properly constituted tribunals are. Just that the offenders will answer before them.

This is not an action that Ratzinger ought to be applauded for - it's a shameful attempt to write a letter of apology to a group of hundreds of thousands of people who have had their childhoods ruined by disgusting, perverted men.

The Case Against Ratzinger, it seems, gets more damning the more you look into it - not less, as most of our right-wing columnists are trying to claim. Certainly, there was the case of Stephen Kiesle - a man who raped two young boys, aged 11 and 13, in California - whom Ratzinger spoke thusly about on the matter of having him defrocked:

This court, although it regards the arguments presented in favour of removal in this case to be of grave significance, nevertheless deems it necessary to consider the good of the Universal Church together with that of the petitioner, and it is also unable to make light of the detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke with the community of Christ's faithful, particularly regarding the young age of the petitioner.

The Petitioner in this case refers to the Priest - who was 38 at the time. He was seeking to have himself removed from priestly responsibilities, an action that could only be granted by Ratzinger's office in the Vatican. On receiving the request, Ratzinger wrote the above words in a letter describing a course of action to be taken by the local bishop. The letter also stated the following:

It is necessary for this Congregation to submit incidents of this sort to very careful consideration, which necessitates a longer period of time.
In the meantime your Excellency must not fail to provide the petitioner with as much paternal care as possible and in addition to explain to same the rationale of this court, which is accustomed to proceed keeping the common good especially before its eyes.

 A man - accused before the court and in fact limply convicted by them - asked to be removed from the priesthood in 1985. Ratzinger and his 'court' wanted more time to make their decision over whether or not to allow this man to leave the holy order. They eventually made their decision to have him removed - in 1987. All legalistic considerations here - whether or not Ratzinger's intervention could have led to the prevention of future acts of rape and torture, what he was and was not able to do at the time - are secondary to the fact that the man allowed a pedophile to remain a priest for two years while he considered whether or not removing him from his position would have been the best thing for the 'Good of the Universal Church'.

I don't seem to possess a word to describe the abject lack of consideration afforded to the victims in this case. Where is the immediate agreement from Ratzinger - the swift and decisive action that Cardinal Pell was talking about to reduce child torture within the Church - to have this man excommunicated for his sinful and disgusting crimes?

This is but one case and seems unwaveringly to be the one that the right-wing usual suspects take issue with. Ratzinger may be innocent of direct prevention in this case - that is not for me to decide - but it is not conclusively clear to me as a citizen.

Far more damning is the case of Reverend Lawrence Murphy from Wisconsin in the US, who despite repeatedly abusing something along the lines of 200 deaf and dumb children in a school was quietly moved from one parish to another, just slightly further north. No justice action was taken against the Reverend because he was, in Ratzinger's opinion, too old. By way of supporting material here I can only direct you to this report in the New York Times, which provides an incredibly detailed paper trail all scanned to PDF to show the timeline of events. If you have time, check them out. If you don't, the article summarises it very well. The case of Lawrence Murphy is an appalling one and I suggest that you familiarise yourself with it.

A quick summary from the New York Times would read like this:

In 1996, Cardinal Ratzinger failed to respond to two letters about the case from Rembert G. Weakland, Milwaukee’s archbishop at the time. After eight months, the second in command at the doctrinal office, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican’s secretary of state, instructed the Wisconsin bishops to begin a secret canonical trial that could lead to Father Murphy’s dismissal.
But Cardinal Bertone halted the process after Father Murphy personally wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger protesting that he should not be put on trial because he had already repented and was in poor health and that the case was beyond the church’s own statute of limitations.
“I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood,” Father Murphy wrote near the end of his life to Cardinal Ratzinger. “I ask your kind assistance in this matter.” The files contain no response from Cardinal Ratzinger.

Here is the link to the letter that the Reverend Murphy wrote to the Cardinal. He was never defrocked.

Still, some might argue, Cardinal Bertone was more responsible for the trouble here than Ratzinger. It would be entirely to miss the point, of course - Ratzinger was the head of that particular division at the time, and therefore, as we all know, the buck stopped with him.

What Really Does It For Me is the letter that was sent from Cardinal Ratzinger to every single Catholic bishop in the world. I would refer you here to two reports in the London Observer, in which the non-public letter made its way into the hands of a journalist. They are here and here.

The crux of the matter is as follows.

In May 2001, [Ratzinger] sent a confidential letter to every bishop in the Catholic church reminding them of the strict penalties facing those who referred allegations of sexual abuse against priests to outside authorities.
The letter referred to a confidential Vatican document drawn up in 1962 instructing bishops on how to deal with allegations of sexual abuse between a priest and a child arising out of a confessional.
It urged them to investigate such allegations 'in the most secretive way... restrained by a perpetual silence... and everyone... is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office... under the penalty of excommunication'.

There you have it. The thrust of the whole Pope problem. The one that everyone seems to be missing in the media, and the one that has me so goddamn angry. The bolded words above are mine. Read them through carefully and allow what follows to outrage you as much as it should.

Under no circumstances are the offenders themselves threatened with excommunication. In fact, quite the opposite as the earlier cases show - they are babied by their superiors, it seems. In some cases, offered shelter. In others, allowed to keep their holy garments and title until they died. All the concern, as far as the Vatican goes, is for the reputation of the church. The victims be damned - if you'll excuse the turn of phrase.

Do not mention anything to anyone, it says, until we've investigated it. Under penalty of excommunication.

According to the reports here, also, Ratzinger introduced a statute of limitations of sorts. I give way once again to the Observer report:

The letter states that the church's jurisdiction 'begins to run from the day when the minor has completed the 18th year of age' and lasts for 10 years.

The matter is officially Church-only, it says, until the child that has been molested is twenty eight years old. There is no obligation to contact authorities before that time and in fact you could be excommunicated for it. As Christopher Hitchens points out, 'Nobody has yet been excommunicated for the rape and torture of children, but exposing the offense could get you into serious trouble'.

Ratzinger Is A Man That Cardinal George Pell wants to congratulate and thank for his role in diminishing the rape and torture of children within the Catholic Church. This is a man that is being unfairly attacked by strident and attention-seeking atheists.

So when prominent atheists call for the Pope to be arrested and brought before the International Criminal Court, you have to wonder if they are more concerned about grandstanding than sexual abuse.
As one British atheist observed, it is ironic that some atheists want to conduct their own Inquisition.
Richard Dawkins has even claimed bringing a child up as a Catholic is more damaging than sexual abuse.
This hardly suggests taking sexual abuse seriously. Pope Benedict's role in confronting this evil should be acknowledged. Perhaps others in the wider community could follow his example.

Pardon me? First of all, Cardinal Pell - citation needed. Dawkins has never claimed that bringing up a child catholic is worse than sexual abuse or child rape. He has likened indoctrination to child abuse, but has never suggested it is worse or somehow has an incredibly damaging, direct effect like rape and torture do. I really wish people, when quoting Dawkins, would take the time to include a single supporting quote. They never do. I would expect to be shredded if I ever did such a thing.

Second of all, George, you simply must be familiar with the letter sent by Ratzinger in 2001. You are certainly aware of the 1962 'Instruction on the manner of proceeding in cases of solicitation' (which you can read here in PDF form). You cannot possibly be ignorant of the two cases I outlined above - cases that are just a drop in the ocean when it comes to the accusations levelled against catholic priests.

In light of all of dare you accuse anyone of not taking sexual abuse seriously?

I at least agree with one thing - Ratzinger's role in confronting this evil should be acknowledged.

He should be brought before a secular tribunal and made to explain his actions.

There Might Still Exist A Doubt in some minds as the personal culpability of the Pope, and why he is being so actively pursued by a public that wants action taken. In parting I'll offer a few thoughts for how it might be understood by someone who is viewing it from the inside-out.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a parent. Your son attends the local Catholic school. One day, you overhear him talking to a friend, expressing concerns about a priest at the school. You quiz your son, and discover a shocking story about a school that literally houses bedrooms for priests. Your son has been molested by this man. You are outraged. You go to the school and voice your concerns in no uncertain terms. You are met with absolutely zero action on their part - the priests are not even told of your complaints. Frustrated and angry, you move your child out of the school. The priest continues to work at the school although staff have been alerted to his misconduct. The Church takes no action. It is not until well after your son has turned 32 that the priest is finally convicted, after having molested a further thirty-eight boys.

This is not a work of fiction. It is the real-life account of 'Tim', a man molested by Father Thomas Brennan at St. Pius X high school in Newcastle in the 1970s. You can read a full account of it at Broken Rights in three parts: here, here and here.

Imagine, just for a moment, if the 'Instruction on the manner of proceeding in cases of solicitation' document issued by the Vatican had said something along the lines of 'If you even get a sniff of something like this going on, do what any normal person would do - report it to the police immediately and have the offender in question stood down'. I challenge anyone to deny that this would be the right and moral thing to do in this circumstance. It is the decision that most people - most honest, good, normal and moral people - would make. So the question must then be asked, 'what could make an honest, good and normal person ignore a case like this?'.

Reasons may fluctuate on a personal scale but there is one common thing in all cases. These people had been issued a document from their leader in Rome - the mouthpiece for god on earth - to keep it quiet, in-house, and covered up. Don't tell me that, without such a holy order, the people involved would have acted in the same way. For if they did, they were little more than monsters.

A More Modern Day Hypothetical, this one entirely untrue. Imagine for a moment that Dennis Ferguson, Australia's most prominent piece of subhuman filth, has his crimes (committed in 1988) brought before a Member of Parliament before they are made public. However, Prime Minister Bob Hawke has previously issued a letter that states, for the good of the reputation of Australia, the crime of sexual abuse will be investigated in complete secrecy. Anyone that informs the media will be deported. Of course all due care will be paid to protect the identity of Dennis Ferguson, who will be relocated to a location somewhere outside of Sydney, quite close to three other schools. Once the man's victims - currently aged 5, 6 and 7 - reach the age of 28, then the authorities can be told of the crimes without any concern of deportation or loss of citizenship. Ferguson, who will then be nearly seventy years old, is fair game to serve out a lengthy sentence in prison. Or at least, as much of it as he can before he is released into respite due to old age.

It is discovered by one of this country's right-wing media columnists that Ferguson's crimes were covered up. They discover the letter issued by Bob Hawke, his signature on the page. It doesn't relate to this case specifically, but the very act of sending it has allowed Dennis Ferguson to molest more children and foster an atmosphere of secrecy and cover-up within the country.

I invite you to imagine just how many heads would roll and just how many people would be lining up to drop the gallows on Hawke personally. It was nearly too unpalatable a proposition to even write that hypothetical.

If someone can detail for me the reason that the Prime Minister in this fictional case should be rightly cast out of office and spend an eternity in prison whereas Ratzinger, in his real life, actually happening right now  case, deserves not just leniency before the law but to be CONGRATULATED FOR REDUCING SEXUAL ABUSE LEVELS IN THE CHURCH, I would be very grateful.

Forget atheists versus christians. Forget Dawkins versus Pope. Forget all of that absolutely irrelevant babble. The issue here is that priests - specific, catholic priests - committed unspeakably awful crimes against children and were not dealt with in a satisfactory way. In fact, they were covered up and protected by the man who would later become the head of the organisation.

I don't care what organisation you're talking about - catholic church, Australian Government, high school football team, local book club. It is illegal, it is disgusting, and it abhorrs everything we consider moral and just about the world.

Bring those responsible to justice. Let go of your baggage. Recognise the victims. And act morally.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

More Ethics

A quick update post.

It seems that our beloved Premier, Kristina Keneally, is going to allow the Anglican Church some 'input' into the ethics trial that is about to begin in NSW. It shouldn't be left up to me to point out that this seems to be a completely useless gesture - no amount of input from the Anglican Church is going to force scripture into the ethics trial, just as no amount of pressure from any atheist lobby group would ever influence the content of a scripture lesson. This is why the two are being kept separate in the first place. Allowing the Anglicans to have 'input' into the lesson structure seems in the mildest case like appeasement, for which the Anglicans ought to feel insulted, and in the worst case like handing over the reigns to the religious lobby so that children might have a choice between 'scripture' and 'scripture 2'.

According to the article I linked above, the lobby seems concerned that by giving parents a choice between religious classes and non-religious classes, there would be a drop in their attendance numbers. Never mind concern that children are being excluded already. Never mind that there are scores of children in their own classes who are there under obligation and who - anyone who has ever met an ex-catholic will tell you - may very suddenly and turbulently rebel against their faith when they come to a different decision later in life. (It seems to be the ex-religious who make the most firebrand atheists). All these people seem to be worried about is that their popularity will plummet when an alternative is presented.

I hate to be a Mrs. Lovejoy here, but why is their first concern not the children?

If the classes they offer were so valuable and worthwhile as they claim, then they would have nothing to worry about. Children of religious parents will remain in them while children of non-demoninational and other-demoninational parents will attend a secular class. I am at SUCH a loss to explain how this could be considered a problem in the mind of any sane individual.

It's lucky that, when Penny Sharpe recieved a tidal wave of negative emails, the reasonable community of NSW was able to respond in kind:

#NSWEthics classes in schools. Overnight tally: In favour: 142 emails, 50 FB messages, 74 tweets. 19 emails against. Thanks for the support.

And this one, just because it's cool:

@MitchSully I've passed on your blog to the Minister - thanks

Verity reads my blog now. Just sayin'.

Comment Problems

I've had a bit of feedback to say that the comment field isn't working for some people - I've checked it out and it seems to work okay for me. If you have any problems, tweet or email me so I can get it sorted. Thanks!

Monday, 12 April 2010


Okay guys. What to talk about?

The plans to have the Pope brought before the courts for covering up child sexual abuse?

(Which, by the way, is a stronger possibility than you might think)

The plethora of anti-atheist media coverage going at the moment, especially about how we are responsible for the decline of western civilisation? Including from Gary Ablett, who seems to have discovered morality after that little underage drug dealing incident some years back. Good for him.

No. No, no, no.

I'm going to concentrate on the hot button issue of today. That is:

Ethics Classes for Children.

I require you to do some quick off-site reading first. I apologise profusely for this, but it is essential background information.

Here is the original announcement from the now-ex-premier Nathan Rees way back in November 2009. He talks about the importance of allowing non-religious ethics classes as an alternative for parents who do not want their children sitting idle for one hour a week while their classmates learn about a single religion (it is important that we acknowledge that fact: a single religion).

Fast forward to today, and we suddenly have some very vehement opposition to these classes - likely spurred by the current climate of anti-atheism that exists in the media. I present to you the very defensive-sounding editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald from Jim Wallace, the managing director of the Australia Christian Lobby. Read this one all the way through and try to keep in mind that nobody is threatening his scripture classes with anything except an alternative for children who were not going to attend anyway.

I also request you read the very well organised ten point list written by Archbishop Dr. Peter Jensen, which even goes so far as to threaten all of his constituents in the final point with the ludicrous claim that if you allow children and parents to have choice in their ethical education, then schools will become divisive. Because not everyone is forced to learn Anglican values. That is really, seriously what he said. I promise - go and read it.

Alright, now that we've gotten up to speed, here is the big problem that can be easily solved. Though not without a great deal of resistance from the religious lobby.

No religion? No learning.

The NSW curriculum for the implementation of SRE (Special Religious Education) Section 3.11 reads thusly:

Schools are to provide appropriate care and supervision at school for students not attending SRE. This may involve students in other activities such as completing homework, reading and private study. These activities should neither compete with SRE nor be alternative lessons in the subjects within the curriculum or other areas, such as, ethics, values, civics or general religious education. When insufficient teachers or accommodation are available, the school’s policy on minimal supervision will operate.

 I'll explain what this means by way of anecdote.

Recently, on the radio with Carol Duncan, I told the city about how I was a non-scripture student. That means whenever scripture was being taught to the other kids, I was sent to the library to sit and read books on my own. At the time, I thought nothing of this - I had no idea why I was sent to the library while everyone else got to stay in the class room. I do now, and I will never stop thanking my parents for the gift that they gave me back then. A right to choose without any influence from vested interests? Priceless. Absolutely priceless. (So quickly, as an aside: Thankyou, Mum and Dad - you two are the reason I turned out the way I did and I'll repay you every day for it).

Pardon my digression - the point is, it is lucky that I was a studious and interested child. I read books during that time and learned a lot about just any topic you can name. For a while I was big on Killer Whales, so I read the library up on Orcas. Then I was into tornados. That was how, in kindergarten, I discovered what 'Meteorology' meant. I say it was lucky, because if I hadn't been this studious, I would have learned absolutely nothing at all. According to the NSW curriculum, I was barred from having any kind of structured lesson during that time or from attending any class that might possibly compete with Special Religious Education.

I spent 40-odd hours a year over the course of 7 years learning nothing at my school. Take it as 40 hours a year. Over the course of 7 years? That's 11 and a half days. Eleven and a half days of doing absolutely nothing. For the most part, I was the only non scripture child at that school. So that is 11 & a half days of doing nothing on my own.

If anyone is of a mind to say that, perhaps, this is what you get for being so uppity about secularism for your children, I cordially invite you to examine yourself closely in the mirror. I attended a government school - one of those ones supposedly protected by that invincible barrier between church and state. Why religious education is taking precedent over anything is lost on me entirely.

Ah, you say - but there was only one child in non-scripture! How can you expect the school to provide a structured learning program for one child! To that my answer is simple: I'm not asking for a fully equipped classroom and teacher for an hour. How about a lesson plan that can be completed independently, under supervision from the librarian or anyone else who happens to get stuck with the non scripture kids, and evaluated by the regular classroom teacher? Much smarter minds than I could figure it out. It's not asking a lot. Just the right to not have a non-religious (or forget non-religious, it is just as possible that the children belong to a different religion to that of the school's officially adopted local church) student's education grind to a halt for eleven and a half days over seven years.

At this juncture I'd like to say thank god for Leslie Cannold. This article, as I read it, is possibly the most accurate and level-headed take on the situation that I have seen. If you doubt the validity of what she is saying, please email me. I'll detail my experience more thoroughly for you. I can vouch for the fact that everything said in that article is true - I went through it personally.

Where's the respect?

Where is the respect for parents like that in Leslie's article, or mine? What sort of respect is accorded their children when, for an hour a week, they are sent to sit in the metaphorical dunce's corner while everyone else learns the doctrine of the anglican church and no others?

It is utterly absent. And the lobby groups ought to be ashamed.

What is being asked for with the introduction of ethics classes is in no way an attack on Christian values or the right for parents to have their children put through special religious education. It will still be an opt-out process. Offering an alternative simply means that children like me - and parents like mine - won't have to put up with being shunned and ignored for an hour every single week. They'll have a legitimate place to go, and legitimate lessons to learn.

The only objection the religious lobby groups can possibly have is that they feel threatened by the mere existence of these classes. Ask yourself honestly - if they truly believed that the lessons they had to offer were unique, morally absolute and pure and just and all the things that they claim for them, then an alternative would be absolutely no threat to them, wouldn't it? So why, then, is Dr. Peter Jensen warning parents that allowing children to not identify as Anglican is going to be divisive? Why is the Australian Christian Lobby, ever a bastion of conservatism and fear-mongering, taking itself off in a huff and writing scathing editorials over the introduction of these classes? Why can the classes not be allowed to stand on their merits or fail on their faults?

It's disrespectful. It's wrong. It is generally everything that the religious claim that they are not.

Would it be too exactingly in-context of me to casually bring up the phrase 'Ye shall know them by their fruits'?

If defensiveness, nay-saying and political pressure campaigns that literally promote the retardation of children's education are what we have to go on, then I posit that the entire lobby is saturated in the stench of rotting fruit.

Friday, 2 April 2010

More like YAYtheist.

I went on the radio. I have never been on the radio before, and I had a lot of fun doing it - though, as most people listening will attest, I was a little nervous. But that is not what is important. Apart from a little bit of flustery umming and ahhing, I think the whole thing went quite well. I'll try to reconstruct what I remember of it to give you all an idea of what was talked about.

1 - Welcome Mitch, tell us about Atheism.

It's quite a bit of pressure representing a group of people who are so utterly unrepresentable by a single point of view. This is why, when the lovely Carol Duncan asked me for a quick summary of what it is I believe and why, I went overboard in stressing that it was my personal take on the issue. Right off the bat we dealt with the poor reputation that atheism has - something that we, as atheists, are going to have to get used to - and how it is should not be taken as a blanket representation of the entire movement. I suspect that many atheists listening, if they were of the hardcore variety, may have been disappointed at how little I fought back against this stereotypical perception. But the object of this discussion wasn't to argue or get petty about definitions - it was to have an honest chat and show everyone that a hardline atheist could actually be a nice and approachable kind of person.

2 - How atheism and faith overlap

Though it wasn't specifically referred to like this, the Dean and I had an interesting back and forth about the strength of conviction amongst people. I haven't mentioned the Dean much up until this point so I shall remedy this now - he is a very stoic individual, was much more composed than I on the microphone, though he was far more reserved than I expected. This might have been because he was expecting an atheist of the kind I was specifically trying to demonstrate I was not. I do not blame him if he was wary. Though it's entirely possible he is just a reserved man that chooses his words carefully. Anyway, I digress - the Dean mentioned that many people who consider themselves unbelievers may not have thought too carefully about their belief systems and therefore come under a more agnostic kind of umbrella. I didn't get a chance to hear what he thought of my return point that many, many more people who live under the umbrella of their parent's religions and have thought exactly as little about their religion might be put in the same category. My point being that, for a lot of people, faith versus unbelief is not going to be a day-to-day consideration. We didn't get too much of a chance to talk about this, but I thought it was at least one of the rare times I got the point I was trying to make across quite clearly. With a minimum of stuttering.

3 - Upbringing, Scripture and Respect

The Dean, at one point, mentioned the Steve Fielding is an Earthworm quote by Dawkins at the atheist conference. I didn't bite. I was tempted to defend the professor by pointing out that he was never heard saying those words and that, really, were they that offensive, but I didn't. I wasn't there to fight, and by the time the conversation naturally moved back to me the topic was somewhere else. If I had butted in, I'd have been being petty. I let it slide.

However, this particular mission statement of mine - make friends, be my normal lovely self - may have let me down at one point in particular. My early childhood upbringing was rasied (in an entirely not-hostile way) and it came out that my parents had never put me through scripture. A decision on their part that I was quite sure was not specifically an atheistic one, rather a decision to keep me separate from indoctrination. That is not to say that scripture is an indoctrinating force (it may very well be), but that my parents didn't want to take the risk. I mentioned that I will always thank them for doing that as it allowed me to make my own decision later in life as to what I believed on these terms. I would have been horrified to look back, for example, and see that I had been pegged as an atheist child just as much as if I had been labelled a christian or muslim or jewish or wiccan child. A child is none of these things, ideally. And guess what? I was the ideal.

The host then mentioned that she was sending her own children through scripture so that they will learn respect. Now, at the time I must admit, I assumed that Carol was talking about respect for other religions (particularly after she mentioned comparative religion studies). I wholeheartedly agreed with her shortly thereafter about the merits of religious studies, especially comparative religion, and mentioned that it was perfectly fine to teach children all about religions of the world, perhaps without the particular point of view that any one of them is the right one. It only struck me later when talking to people who had been listening to the interview that she may have meant respect in general, in which case I think a bit of argument and contrary talk would have been merited. I fervently disagree that studying or belonging to a religion is what fosters respect in young children - it is a value taught by parents and developed in socialisation with others. God has no part of it.

My consolation as I look back over the interview is that, if this was the intended point (especially when I recall that I was asked 'in hindsight, do you wish you were put through scripture?'), I vindicated myself by carrying out the discussion with nothing but the utmost respect for all the religious and secular parties to the discussion and listeners in the audience. Plenty of opportunities for cheap points presented themselves but I let them sail by without a word - I was not there to argue. I was not there to be controversial or contentious. I was there to try and let everyone see what an atheist really sounds like - and it is remarkably close to what a everyone else sounds like.


I don't mean to make it sound like this was a down point of the interview - there were no down points. I honestly had a great time in the studio and would do it again in a heartbeat, especially now that I know I don't sound like a fool behind the microphone and that the concept of being on radio isn't as scary as I had it built up to be in my head. It was a fantastic experience and, if you're reading this as a result of hearing it, thanks for following up on it.

Stay Tuned...

...over the easter weekend. I'm keeping abreast of all of the media coverage of the new atheism movement as reflected on by priests around the country. So far, there have been some really awful things said about us for no apparent reason other than it's fashionable to mention how religious atheists are.

It's remarkable to paw over the media coverage of atheism and try to find the balance. I can find, just so far, three anti-atheism articles written in the last three days and exactly zero anti-religion articles written since the GAC, unless you count a review of Catherine Deveney's 'God is Bullshit - That's the Good News' show in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I don't count it, you may. It's still an imbalance of three to one.

Who knows what the count will be up to by the end of Sunday.