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Posted by on Mar 17, 2013 in Atheism, Philosophy | 10 comments

Cardinal Napier on paedophilia

The fact that we’re inclined to disagree with someone should sometimes – perhaps oftentimes – serve as a reminder to be careful to hear what they’re saying, rather than to allow confirmation bias to take over. We can hear what we want to hear, if it feeds into a narrative we value or consider to be strongly supported. Such is the case with much of the reaction I’m seeing to Cardinal Napier’s remarks on paedophilia.

Everyone knows that the Catholic church is experiencing a prolonged PR-nightmare regarding child abuse and how senior figures in the church covered up crimes against children. I’d unambiguously agree that it’s absurd that the previous Pope could hide behind being a head of state to avoid questioning in this regard, and also that it’s obscene for governments in many parts of the world to not pursue these criminals as aggressively as they would if not for the silly hats they wear, and the God they imagine they are communing with.

Child abuse is criminal, and should be treated with the utmost seriousness, with no laxness in policing or sentencing on the grounds of religious affiliation. But what Cardinal Napier seemed to have been trying to point out – albeit clumsily – was that paedophiles are not necessarily child-abusers. A paedophile is someone who is sexually attracted to children – and some such people feel cursed by this, because their condition means that they can never have a relationship of the sort they desire. They know that their desires are wrong, and don’t act on them – but suffer a life of dissatisfaction as a result.

Of course that’s the choice we’d want them to make. If you have some sort of antisocial or destructive urge, we should be grateful that you don’t act on it. And, sometimes we can perhaps make it easier for you to do so, by not treating you as a criminal before you’ve even done anything. People like Ethan Edwards, co-founder of VirPed (Virtuous Paedophiles) speak of the dilemma they are in: you can’t go and seek help, because you’ll be reported to the police or somesuch even if you’ve not committed any criminal acts as yet.

Napier seemed to be wanting to point out something like this – that paedophiles need to be identified, and treated, rather than being treated as criminals. Because they are not yet criminals. Paedophile does not mean “child abuser”, and the fact that you’re being told this by someone who works for an organisation (the Roman Catholic church) that offers safe harbour to child abusers doesn’t make this any less true.

For more on paedophilia and how we might respond to it differently, here’s a post of mine from last year discussing some of the issues. And for a few more days, the full interview with Napier can be listened to on the BBC website.