There, I’ve said it – let the howls of protest begin. (Though it might be worth pointing out that by the time this is posted I will be on holiday, and off-line.)
Have I gone soft on paedophiles? Not really: I have four daughters, of whom I am protective, and as a young boy was myself once ‘touched-up’ in a public lavatory, so have some history. I have had enough experience as a youth worker and pastor to know the huge damage that sexual abuse can cause, and, generally the more ‘liberal-leftie’ view of life on THINK emanates from Liam and Andrew rather than me. However, there are legitimate questions that arise from a sentence for crimes that happened long ago and involved ‘touching’ rather than rape. (For a summary of Hall’s offences see the BBC reports here and here)
However, whatever the rights and wrongs of sentencing policy the thing that causes me most disquiet in this case is the level of fury directed against Hall and the hypocrisy I feel it reveals. Certainly, the doubling of Hall’s sentence does not seem to have any rehabilitative component, but is purely retributive. Which is interesting. London barrister Barbara Hewson has been one of the few to dare put her head above the parapet on this one and ask the question of what is going on here: “Hall is not a serial rapist, and there was no suggestion that he used violence or a weapon. The sentencing judge called the acts under consideration ‘relatively mild’. His last offence was over 25 years ago. There was really no proper basis for imprisoning Hall in the first place. As such, doubling his term is as unprincipled as it is indefensible. What is going on?”
In her article Hewson goes on to quote criminologist Professor Philip Jenkins who observes that the use of ‘predator’ language to describe sex offenders, “ultimately derives from supernatural conceptions of deviance as ‘evil’. As such, it has ominous consequences for the way our law and society operate.” Hewson, and Jenkins, are concerned that any such conception makes “conventional standards of evidence or rationality” impossible. That is a concern I share, though rather than seeing this as a problem that derives from illusionary supernatural conceptions of evil I would locate the problem in the reality of evil in every human heart.
Concern about paedophilia has risen sharply in recent years. In part, this is a corollary to greater openness about abuse – a development which, so far as I am concerned, is very welcome. However, at times this concern seems to be disproportionate, irrational, hysterical even. So here is my theory: The period in which we have become decreasingly tolerant of the sexual abuse of children runs parallel to an untethering of all traditional sexual norms. For the first time in British history there are fewer married than unmarried, and ‘marriage’ is soon to be extended to same-sex couples. Sexual behaviours (heterosexual as well as homosexual) that would have been regarded as ‘deviant’ are now accepted, or even applauded. Yet if there is in reality an objective sexual standard that we are meant to keep – that is, if we are dealing not with “supernatural conceptions” but with a living God who calls us to account – then our deviation from that standard must in some way be atoned for. Or, to put it another way, we are looking for a scapegoat.
We rage against the sexual abuse of children because we invest so much in our children, but my theory is that there is more behind it than just that. In a culture which has lost any conception of the holy we still have an innate desire for purity. Children represent that purity, so to sin against them is the ultimate demonstration of our societal sexual sickness. It has become the unforgiveable sin, the sin that is not only objectively dreadful (which it is) but which relativises all the other sexual sins we commit, and refuse to recognise as sin.
I think this theory makes sense. It explains why even those who are not normally part of the ‘hang ’em and flog ‘em’ brigade want to see child sex offenders ground into dust. If we destroy them we hope, somehow, to expiate how own offences against the holy. We are not interested in rehabilitation, just retribution.
Now, don’t get me wrong, were a Stuart Hall-alike to grope one of my daughters, I would personally want to grind him into dust. I understand the thirst for vengeance. However, the purpose of a legal system such as that which has developed in the UK, is to protect us – victim of crime and perpetrator of crime – from the horrors of living in a society that settles its scores through personal vendetta. The law and courts are meant to introduce an objectivity and rationality that in the white heat of our personal pain we could not be expected to feel. So, as a citizen, it is important to me that courts make their judgments by “conventional standards of evidence or rationality.”
And as a Christian, I am supremely grateful that there is a scapegoat, one who was ground to dust, in order that my sins might be forgiven, that I might be restored to holiness.
Retribution has been made. Rehabilitation is possible.