The cardinal and the Lib Dem: death by sex scandal

The moral authority of the child abuse panic is now being used against individuals accused of far lesser, even non-criminal misdemeanours.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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One weekend. Two so-called sex-abuse scandals. And now two more institutional staples of British life find themselves caught up in foundation-shaking crises.

First it was the Lib Dems: On Friday, Channel 4 News ran a story in which several women with varying Lib Dem affiliations claimed that former party chief executive Lord Rennard had behaved ‘inappropriately’ towards them. At first, Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg denied any prior knowledge of the allegations. But by Sunday evening he was forced to admit that he had been aware of ‘indirect and non-specific concerns’ regarding Rennard’s behaviour since 2008. At the time, then chief of staff Danny Alexander had apparently even reprimanded Rennard over the so-called non-specific concerns. As it stands, the police are set to meet Lib Dem officials, as senior party officials offer a panicked combination of mea culpa and denial.

For the Catholic Church, the second institution finding itself basking in the murk of a sex scandal, the lurid headlines are nothing new. Still, between the Observer’s initial report that Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, had been accused of ‘inappropriate’ behaviour with several aspiring priests, and Monday’s revelation that Pope Benedict XVI had effectively ‘asked Cardinal O’Brien to resign’, we saw the church virtually dismantling itself. It is now not only without a pope; it lacks a leader in Britain, too. That is a startling state of affairs.

Equally as startling, however, is the fact that neither institution was able to withstand the moral force of sexual-abuse allegations. The unquestioned rightness of the cause seemed to cast both institutions in an impossibly bad light. Every pursed-lip public statement, packed full of obfuscatory formulations (be they in Latin or PR-conscious jargon), merely made things worse. Only institutional self-flagellation (plus sackings and police involvement) will do, it seems.

And for many of the right-thinking, this is great news. Not because O’Brien and Rennard in particular have been felled, although there are plenty of opportunist political opponents who clearly are revelling in the exposure of both. No, both cases are being celebrated as a broader triumph for victims of sexual abuse in general, and a welcome defeat for perpetrators who believe their positions of power protect them.

But something’s not quite right here. The particular details of what is alleged to have happened do not seem, in and of themselves, to warrant the moral force that they are currently commanding.

Take the allegations aimed at Cardinal O’Brien. He is accused of committing ‘inappropriate acts’ with three priests and one former priest. This, according to reports, involved the headline act of an ‘inappropriate approach’ to one 18-year-old seminarian in 1980 when O’Brien was a priest. The three other allegations involve older men, including ‘inappropriate’ contact during a parish visit, and ‘unwanted attention’ after a late-night drinking session. Now, none of these allegations cast O’Brien in a particularly good light; he was then in a position of relative institutional power and he should not have taken advantage of it. But at the same time, these incidents involved grown men deemed capable of making their own decisions, and there is no allegation that the ‘inappropriate’ approaches involved physical force. Morally compromised? Yes, if true, O’Brien is certainly that – especially given his and his church’s views on homosexuality. But does his case, by itself, warrant the opprobrium coming the Catholic Church’s way? No, it does not.

The Rennard case, likewise, does not look like the type of story that should have plunged the Lib Dems into institutional bloodletting. The story, as it currently stands, is that between 2003 and 2009, several women, from party activists to civil servants, complained about Lord Rennard’s rather over-attentive behaviour. This consisted, for example, of a ‘leg touch’ at a party conference and an ‘inappropriate’ move made after a dinner for two.

Rennard does not come out of this well, of course. He seems to be what we, as a society, have always informally deemed a lech, a bit of a sex pest, a creep. Despite the currently popular broadsheet view that, until recently, groping was considered a perfectly acceptable form of social intercourse, as the myriad pejoratives for such behaviour suggest this has never really been the case. Being known as a lech was not a good thing – even in the 1970s. This perhaps explains why, as many reports now suggest, the Lib Dems did actually get rid of Rennard. Yes, his resignation from the role of chief executive in 2009 was presented at the time as being due to ill health and family reasons. But as senior Lib Dem Baroness Scott told one of Rennard’s accusers in 2009, he had been forced out because of the allegations.

So if the moral force that has seen two prominent institutions of British public life crumble is not generated by the particular cases themselves, where is it coming from? Here we get to the nub of the issue. For the moral authority that clings to these two particular allegations, their aura of heinous wrongdoing, derives from the conflationary nature of the term ‘sexual abuse’. That is, it is not the particular actions of Rennard and O’Brien that have plunged their respective institutions into chaos; it is the fact that those actions invoke the moral spectre of ‘sexual abuse’ in general. The New York Times, for instance, reports the O’Brien case in relation to ‘paedophilia and other forms of sexual abuse’. A Guardian editorial warns of ‘conflating’ distinct cases, before doing precisely that and talking of Rennard, O’Brien and ‘notorious paedophile’ Jimmy Savile in the same indiscriminate breath – apparently all indulged in an ‘alleged abuse of sexual power’. The Mirror even goes so far as to dredge up a publicity picture of O’Brien, two children and, yep, you’ve guessed it, Jimmy Savile (who was Catholic).

Under the powerfully abstract concept of sexual abuse, then, the distinction between ‘inappropriate’ touching (whatever that might be) and the raping of a child almost disappears. This conflation allows the moral repugnancy of a most serious crime to be invoked in relation to what amount to misdemeanours. Which is precisely what Barbara Blaine, the president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, does. She told The Times (London): ‘Compromised by his own sexual misdeeds, it’s hard to imagine that O’Brien has properly handled paedophile priests.’ Which is the equivalent of arguing that someone caught speeding will probably approve of armed robbery.

The other side to the conflationary nature of the sexual-abuse phenomenon is equally as damaging, but not to the currently flailing institutions. Rather, it affects the complainants in such cases. It encourages them to see themselves as victims of a serious and traumatic event. A case of a 20-year-old student having to endure the sexual attentions of a fortysomething tutor is transformed into something really damaging, rather than something that one can just brush off; being touched on the knee at a post-conference drinks party becomes a source of potential psychological distress, rather than being seen as a silly man’s folly. According to the conflationary logic of sexual abuse, adults quickly become victims, as helpless as the abused children from which the idea of sex abuse ultimately derives its moral authority.

In the current war against sexual abuse, there do not look to be many winners.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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