Old ideas are endlessly recycled, as the author of Ecclesiastes observes: ‘Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time’. In our ceaseless search for the novel we may merely invent new clothes to dress up old knowledge. In so doing we may bury more antique strata of wisdom, which if unearthed might again find utility in explaining what we think of as more modern phenomena.

I was perplexed at the recent hue and cry surrounding the actions (or inactions as some would have it) of Cardinal Brady. It has become clear that, in the course of interviewing a boy who had informed church authorities that he had been sexually abused by a priest, the then Father Brady had not informed the families of the children named as having been abused. Neither had he informed the police authorities. Instead he had included this information in his report to his superior and left it at that. This revelation resulted in great media interest with widespread public outcry. The emerging line of reasoning is that he should have reported not only to his Bishop, but also to the families of the other children and to the police. This was necessary because he must have known that his Bishop would not act upon the information and he therefore had a ‘moral’ duty to report and inform more widely. In not taking this action he has revealed himself to be complicit in the inactions of a church concerned to protect its own as a first priority. He is thus morally flawed and not fit to lead the Catholic Church in Ireland, which, being rocked on its axis by continued revelations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children, requires a leader not besmirched by his particular past.

It seems to me that the key suppositions upon which this analysis is built are that the then Father Brady should have had an intimation of the prevalence and nature of sexual offending (decades before research was undertaken in this area to inform our current understanding), a sociological appreciation of the working of closed institutions (of which, for most of his adult life he has been a part), and moral reasoning perhaps ( I wouldn’t overplay this point) more akin to that found in some branches of Protestantism, where the layers of accountability are rather thinner than they are in a centrally organised and hierarchical church. Lacking these insights, Father Brady consequently did what he was expected to do, in much the same way as, in our present more enlightened times, police officers, social workers, doctors and teachers do not take it upon themselves to launch their own investigations into child sexual abuse but report instead to superiors, as mandated by rules and protocols. Whistle blowing, in the course of inaction by such superiors, being an even newer kid on the conceptual block, is one response which, in the 1970s, perhaps even Father Brady would not have been expected to have foreseen.

The old idea I found helpful in understanding all this is that of the scapegoat found in Leviticus;  ‘the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat’. It carried with it the sins of Israel. The idea that the scapegoat carries our own failures with it and symbolically removes them far from us is echoed in the modern psychological definition of scapegoating as a ‘process in which the mechanisms of projection or displacement are utilised in focusing feelings of aggression, hostility, frustration, etc., upon another individual or group; the amount of blame being unwarranted’. Of course recognising that we need a scapegoat at all involves the painful process of uncovering and understanding all our own little complicities, our fantasies of heroic moral worth and penetrating insight, and appreciation that our rage and anger might be a better response to our own beloved hypocrisies. Modern scapegoats provide a diversion and a barrier to such self examination, which is a pity really, because we do need someone to take all that stuff away, we really cannot deal with it ourselves. That, indeed, is what Jesus offers.

Trevor Spratt

Trevor Spratt is a lecturer in Social Work at Queen’s University in Belfast and is also on the Board of Contemporary Christianity. He is a member of Gilnahirk Baptist Church.