Polonius

To thine own self be true

What’s in a name?

Posted by Polonius on 20 April, 2010

What am I? Skeptic? Humanist? Something else?

I'm a scientist by training and inclination. I think the word "rational" best describes my views.

The word "skeptic" has some notable aficionados, but I feel it's been devalued in the UK by the use of the term "eurosceptic" to mean "rabid, drooling, xenophobe". I'm not a member of the Skeptics Society, but may join one of these days.

I dislike the term "bright", but it certainly seems to have attracted lots of sensible rational people.

I am  a member of the (UK) National Secular Society.

I might join Project Reason, but I'm not sure whether to use my real name there.

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The pope and the paedophiles

Posted by Polonius on 28 March, 2010

Stories about the pope’s involvement in covering up the sexual abuse of children have been circulating for a couple of weeks now, but I haven’t had time to consider them properly until now. I don’t recall where I first read the accusations that have been doing the rounds recently, but my sources include Christopher Hitchens at Slate, Johann Hari at The Independent and Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times. Heather Horn at the Atlantic Wire summarises some key reports of the issues.

In 1962, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF, formerly known as the Inquisition), issued an instruction, Crimen sollicitationis to all bishops worldwide. Its primary purpose was to provide a procedure for dealing with priests who seduce people during confession, but it had a footnote that said that practising homosexual priests and priests who abuse children should be treated the same way. Crimen sollicitationis said that all such crimes were to be reported to CDF itself. It also said that the very existence of Crimen sollicitationis itself was to be kept confidential.

What purports to be the full text of Crimen sollicitationis is available on-line. I’ve read a few legal contracts and acts of Parliament in my time, and they are models of clarity compared to this. But from a superficial review, it appears that the (US) National Catholic Reporter is correct in saying that

The 1962 document would not have tied the hands of a bishop, or anyone else, who wanted to report a crime by a priest to the police.

Nor does it require anyone to report a crime to the police.

Paragraph 74 under Title V of Crimen sollicitationis delegates to “the regular superior” the administration of canon law in cases of “the worst crime” of homosexuality, paedophilia or bestiality. But it also requires that CDF be kept informed of the results. Joseph Ratzinger was head of CDF from 1981 to 2005.

Ratzinger himself issued a new letter, De delictis gravioribus, in 2001. Again, the purported text is available on-line. This requires the local “ordinary or hierarch” to conduct an initial investigation, then inform CDF, who will decide whether “special circumstances” warrant the CDF’s direct intervention, or whether the matter can be left in the hands of the locals. As in Crimen sollicitationis, the involvement of the secular authorities is neither required nor forbidden, it is simply not mentioned. In the US, at least, it has been policy since 2002 to report all allegations to the police.

To summarise, if bishops around the world obeyed their instructions, Ratzinger’s office would have been informed of all allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests. From the time he took up the post in 1981 until 2001, his office would only be told after the local church authorities had dealt with the matter to their satisfaction. From 2001 until 2005, his office would be consulted before the case was decided.

There are some specific cases in which the now pope was involved. A child, Wilfried F., was abused by a priest in Germany. The priest (who, unlike the victim, seems to have been granted total anonymity) was moved from one parish to another by order of then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger. He then preyed on further victims. No evidence has emerged that Ratzinger knew of these further offences, though his deputy did.

The second specific case involves Lawrence C. Murphy of Wisconsin. He abused 200 deaf children. Despite the pleas of Wisconsin bishops, now-Cardinal Ratzinger swept this under the carpet.

A third specific case, this time in Mexico, was reported by Jamie Doward in the Observer shortly after Ratzinger became pope in 2005. Nine alleged victims accused Marcial Maciel of abuse. Ratzinger could, perhaps, be given some credit in this case as it is suggested he sought to have Maciel dealt with but was overruled by his papal predecessor.

According to the Doward article,

4,450 of the Roman Catholic clergy who served between 1950 and 2002 have faced credible accusations of abuse.

Another study, produced last year by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, reported that there had been 10,667 victims of abuse over the last 50 years in the US alone.

It seems likely that a significant proportion of those cases occurred on Ratzinger’s watch. If even a few of those were inappropriately concealed from the secular authorities, it seems likely that at least some of the victims will now come forward. On the other hand, if Ratzinger is innocent, he has the power to prove it. If anyone has been sworn to secrecy, as in Ireland, and if the oath took the form prescribed in Paragraph 27 of Crimen sollicitationis, that oath is binding:

… unless a particular faculty or dispensation has been expressly given … by the Supreme Pontiff.

If the pope has nothing to fear then he, and he alone, can release them from any oaths. Until he does that, there will always be the suspicion that some victims have been silenced by the fear of excommunication.

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The war on photography continues

Posted by Polonius on 26 February, 2010

Much of this was drafted last May but, by an oversight, not published before now.

As I’ve remarked elsewhere, the notion that all photographers are paedophiles has been around for a long time, but it’s only since September 2001 that all photographers are paedophiles, terrorists or both. Bruce Schneier has written about the “war on photography“. Though much of his writing is from a US perspective, that article originally appeared in the Grauniad. There’s a useful summary of the UK legal position at sirimo.co.uk. I’m not sure if that may not need to be updated (at least for Scotland) following the disgraceful behaviour of Sheriff Kenneth Hogg.

The only new thing to add is the latest halfwit to join the war, and the original article.

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Pointless

Posted by Polonius on 25 December, 2009

In theatre, actors grow old and eventually die. Every new generation of actors can find its own greatest Hamlet. But with the advent of the cinema, it became possible to preserve the best ever portrayal of a given character. Stephen Fry is the one true Jeeves, and Hugh Laurie the only Wooster (though it’d be fascinating to see them swap roles as I’ve heard was originally intended). Leonard Rossiter is Reggie Perrin (Sorry Martin, you’re talented, but even you couldn’t pull it off.) And Jeremy Brett is the definitive, nonpareil, Sherlock Holmes.  Robert Downey Jr as Holmes is pointless.

Edited to add: And remaking Troy Kennedy Martin is usually a mistake. The Italian Job wasn’t his greatest work: it succeeded by dint of bizarre casting (Noël Coward and Benny Hill?) and music. Only a fool would remake that. Edge of Darkness, on the other hand, arguably was his greatest work, perfectly cast and directed (though some of the Clapton mood music was loud enough to jar). Only the most hubristic fool would attempt to remake that.

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A matter of semantics

Posted by Polonius on 2 September, 2009

Just heard Evan Davis try to talk David Milliband into a corner on Radio 4. Davis’ point seemed to be that the UK government was saying one thing to the Libyans while saying something else (or trying to avoid saying anything) to the Americans. But much of the dispute seemed to be about a false dichotomy. The question under discussion was “Did the UK government want Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to die in prison?”. There are, to my mind, three possible cases here:

  1. The UK government positively wanted him to die in prison.
  2. The UK government had no view on the matter.
  3. The UK government positively did not want him to die in prison.

Milliband seemed to be at great pains to say that the government’s position was not Case 1 (while leaving open the option to choose Case 2 or Case 3). Davis repeatedly demanded a straight answer to the question “Did the UK government want him to die in prison?” Milliband didn’t want to answer “No”, because that would be interpreted by many as Case 3.

Of course the UK government wants to distance itself from the Scottish government’s decision. If there is any truth to the conspiracy theory, the UK government almost certainly colluded in that decision, and I’m sure the US government was at least aware of it too. But that’s realpolitik, and the electorate wouldn’t understand.

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It’s no time to gloat

Posted by Polonius on 28 August, 2009

I’ve had misgivings for a while now about Pharyngula. I think the issue of science versus religion is a kind of triage (in the original French sense): there are basically three groups of people in the world:

  1. the ones who will believe in a god or gods regardless of evidence,
  2. the ones who won’t,
  3. and the ones who might be open to persuasion.

Ridiculing Group 1 is entertaining in the short term, but gets tedious after a while. Preaching to Group 2 is pointless. Telling Group 3 they’re stupid is counterproductive, and Pharyngula is all about ridiculing religion.

PZ Myers doesn’t explicitly impute any causal link between religion and the events that have recently come to light in Antioch, California. He simply juxtaposes a few facts and leaves readers to form their own conclusions. Sadly, most of the comments on his post are about as reasoned and evidence-based as those at Garrido’s disturbing blog.

Rational people, especially scientists, can do better than this. “Data” is not the plural of “anecdote”, and this incident doesn’t prove anything. We should not aspire to be as unscientific as the religious in our treatment of evidence.

Posted in News, Religion, Science | Leave a Comment »

Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi

Posted by Polonius on 20 August, 2009

This started off as a comment on Head of Legal’s post on the rumours leading up to today’s release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

A successful appeal would be embarrassing to the governments of several countries. Where there’s terrorism, the standard government reaction seems to be some form or other of the politician’s syllogism. The American approach is along the lines of “We must invade somewhere. The culprits were from Saudi Arabia, but we can’t invade there – Afghanistan will do.” The British approach seems to be to convict somebody – anybody will do.

That goes some way towards satisfying the immediate lust for revenge. If they convict the right people, so much the better – it stops them committing crimes and deters others. But it’s intensely embarrassing when it goes wrong. If an appeal succeeds, it’s apparent that the real culprits are still out there somewhere. Furthermore, potential terrorists can see no point in not committing crimes if they think they’ll be considered innocent until proved Irish/Muslim/whatever.

I think Lord Denning understood that, and he pointed out that the death penalty is an effective way of preventing such appeals. Of course, he also felt that the possibility of embarrassing police officers with evidence of their perjury constituted grounds for rejecting such appeals. (Many readers will know that that was the speech where he coined the term “appalling vista”, preempting Microsoft by a quarter of a century.)

If I was a real conspiracy theorist, I’d say that the Scottish government saw an opportunity to avoid an embarrassing defeat at the appeal, especially if the rumours turn out to be true.

Posted in News, Rants | 1 Comment »

London court strikes a blow in the war on photography

Posted by Polonius on 23 July, 2009

Somewhat belatedly, I’d like to draw your attention to the shocking story of Jamie Waylett. The use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act was a disgrace, and the fishing expedition to find something to pin on him was small-minded and vindictive. I’d love to contrast the entire episode with how grown-up police officers behave, but Sierra Charlie‘s been deleted. I must lobby Sierra Charlie 2 to repost.

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Realisation dawns on an idiot

Posted by Polonius on 13 June, 2009

The absurd Hazel Blears regrets her resignation. Of course she does! She was in the Cabinet, thanks to the lunatic Blair. Her resignation is the best thing that could have happened to Brown. The only mystery is why he didn’t get shot of her sooner.

Posted in News, Politics | Leave a Comment »

BBC News does science right (Shock! Horror!)

Posted by Polonius on 11 June, 2009

I’ve often been critical of BBC News coverage (postings passim ad nauseam), so it’s only fair to report when they do something right. It’s even more surprising when it’s science. Kudos to Victoria Gill, Science Reporter.

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