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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 177

A concatenation of events

It is very interesting that three areas have recently emerged as of grave concern. In  all three cases there are blurred lines rather than clear areas of responsibility. In all three cases the essential function of oversight or monitoring failed.

The first of the three is the financial storm that we are still going through. This country and the world generally has suffered a financial tsunami over the past year or so, and it is clear that deep repercussions will be with us for many years to come. Some feel that there has been a culture of greed in the financial world. Maybe in part it was Gordon Brown’s fault, because he didn’t ‘repair the roof in the good years’, as politicians of another hue have put it  Or was it in part down to the Boards of Banks who blithely chased more and more business in the pursuit of profit? Or was it those characters who are said to have earned millions in something called ‘hedge funds’?  The public does not know quite who to blame and the whole complicated matter is shrouded in the history of the past decades.

Then there is the expenses scandal of the Members of Parliament. We are still in mid course in this one!  It may possibly be that we are still in the early stages! The poison is dribbling out a little bit each day, like a suppurating wound.

In this case we know that Members of Parliament have been up to something, but while some cases appear clear-cut, we are all a bit unclear about whether there is justification for some of the claims for expenses. It is pretty clear that dog biscuits, duck houses and bath plugs do not really enhance the reputation of those who have claimed for them. But what about rent paid to a daughter-landlord?

Then there is the other aspect - the fairness question. According to the view of most people, the Members of Parliament who have erred most should be punished most. But we must also say that anyone doing wrong should surely be punished!  Yet it seems - and here we are unsure - it seems that some people are being treated more harshly than  others.  Until we get an approved yardstick, who can tell the gravity of the various offences - even though we all know that wrong has been done? Where is the cut off between what must be dealt with and what can be ignored?

So here again  there is confusion. The public does not know who to blame - and it is all shrouded, at least a little, by the history of past years.

There is another public matter running at the moment which is giving us all heartache. It is the uncovering of a history of abuse - physical, emotional and sexual - of many hundreds of children in Ireland over a long period at the hands of Roman Catholics who supervised various homes for them. This is something that we all feel deeply about. Perhaps it is because of the sheer vulnerability of children or the deviousness and evil actions of the adults, or the fact that the offenders were priests and ‘Christian Brothers’ - and Sisters - that is, committed religious people. It is this last aspect, perhaps, that offends us most. Certainly the extensive efforts made by the Roman Catholics to prevent the whole thing coming to light is a factor that increases our revulsion at the whole sad story.

 The public does not know who to blame - and the causes are shrouded in  the history of the past decades.

  So in all three cases there were attempts - still are attempts in some cases - to be economical with the truth. To hide behind Old Spanish Customs. To avoid actually naming and shaming those who have behaved the worst.  A few bankers have gone, a few Members of Parliament (so far) have said they will step down at the next election; as regards the Roman Catholic Church, no one has been named or proceeded against.

In all three cases, although there has clearly been wrong done, it is not always easy to gauge exactly the extent of the wrong or, sometimes, who was most responsible for it.

We each have our own views on these matters. For what it is worth - which may not be much! - I think that in all three cases those in senior management seem to have failed to demonstrate that they take responsibility for what went wrong. Even when some of them seemed to say ‘sorry,’ it was qualified by adding such phrases as ‘…that something went wrong’.

Members of Parliament keep assuring us that they understand why people feel so angry, yet I wonder whether they really feel they have done anything wrong. It seems to me that some of them feel aggrieved that the Fees Office agreed their expenses - and gave them advice how to submit their claims - and yet the general public is still blaming them. They don’t seem to realise that, whatever the Fees Office said, they should not have even considered putting claims in as they did.

The Priests and Sisters caught up in the Roman Catholic Church scandal are unavailable for comment!  Maybe, in that environment and with their background, and bearing in mind the enforced practice of celibacy under which they laboured, they slipped into laxity and then into all the horrid detail of the abuse.

So are there any lessons we can draw by seeing all these three cases side by side - even though bath plugs are not of the same order as child abuse?

In the financial field there is going to be more monitoring and more inspection. Plus of course a new framework in which financial institutions will work. Will that stop it all happening again in another way, in another few decades time? Probably not! Human nature being what it is, another crisis will happen in  due course - maybe in five or more decades! The crisis will be different of course. A new twist, a new set of people, enough years having passed for even the senior people to have moved on.

In  the Houses of Parliament there is undoubtedly going to be change. Perhaps quite fundamental change. My guess is that there will be less change than some would like - and that it will take a lot longer than  most people expect. But change is certainly in the air. But will that avoid such an expenses farrago ever again?  Well, it may for a few decades. There will be monitoring and inspections. But human nature being what it is we can expect possible problems ahead and maybe more dissatisfaction in the voters in several decades time. The rate of technological progress may help the monitoring function, but all systems based on human beings are fallible!

And will there be more abuse of children - physical, emotional and sexual? Of course! That too is a feature of human nature. Some people tend that way and they will find opportunities. Maybe not in the Roman Catholic Church - though one wonders whether celibate priests are perhaps particularly vulnerable .

All of this may lead the reader to think that I am a pessimist!  I appear to think that human nature is so twisted that inevitably people will go wrong with money, power or sex. In one sense I admit to a sense of realism about human nature! Certainly to this extent: I believe that we human beings need a radical change in the depths of our being if we are to overcome the deep drives that are at the root of the present troubles.

Christians call this change ‘conversion.’ If we spend our lives chasing after pleasure, gratification  of our desires, power or status, then inevitably there will be a number of us who cause a repeat of the very sort of problems seen recently.  

Perhaps there is a parallel here with gay people. One of the great benefits that millions of gay people have found - and will go on finding - stems from the essential self-confrontation required by a person when they first suspect that they are gay. Eventually this self-honesty proves to be very beneficial. It has something to do with the honesty required to confront one’s deepest self and, maybe, accept something that part of you rejects and even fears.

To accept that one is gay means that you  give up any pretence to yourself that you are straight, and accept something about yourself that is of fundamental importance.  Life is more than sexuality - but sex informs all we do and feel. That first step is always the crucial one.

How is this relevant to the financial crisis, the problems with expenses in Parliament and the systematic Roman Catholic abuse of children? Only in this way: I suspect that people involved in all these forms of wrongdoing had to face a similar moment of reality. Then, instead of being honest with themselves, as the gay person is, they pretend to themselves that what they were doing was perfectly acceptable. Perhaps it is true that everyone faced with decisions about finance, expenses or abuse also faces this moment of truth somewhere at the beginning of their malfeasance.   

In other words, all (or certainly most) of those involved in those activities - financial, political or ‘religious’ - decided to fool themselves. Early on they decided that they accepted that what they were about to do was right. No doubt they described it to themselves (via that internal voice we all know so well) with some justification or other, and then accepted it was all right.  Why should they not take vast bonuses when their job offered them? Why should they not offload the burden of expensive purchases through the Fees Office?  Why should they not treat these children as being there to satisfy the sexual and other feelings they had? Although in each case the actions were widely different, yet the route by which they slipped into those actions was perhaps the same.

All of them - from the least guilty to the most guilty - quietly decided at some point that, yes, they were going to go for it. In that moment they left behind a kind of 'innocence' - and at that point, although they may not have realised it,  they started to carry a guilty secret. Why else were difficulties experienced by investigators in finding out what actually happened in the City? Why else the vociferous determination by some Members of Parliament to prevent the disclosure to the public of the details of the expenses?  Why else the intense desire of the Christian Brothers to negotiate a blanket of anonymity over all that happened?

Maybe some of them really did not realise the import of what they were doing. Maybe some of them had reasons in their past history that somehow eased the path to a wrong involvement.

When you get down to basics, society is built on a basis of  right and wrong. If you don’t have values and standards, then you are truly adrift on the sea of life without map or compass. For a Christian, of course, these values are to be found in the teachings of Jesus.

All of those involved in these events have at some point decided to steer not by the star of what is scrupulously right but by what they wanted. In other words - their desires, whether for money, power or lust or whatever.  That is why we have to be very clear about the basis on which society judges them - because those standards apply throughout society, and therefore to us too. Jesus said ‘Judge not that ye be not judged.’  And which of us has not made a play at some point in our lives for money, power, lust or whatever? All of us can surely say ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’

We are all made of the same clay. The Christian says that we are all sinners - but we all can experience the grace of God in our lives if we will turn to him. When we see others fall we should be the more careful ourselves to avoid the potholes. And be charitable in understanding and tolerance! Though this of course does not mitigate one iota the fact that each of those who have erred have to pay the consequences of their actions. We all do, always, whether we are found out or not. It is described in the bible as reaping what we have sown.

Tony Cross
June 2009


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