Prisoners of the Past?

The debate about Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for appointment to the U.S.A. Supreme Court has raised questions of wider application, i.e. this post is not about Mr Kavanaugh or his fitness or otherwise for the office for which he is under consideration, it is about how far ‘the child is father of the man.’ In other words, how far back do we go in anyone’s past to assure ourselves of their fitness for office now, and what are the crimes/sins/offences that we judge to be inadmissible?

For example, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI received a lot of criticism in some quarters because at the age of sixteen he belonged to a Nazi youth organisation. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history would know that it would have been very difficult for him not to belong, and nothing in his subsequent life suggests that he subscribed to Nazi ideology, yet that has not stopped the criticisms. I daresay most of us can look back on the things we said or did when we were teenagers and shudder, without taking into account the political or economic circumstances of the day. But what about when we are older, when we are in our twenties, say? It begins to be less easy to dismiss criticisms of our beliefs or behaviour, and of course, the media have their favourite forms of wrongdoing to castigate. The politicians who smoked pot in their youth, the philanderers, the British Nationalist/Communist Party activists, those who joined weird and whacky cults, we have our suspicions of them all, and the media delight in feeding our suspicions.

Christians believe in the possibility of conversion and the reality of forgiveness, but that does not stop us being hard-headed about the risks associated with certain kinds of behaviour. Someone who takes drugs, for example, or regularly drinks him- or her-self into a stupour is not the person most of us would want to have a finger on the nuclear button. Nor would we want someone with a sense of sexual entitlement to have the power to force himself on another. The trouble is, we have to weigh up what we know of the person we see now with what is disclosed about his/her past and exercise some very delicate judgement.

One of the good things to have come out of the #MeToo movement is the increased openness with which people are acknowledging abuse suffered in the past. One of the not so good things has been a noticeable tendency to vilify those coming forward with their stories. There is a parallel with what is happening in the Catholic Church. The sheer awfulness of the suffering endured by so many is finally being admitted yet, at the same time, there has been a kind of counter-movement by some to minimize the suffering inflicted or apportion blame in such a way that ‘it touches us not. Our withers are unwrung.’ It leaves the rest of us wondering where truth and justice lie.

I myself have a divided mind about how far back in anyone’s past we should go for evidence of unfitness for office, but it is not a question I can ignore any more than you can. In the end, I suppose we have to be pragmatic. If X was a virulent anti-Semite in their youth, have we evidence of a change of heart? If Y was a sexual predator, has their behaviour changed with marriage and family? The one exception I think I would make is that paedophiles and psychopaths do not seem able to change, so I would be very wary indeed of knowingly placing them in situations where they could do harm. None of us wishes anyone to be a prisoner of their past. Equally, none of us wants to have on our conscience suffering we could have prevented.

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6 thoughts on “Prisoners of the Past?”

  1. Thank you for writing about this topic. That takes courage in these contentious times. The key, as you point out, is the evidence of a change of heart. And isn’t part of that evidence a confession of the misdeeds of the past and asking for forgiveness? Confession, asking for and receiving forgiveness has been at the core of Truth and Reconciliation movements that we have experienced in our lifetime: Rwanda, South Africa, Australia (“The Sorry Movement”).
    Our God is ever merciful, loving and forgiving. May we have the grace to ask for and receive forgiveness—privately, and when need be, publicly.

    • Yes, admission of wrongdoing, a firm purpose of amendment and an attempt to put matters right (make restitution) are very important, as you say. As a Catholic, it is so much part of my life that I suppose I don’t always spell it out. I have been saddened by the number of people who have decided to use this post to make some unfounded accusations against others. I remember D. Elizabeth Sumner, a former abbess of Stanbrook, saying with great solemnity, ‘One day we shall be judged by every word we have spoken. EVERY word.’ It still makes me tremble with a sense of the importance of being truthful and not jumping to conclusions.

  2. A year ago our choir recorded 2 ‘Songs of Praise’ broadcasts inteoduced by Aled Jones, shortly before an ex-colleage accused him of sending her inappropriate texts many years ago. He admitted sending the texts but said they were down to ‘juvenile behaviour’. The BBC instantly stopped employing him and cut him out of the broadcasts we had done (which would have cost the taxpayers). Six months later it was found that he had no case to answer and he started working again. This must have had a great impact on him, his wife and children. I wonder why the woman concerned chose to make this accusation so many years later about a few texts (though we don’t know what they said).

  3. A previous parish priest once told us in his homily “In fiction good people always do good things, and only bad people do bad things. In real life good people do awfully bad things. We have to decide how we will respond to this.”

    The Brett Kavanaugh example is more difficult: it’s not whether previous alleged wrongdoing disqualifies him from high office. Rather, for a lifetime appointment to SCOTUS, where he will be making life and death decisions, it’s a deep examination of character to decide whether those decisions will be wise and just. And his character is revealed not just in whether the allegation is true, but also in how he responds to it.

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