David McSavage and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary.
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Why pop culture won’t lay a finger on paedophile priests, despite years of abuse scandals

The subject still awaits its defining cinematic treatment.

Heroic bankers and altruistic politicians are – for obvious recent reasons – rarely to be found as characters in modern culture. And, given the scale of the revelations of the occurrence and covering-up of sexual abuse by priests, you might assume that the same would be true of sincere and celibate Roman Catholic clergy.

Yet, in these bad times for the Vatican, good priests are surprisingly in evidence on-screen. Father James Lavelle, played by Brendan Gleeson in Calvary (released on 11 April), is as unimpeachably true to his vocation as that other high-profile representative of the Catholic priesthood in BBC1’s recent Father Brown, adapted from G K Chesterton’s ecclesiastical detective stories.

As Father Brown is a period piece, set before the paedophile scandals, the ordained investigator is free from suspicion. But, in Calvary, the writer-director John Michael McDonagh employs a deliberate strategy of tempting the audience to think the worst of Gleeson’s character. When Father Lavelle is alone with an altar boy or chats to a young girl in a country lane, we are ready to damn him but his intentions are always innocent.

Admittedly, the character is a compromised compliment to Catholicism. McDonagh’s motivation is more artistic than propagandistic. Such is the reputation of Roman Catholic clergy that a good priest – like a good Nazi in war films – wrong-foots the audience. There is also the advantage of putting clear holy water between his work and that of his brother, Martin McDonagh, whose In Bruges (2008) begins with the botched murder, in a confession box, of a paedophile priest.

In an intriguing variation on that premise, Calvary begins with Lavelle hearing the confession of an unseen parishioner who was once a victim of sexual abuse. The penitent reveals that he will kill the confessor in a week’s time: a good priest slain as a surrogate for all the bad ones, after a period of knowing that his death is preordained, like Christ carrying his cross to Calvary.

By beginning in a confessional, Calvary alludes not only to In Bruges but also to the 1953 film I Confess, by (the lapsed Catholic) Alfred Hitchcock, in which Montgomery Clift suffers the burden of being unable to reveal a murder confessed to him by a penitent. John Cornwell, in his book The Dark Box: a Secret History of Confession, discusses the cinematic uses of what Catholics call the sacrament of absolution but he goes much further than film-makers have – he argues that whispering sins in the dark encouraged sexual abuse, by locking an often sexually frustrated priest in a sort of cupboard with vulnerable young people.

Calvary contains frequent references to the Catholic Church’s child abuse crisis but the film paradoxically approaches the subject through a protagonist who is a perfect advertisement for the clergy and a script that presents faith and forgiveness uncynically as virtues. In this respect, it is representative of the reluctance of cinema and television to tackle directly clerical pederasty.

Popular culture has a good record of dealing with social and political trends before the authorities notice them. Versions of the 9/11 attacks, for example, occurred many times in novels and films (including Tom Clancy’s 1991 thriller The Sum of All Fears) before they became an al-Qaeda plot.

Fictional Catholic priests, however, have tended to be presented as either devil-busters – in the genre spawned by The Exorcist – or sexually as a bigger threat to adult women parishioners than to children. Richard Chamberlain’s Father Ralph de Bricassart, in the devoutly received 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds, was also a womaniser, while in the 1994 film Priest (written by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Antonia Bird), the central clerics are having sex with a female housekeeper and a consenting adult male.

Even in Doubt (2008), a film made after the extent of sexual depravity by priests became known, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a school chaplain under suspicion of abusing a pupil, the script deliberately leaves open the possibility that the accusations are false. Until Calvary, the most powerful treatment of Catholicism’s shame was in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education (2004), although, again, the narrative tackles the subject through distancing tactics.

One reason for the relative paucity of fictional responses is that few actors or directors would feel comfortable spending two hours with a character as morally abhorrent as a man committing sex crimes in the name of God. Another is a perhaps surprising level of residual cultural respect for the Church. Given the scale and gravity of the sexual revelations, Catholicism has been treated kindly by mass entertainment, although the portrayal of the Vatican as the baddie in two hugely popular fictional franchises – Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books and, in the guise of the evil Magisterium, in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – can be attributed to general revulsion at the scandals.

The subject still awaits its defining cinematic treatment: filmgoers might pray for such a movie by Martin Scorsese, a failed candidate for the priesthood. Until then, Calvary gets to the heart of the matter by bypassing it – cleverly and thoughtfully addressing the worst men in the Church by showing one of the best. 

Mark Lawson will be writing weekly in the New Statesman

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.