Napier, Nolan & Nuance

Stephen Nolan and Cardinal Napier, who clashed this week on Nolan's BBC radio show.
Stephen Nolan and Cardinal Napier, who clashed this week on Nolan’s BBC radio show.

It is not often that I am inspired to seemingly defend Catholicism’s stance on paedophilia – nor, indeed, to ostensibly offer a plea for paedophiles themselves. But this is what this is: apparently such an apologia. Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier purportedly felt the same impulse recently on the Stephen Nolan show, accused by the titular 5 Live presenter of the exculpation of paedophilia. My best guess is that he did no such thing.

Cardinal Napier made two central assertions. A paedophile is not necessarily liable to the same punishment, nor equally culpable, for committing child abuse as someone not of the same psychological bent; paedophilia is akin to a psychological condition, and therefore should not be thought of as the same kind of defect as corruptness, greed, unkindness – or more generally – as wickedness or malevolence.

Is there anything to say for such views? Take some simple analogues. Kleptomania – it’s not obvious that their stealing is as bad as mine. Further along the scale lies, for instance, those with Tourette’s syndrome – and this is at the extreme, as we wouldn’t at all blame such a sufferer for being unintentionally verbally abusive.

Perhaps these cases appear frivolous, glib – too far removed from the serious nature of the condition under question. Perhaps; but take the recent cases in Zimbabwe in which men are, against their will, injected with a drug which induces overpowering sexual desire. Would they be just as culpable for rape? Or even the more common case of a murder of passion – we don’t generally equate these to such acts planned or committed emotionlessly.

Our question then: is paedophilia like these kinds of cases? It might be thought that I’ve skipped the crucial issue: whether or not paedophilia is a psychological condition. Well, trivially so: it’s a particular sort of sexual orientation, namely that which regards children as objects of sexual desire. But then heterosexuality is a psychological condition by this criterion – as well as irritation and hunger. But being shouted at is not an excuse for assault, feeling hungry does not absolve a thief, and heterosexuality is not a mitigating circumstance for rape. Why not?

Answers to this question will be subtle and various; but they must in part have something to do with the capacity for choice, and the reasons for or causes of the condition. To what extent does a paedophile choose to abuse a child? How did he come to be in such a condition? And with these – most fundamental – questions, I can go no further: an answer to the first plausibly requires – at the least – psychological expertise and substantive ethical principles, and those to the second will differ from case to case.

I’ve in no way attempted to resolve the complex moral and legal problems – it’s been my intention merely to point towards some of the complexities in the area.

And Cardinal Napier should be taken to have been doing much the same thing in the Nolan interview. He suggested that paedophilia might be an illness, rather than a ‘criminal condition’ (I’ll shortly come back to this phrase), and explicitly did so on the basis of psychological research. He warned against generalising, insisting that we’ve “got to have cases in point”. He questioned whether paedophiles were as culpable as someone who would “choose to [commit acts against children]”, and offered particular explanations of the condition, citing two priests who “had been abused as children”.

Now, let me make clear what he did wrong. Cardinal Napier did not explicitly talk about the suffering and horror of child abuse, and he suggested at one point that priests who commit such acts are adequately punished if the appropriate Church procedures have been followed. These were serious errors, but don’t let them obscure all else.

In particular, what Cardinal Napier actually said should not be obscured – and an even graver transgression would be to obscure what he said. Stephen Nolan did precisely this.

Cardinal Napier was reported, by Nolan, to have denied that paedophilia was a ‘criminal condition’, and – in the course of the interview – to have said: “if someone is abused, you understand why they might have abused [children], and not be subject to a criminal investigation”. He did deny that it was a criminal condition: but what does this amount to? Cardinal Napier explains: “paedophilia is an illness…you are acting out of a defect of your character…[he asks] are you totally culpable?… Don’t tell me that [paedophiles] are criminally responsible like someone who chooses to do something like that”. His denial was not an exculpation.

Having been very careful with his words, Cardinal Napier was subsequently rewarded with a slyly edited interview excerpt. This is how the actual interview ran.

SN: you do not think that a paedophile needs to be punished? 

WFN: What is paedophilia? It is a condition, it’s a psychological condition, it’s a disorder. What do you do with disorders? You’ve got to try to put them right […]. 

SN: So do you believe…that it’s OK for paedophile to be treated and not punished?

WFN: Look, I don’t think you are understanding me. What are you punishing?

And here is the excerpt.

SN: you do not think that a paedophile needs to be punished?

WFN: What are you punishing?

It sounds, from the excerpt, as if Cardinal Napier is denying that paedophiles should be punished – but in the actual interview, his nuanced response could not be reasonably interpreted in this way.

Not that Nolan’s conduct should come as a surprise: his broadcasts are invariably marked by ignorant pronouncements, brash dismissals, and unthinking responses. Nolan is a particularly egregious manifestation of that lamentable tendency to disregard nuance in serious debate; to assume that anyone who questions a widely held view denies it; and to, moreover, cast that questioner as immoral. Nolan is not only a conduit through which such pernicious ignorance is channelled; he irresponsibly amplifies and thereby perpetuates it.

The urging of a mob upon those who question, reflect, and probe is, though, all too common a sight: the Twitterati less and less resembles the historical Illuminati, more and more Ignoratio. I’m not concerned with the beliefs of a South African Cardinal, but for the fate of all but the most banal in our public culture. There is a responsibility to acknowledge nuance, regardless of one’s realisation of this fact. Ignoratio iuris non excusat: there is nothing to say for such ignorance as exculpation.


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