Bad priests, bad religion, bad theology   (31.5.11)

It is painful thing to look at your own trouble and know that you yourself, and no one else, has made it.


William Oddie is back to his apologetics for priestly child abuse in the Catholic Herald this week. (See my previous comments.) He again overlooks the special hypocrisy of abusive priests -- individuals who have put on lofty vestments of moral authority, who then use their position to exploit the innocent. And he again fails to acknowledge that the main reason for popular anger at this situation is not that bad stuff happened, but that the Catholic hierarchy -- apparently led by the current Pope both now and in his former roles -- have spent many years deliberately covering the problem up and protecting priests from criminal investigation. In this context, is there a more insulting sentiment than this one, which Oddie endorses?

The Holy Father’s clear guidance is that the Church at large is still called upon “to enter a period of purification and repentance and of prayer for the victims of clerical child abuse”.

Prayer! That'll solve the problem.

In other news about delusional holy men in positions of power, Tim Cravens reflects on the recent Rapture Fail. He points out that many people have been left destitute by their unhinged and uncritically-held belief that the world was about to end. Were you, like me, again struck by the absence of mainstream Christian leaders taking to the airwaves to say "this man is a nutter, and his views are theologically and biblically unsound"? It may not have made any difference, but sometimes it's important to speak the truth just for the sake of speaking the truth. (You know, like when someone's head is smashed in for being gay.) Both The Catholicism Fail and The Rapture Fail are timely reminders that bad religion can cause immense damage to people's lives. And you'd hope that when representatives of "Christianity" like Harold Camping set about ruining rather than enriching people's lives, those who stand for a faith that liberates rather than condemns would make their voices heard. But perhaps they're too busy praying.

Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise.

Proverbs 17:28

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Sound Off For Justice   (26.5.11)

Sign a petition or record a voicemail for Ken Clarke.


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Harwood to be prosecuted   (24.5.11)


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Asquith v. Field   (23.5.11)

Labour activist Shelly Asquith has written an article on Left Foot Forward entitled "Why Frank Field is wrong on women and welfare". Well, maybe Frank Field is wrong, but if you read Asquith's article, you'll see that she doesn't actually tell us why. She simply states that she thinks he is wrong.

A couple of comments, all the same. Asquith reports that "Kate Green [addressed] the fact that the system, with lack of child-care support and a household level payment scheme, will actually disincentivise women from working." This mode of analysis is the same as that used in the IFS's declaration that revoking benefits is "regressive"; and the problem is that it only tells half the story. How? Well, a "disincentive" is to my mind some positive thing the effect of which is to discourage someone from acting in a particular way. But if we suppose that a pre-existing incentive is removed, so that there is no longer any incentive or disincentive, the end result is not a disincentive, but a state of neutrality with regard to the decision that was previously incentivised.

Britain's current welfare system has, largely by accident, created an innumerable quantity of incentives and disincentives, some of which are self-defeating, others of which are perverse, more of which contradict one another, and most of which (to a liberal mind) the state has no business in providing in the first place. According to Asquith, Field said "Families should be supporting one another. We should not be a feminist party." Asquith could be right that he says this from the perspective of traditional morality. But it is also possible that he says it from the perspective of some hue of a liberal commitment to the neutrality of the state with respect to people's personal choices.

Asquith also depends on a restricted (and these days, I daresay, minority) conception of feminism for her point to work. I happily call myself a feminist, if feminism is to be understood as a fight for equality of treatment, in all respects, between the sexes. But the feminism which Asquith implicitly defends is a feminism which would have the state provide special incentives to women. First, this is in my view a self-refuting conception of feminism, since it demands special treatment for women while demanding that people cease treating women as different. But second, it would force the state to make policy by subscribing to a particular conception of good. In this case, it would have to endorse the principle that it is good for women to be incentivised to enter the workplace, rather than remaining neutral with respect to all such conceptions, which would mean incentivising neither men nor women, relatively to one another, in their entry into the workplace.

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Dog tries to get Alan Turing to play fetch   (20.5.11)

Fantastic. This is in Sackville Park, Manchester, and the dog is playing with a memorial to Alan Turing, WWII Enigma codebreaker and victim of British state violence. (via)

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Cause and Effect   (19.5.11)

Here's a report on sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, produced by the John Jay College Research Team, and commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The USCCB are to be congratulated for commissioning a serious study like this, but I have certain reservations.

First, the fact that the study is commissioned by a Catholic body means its independence must be questioned. Perhaps the report is a perfectly impartial piece of research, within its terms of reference. I've not examined the background to the report closely enough, so I don't know. But however good this report, its findings will be viewed as inferior to those of a full criminal and judicial inquiry due to the chance that official church pressure was brought to bear in its commissioning and production.

Second, there seems to be a gaping omission in the report's findings. The first line of the summary attests to this, declaring "No single 'cause' of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is identified as a result of our research." The word "cause" is placed in inverted commas here because the authors recognise that human behaviour is not simply caused; it issues from a person's sovereign will, and is in that sense half-outside the economy of causation. (Let's put aside disagreements about free will and determinism for now -- it would be unfair to expect the research team to settle them too!) Yet priests' personal responsibility for their actions is not given any serious consideration, as far as I can see, in this report.

My point is that any "explanation" of the "causes" of sexual abuse in the church must be a secondary one; for the primary reason that such abuse occurred is that abusive priests chose to commit those crimes and abuses of trust (unless all of these priests were mentally deranged to the point of bearing no responsibility for their actions, but I'm not aware that this was a widespread factor). It is imperative, for the improvement of the church as an institution, to examine what circumstantial factors allowed the abuse to occur and continue unchecked. But to explain the priests' behaviour we hardly need look any further than their self-evident moral poverty. To start associating the abuse with the "social and cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s", which this report does, is simply blame-shifting. And I think the Catholic church has done plenty of that already.

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Graffiti, Montmartre   (19.5.11)

Graffiti, Montmartre

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Rape, Miliband's latest political football   (18.5.11)

An excellent blog post by Gaijin San on the Ken Clarke non-controversy:

A lot of rubbish has been spoken about the offence of rape today, most egregiously by Ed Miliband. Rape is a serious matter which touches many people’s lives and which should be handled sensitively and intelligently.

Instead of this Miliband has decided to play to the baying pitchfork-and-burning-torches mob led in this instance by the Daily Mail (as if we should be shocked at that) by calling for Ken Clarke QCs resignation after he (Clarke) made comments about distinguishing between offences of rape. [...]

But Gaijin-san, I hear you protest, Miliband could simply be expressing views he honestly holds about the principal of distinguishing between offences of rape.

There is a problem with that. The Sentencing Guidelines Council, which for the first time codified the distinction between offences of rape which had been a part of criminal practice since minute one, was created by a Labour Government in which Miliband was a minister.

Now tell me this is not political opportunism.

The whole thing is well worth a read. (thx AC)


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Rapes of wrath   (18.5.11)

Today's "controversy" over comments by the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is one of the most contrived I can recall. It started off as a discussion about proposals for extending the system of plea-bargaining in England and Wales, under which convicts who plead guilty receive a reduction in the proportion of the sentence they must serve. Currently, time served can be reduced by up to a third. Clarke proposed that early guilty pleas should be rewarded with a reduction of up to 50%.

There are arguments for and against plea-bargaining, of course, but these have not so far seriously figured in this mock-controversy. Instead, those hostile to the government for unrelated reasons have chosen to point out that this change would mean a reduction in the time served for rape. Well, yes, it would, but it's a banal point to make; rape is not being singled out for a special reduction. The proposals concern all criminal offences, and rape happens to be one such offence.

Cue Victoria Derbyshire's interview with Ken Clarke this morning on Radio 5 Live. Clarke made some clumsy comments, but that's not unusual for a live interview. So, at least, let's be clear about the nature of the clumsiness. 1) Clarke referred to "date rape", apparently understanding it to refer to something different from its current usage. He seems to think "date rape" refers to what used more often to be called "statutory rape", namely the offence committed when an adult violates the statutory age of consent in a sex act which is otherwise consenting. Unfortunately for Clarke, this is not (or is no longer) an ordinary definition of "date rape". It usually refers to a rapist's deliberate drugging of a victim prior to, and with the intent of committing, a sexual assault. But I think it is adequately clear from the context that this is not what Clarke was talking about.

2) Clarke has, however, met with deeper criticism over his assertion that there are more and less serious rapes. The difficulty again stems from people having different understandings of the same word. However, Clarke did, to his credit, clarify in advance the sense in which he intended the word "rape". He defined rape as "rape in the ordinary conversational sense", by which he means to exclude cases of statutory rape. Clarke is on safe moral and legal ground here, as he well knows, since it is true that consent to sexual activity expressed by minors over the age of 13 can be taken into account in court, and in deciding which charges to press. Accordingly, English law has the separate offences of "rape of a child under 13" and the lesser offence of "sexual activity with a minor under 16". It is therefore not true that all sexual offences which cross the age of consent are rapes, either in our ordinary conversational sense, or indeed on the legal definition.

Since analysis of Clarke's comments has compelled us to descend to this semantic depth, it is also worth pointing out that there is no contradiction between Clarke's holding, on the one hand, that all rapes are "serious crimes", and that, on the other hand, within that class of serious crimes there are nevertheless more and less serious cases. For example, Rape A might involve a man forcing vaginal intercourse with a woman, while Rape B might involve the same sexual activity, but perpetrated repeatedly, and involving imprisonment, violence and injury. Being rapes, both of these cases are serious crimes. But it is clear that Rape B is the more serious.

And guess what? Margaret "The Grin" Hodge shouting "Rape is rape is rape" on the Daily Politics adds nothing whatsoever to the discussion. But she knows that already.


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Sentamu speaks... "again"?!   (15.5.11)

I and many others have spent months entreating the Archbishop of York John Sentamu to say something (anything) about the brutal murder of David Kato in his native Uganda. And last week, Praise the Lord! He finally released a statement. However, that statement claims to be "repeating" something Sentamu has said before. Now, I've been following this very closely indeed. It is, of course, possible that I somehow managed to miss the first time Sentamu expressed these sentiments. But there is no mention of an earlier statement on his website, and I can't dig anything up through Google. Has Sentamu hired Malcolm Tucker? (I note that Sentamu's press release does not specify which Archbishop's words he is repeating. Nice touch that, Malcolm.) I conclude for the time being that Sentamu has not actually made a statement previously, though I hope I will be corrected by someone. (update: Sentamu had previously refused to give a statement, and did so only because of a petition directed at him. Now there's moral leadership!)

One comment, though. Sentamu says "Such violence has been consistently condemned by the Anglican Communion worldwide". Of course, that's not quite true, thanks to Sentamu and three other UK bishops refusing to sign the Cambridge Accord, which... erm... condemned "such violence". Perhaps it's time for Sentamu to sign it now?

Meanwhile, others are doing something more meaningful and having some impact. Needless to say, the churches' continuing vacillations at this important moment are leaving me feeling even more nauseous than usual.

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Alan Wilson speaks out   (14.5.11)

I'm delighted that Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, has forsaken the Archbishops' moderation and written a powerful opinion piece in the Guardian condemning the proposed Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the phariseeism of those who support it:

Many of [Jesus's] least meek and mild words were reserved for the pharisaic "brood of vipers".

With painful accuracy, Jesus deconstructed their viper proclivities – hypocritical scouring of land and sea for converts, laying burdens on strangers they would never bear themselves, erecting verbal minutiae into absolutes that compromised the primary purpose of the law, crashing down on weaker but measurably less worthy sinners like Monty Python's foot. Many Pharisees saw themselves as God's minders, leading to a general flattening of the subtleties of the law. Defensive zeal and wooden literalism produced hard sticks with which to beat the vulnerable when they were down. Lesser precepts were pushed to a point where they began to compromise the basics – loving God and neighbour. Jesus called this absurdity "straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel".

Above all, this bill seems less than entirely civilised because, frighteningly, it criminalises a minority of people wholesale, threatening their lives. Picking up the microscopic number of Bible texts that arguably have anything to say about homosexuality, it imposes them stringently in isolation from their context in a way that is bizarrely disproportionate. Straining at a tiny but contentious gnat, it swallows a sociopathic, genocidal camel.

Should the bill resurface in the Ugandan parliament and pass, enforcing it will violate not only the golden rule but also Jesus's summary of the whole law. The rest of the civilised world can only hope that honourable members will have the decency to understand how wicked it is.

Thank you, Alan Wilson, for some overdue moral and theological clarity from the Church of England. But why couldn't it be provided by the archbishops?

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View from Sacré-Coeur   (14.5.11)

View from Sacre-Coeur

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Electricité, Montmartre   (14.5.11)

Electricite, Montmartre

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Folies Bergere, Paris   (11.5.11)

Folies Bergere, Paris

Folies Bergere, Paris


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Pickled pink   (10.5.11)

Some more things for our church leaders to be moderate about, no doubt. Well, I'll stuff me mouth with pink pickles if they prove me wrong. Meanwhile, let's hope our politicians and diplomats will choose moral courage over amoral moderation in their pronouncements on the state of Uganda.

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Facade, Montmartre   (10.5.11)

Facade, Montmartre

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Uganda sign it?   (10.5.11)

I signed this petition, and so should you. But will the Archbishops? I'm not holding my breath. Sadly, the same can't be said for gay people in Uganda.

To President Museveni of Uganda, Members of the Review Committee, Parliament, and donor governments:

We stand with citizens across Uganda who are calling on their government to withdraw the Anti-Homosexual Bill, and to protect the universal human rights embodied in the Ugandan constitution. We urge Uganda’s leaders and donors to join us in rejecting persecution and upholding values of justice and tolerance.

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Jardin des Tuileries, Paris   (10.5.11)

Jardin des Tuileries

I confess to finding Paris a very dull city to photograph. The architecture is so monotonous and conservative, the materials are all the same... there's not even much graffiti. The Eiffel Tower probably wouldn't get planning permission today. It's become so boring that I've had to resort to photographing people!

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Pseudo-liberal puritanism   (9.5.11)

I am disappointed by the resignation of Peter Vidmar over comments he made in 2008 opposing gay marriage. Why on earth should he have to resign for expressing a view on an important and unsettled political issue? All the intolerance and puritanism here is from those applauding Vidmar's resignation, such as Johnny Weir, who made these narrow-minded comments:

I certainly wouldn’t want to be represented by someone who is anti gay marriage. It isn’t just about marriage; it is being allowed equal rights as Americans. The fact this man who is very publicly against something that may be represented on the American team is disgraceful.

Would Weir follow the same logic if roles were reversed? Suppose that some years hence, Weir becomes an Olympic official. And suppose he had a few years previously made some comments endorsing gay marriage. Now suppose that, public opinion being a fickle thing, there is a groundswell of outrage at Weir's verbal affront to the traditional institution of heterosexual marriage. Should he resign simply because his words have become controversial? I suspect he would not take that view. This suggests he is suffering from the horrible jaundice of pseudo-liberalism.

There is an enormous difference between this case, which concerns the right to freedom of speech in a basic sense, and cases involving discrimination on the part of adoption agencies and B&Bs, which concern the threshold at which actions begin to infringe the rights of others. Vidmar's were only comments, if controversial ones, and in my view he should not have been forced from his position because of them.

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Basilique Sacré-Coeur   (9.5.11)

Basilique Sacre-Coeur

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Clegg pride   (8.5.11)

The Lib Dems must, like all other parties, answer for their own weaknesses -- and they displayed plenty during the AV referendum campaign. But one thing which irritates me, due to its sheer stupidity and simple-mindedness, is the yelling of the "Clegg's just a closet Tory!!!" trope from left-wingers.

Admittedly, we don't have coalition governments very often in this country -- but coalitions are in the business of compromise. The Lib Dems' limited bargaining position was never going to totally overturn Tory policy in government. But to say that Lib Dem policy is for that reason indistinguishable from Tory policy is air-brained. We had a referendum of electoral reform because it was Lib Dem policy. The personal allowance is scheduled to rise in real terms every year of this parliament because it was Lib Dem policy (more like this). Although the coalition parties do share similar commitments in economic areas of policy (and have therefore found it easy to agree on fiscal and deficit-reduction policy), there is also deep divergence in other areas of policy (such as the Lib Dems' commitment to a progressive, redistributive tax regime). That is why Nick Clegg is a liberal and not a Tory, and Labourites who suggest otherwise are demonstrating tribal loyalty rather than an engagement in reasoned political debate.

Of course, it would be nice if Nick Clegg would explain this himself more often, rather than leaving that job to obscure and irrelevant bloggers in his fan-base.

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Justice and seeing justice   (8.5.11)

On the one hand, Geoffrey Robertson claims that Osama bin Laden's summary execution at the hands of US forces was not "real justice", and that the execution robbed the world of an opportunity to let justice be seen to be done. On the other hand, Norman Geras endorses Barack Obama's claim that the killing was just. Geras describes the killing as "a just act in a broader moral sense".

For what it's worth, my view is that both of these opinions are probably correct. That justice can be done outwith legal process seems to appeal to one of our understandings of "justice": there is little doubt that shooting a gunman who has already killed a number of people and threatens to kill again is a just response, even though the courts have nothing to do with delivering that response. And similarly with bin Laden. Yet Robertson is also on uncontroversial ground when arguing that it is preferable to use a judicial apparatus for the delivery of justice since, aside from reducing the risk of injustice, it also means the world can see justice being done. There would be much less space for the present proliferation of conspiracy theory had bin Laden been dragged through an international tribunal and left to live out the rest of his days in a dark prison cell.

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Garçon avec oiseaux, Paris   (8.5.11)

Garcon avec oiseaux

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Civil union rights in Brazil   (6.5.11)

Yet a problem. The judicial ruling is defended thus by Justice Britto: "The freedom to pursue one's own sexuality is part of an individual's freedom of expression." That may be true; but the problem with defending things on the basis of "freedom of expression" is that freedom of expression can be subject to legitimate arbitrary restrictions (in the same way, for example, that people's freedom to express themselves in protests can be legitimately trumped if there are countervailing considerations of public safety). Yet arbitrary restrictions are generally what somebody making a claim about rights is trying to overcome. Furthermore, forming a civil union is not only, or even primarily, an expression of sexuality but is rather the formation of a legally binding contract. This places civil unions in a different area of law to freedom of expression, and is (or should be) subject of much more stringent enforcement, in the sense that contracts should always be enforceable. So a more robust ruling, which would no doubt require a change in Brazilian law, would assert that civil unions are admissible because persons have a right to form voluntary contracts between them, unimpeded by others' opinion of the morality of those contracts.

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Huhne cries foul   (3.5.11)

To be honest, I don't think Chris Huhne is doing the Lib Dems any favours by crying foul at the "No" campaign's tactics in the AV referendum. Since going into coalition, some in the Lib Dems seem to have developed a victim mentality. Personal attacks are a part of front-line politics, and if those attacks are unfounded, it is up to Clegg & co. to make a forceful and persuasive reply.

In reaching the coalition agreement, Conservatives outmanoeuvred the Lib Dems by securing a referendum on AV rather than broader political reform. AV is a weak replacement for FPTP, and the Lib Dems may have conceded too much in exchange for this referendum. The "Yes" campaign have simply lost the argument amongst the wider public, and bleating on about how nasty the Tories are being just makes them look... well, "emotionally unintelligent".

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Tomlinson unlawfully killed   (3.5.11)

It's a good day for police accountability. (previously)

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Rowan Williams on Church and State   (2.5.11)

Lambeth Palace released the text of Rowan Williams' address, about the relationship between church and state, given at the University of Manchester in March.

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More drivel   (2.5.11)

The "Christian" Legal Centre is back with more drivel concerning the Court of Appeal's decision to uphold equality law:

The decision of the Tribunal to refuse Catholic Care in Leeds the right to amend its adoption policy is yet another example of the problems that ‘equality’ legislation is causing for those who hold orthodox Christian beliefs.

The legislation is effectively squeezing out Christians who wish to serve society by requiring that they act against their conscience in matters of sexual ethics. The Equality Act, which is presented as a means of securing a more tolerant society, has again been used as a form of State sponsored intolerance.

At a time when well over 50,000 children in the UK are in need of a home, we cannot afford to exclude those who are willing to provide a crucial service just because they do not agree with a small minority who are pushing a homosexual agenda under the guise of ‘equal rights.’

1. If principles of equal treatment are causing "problems" for Christians' "orthodox beliefs", perhaps those beliefs need some reassessment.

2. The law does not require Christians to "act against their conscience" regarding adoption; indeed, the law does not require them to act at all. But if they do choose to be involved in public service in this way, they are required by the law to treat people equally.

3. Ah, that elusive "homosexual agenda"! I wonder if the "Christian" Legal Centre think that laws protecting Christians against religious discrimination are part of a "Jewish agenda"? Equality law protects the rights of all citizens to equal treatment (in matters of legal relevance). The fact that some of those citizens are homosexual does not make it part of a "homosexual agenda".

4. In matters of justice, it is in any case legitimate for the law to require citizens to act against their conscience, although as I just pointed out, this does not apply in the case to which the "Christian" Legal Centre is responding. For example, somebody with "orthodox beliefs" -- let's call her "Leviticus" -- may believe it to be acceptable to keep slaves. Yet the law requires that she must "act against her conscience" by forbearing from keeping slaves, because the rights of other citizens trump Leviticus's liberty to act in accordance with her conscience. This is a fundamental principle of western democracy, approximately 200 years old, and one about which the "Christian" Legal Centre are wantonly and deliberately misleading people.

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State of the Papacy   (2.5.11)

The Economist considers the state of Benedict's papacy. For the record, this is how Time magazine reports what former Belgian bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who has still not been defrocked, had to say in a recent television interview:

But it was no tearful confession that Belgians witnessed on Thursday. Looking relaxed and sometimes smiling, Vangheluwe described the sexual abuse as no more than "a little piece of intimacy." While he claimed to recognize that he had done wrong and said he often went to confession about it, Vangheluwe played down his actions. "I had the strong impression that my nephew didn't mind at all. On the contrary. It was not brutal sex. I never used bodily, physical violence," he said. The abuse of his first nephew, in the 1970s and '80s, he said, "started as, I would call it, a game." At the time, the boy was just 5, and the abuse would last 13 years. The abuse of the second nephew, he said, was "merely over a year." Despite this, Vangheluwe insisted, "I don't have the impression at all that I am a pedophile." Following the interview, the first nephew said through his lawyer that he did not want to comment; the identity of the second nephew is not yet known.

And Benedict had the audacity to talk about the "surprising and deplorable methods" of Belgian police. Hmmph.

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Bruce   (1.5.11)



Newfred is where Andrew Wilshere blogs about
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