David Pilgrim is Professor of Health and Social Policy in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology
“The recent and already popular film Philomena is another reminder that the Catholic Church is probably losing the ideological battle about the legacy of child abuse in its midst.
“The weeping scar simply will not heal. The sheer scale of the evidence, which has undermined the feudal authority of the Vatican and its global dominion, is now well known and still enlarging. The cat is now out of the bag and amongst the pigeons. A new pontiff with his honourable commitment to the poor and powerless can limit the damage, but only so much.
“For many young Catholics, the damaging experiences of their parents or grandparents has made them wary. Recruitment to the priesthood is in crisis and attendance at Mass is more grey haired than in the past.
“An organisation used to condemning and ritualistically forgiving the sins of others now must cope with being the accused, not the accuser. The Church has been caught between owning up (confession now taking on a particular ironic poignancy) and covering up (always a tactical option for the rich and powerful).
“The former has not been fulsome enough and the latter has clearly failed, which has simply gifted more ammunition to critics. They document a wide prevalence of abuse that is not reducible to bad apples (the psychological pathology of a few paedophile priests). In truth it also implicates cruel nuns and complicit civil authorities, as well as planned organised systems of child trafficking and opportunistic financial manipulation.
“Philomena is the true account of an ageing Irish woman now settled in the South of England, who kept a festering secret for fifty years. As a teenager she, like many other girls falling pregnant out of wedlock, was taken in by nuns to give birth. Part of her penance was to spend years slaving in laundry work, being allowed to see her son for just one hour a day.
“The nuns sold the children to rich Americans and then deliberately burnt the evidence, when the game was up.
Philomena embarks on a faltering search for son, aided and abetted by a high profile journalist. Martin Sixsmith (here played by Steve Coogan) was at a loose end, having recently been sacked from his job for not toeing the line for New Labour, when he was a government advisor.
“Philomena (the name ironically from a saint now disowned by Rome) is brought lovingly to life by Judy Dench, entreating warm sympathy from viewers. Plaudits for her performance are certain. But the political, rather than artistic significance of the film is its sub-plot: the power of the ‘human interest story’. Without finance for the latter, the search for a lost boy and this film would not exist.
“The focus on a real named subject, with details about her particular experience of TS Eliot’s existential ubiquity of ‘birth and copulation and death’, is what grabs the attention and raises emotions. The film certainly works powerfully and left me wondering whether the dramatic reporting of single cases is more persuasive sometimes than extensive legal findings and academic research.
“Another pointer to this conclusion was the powerful reconstruction of the shooting of Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban, offered by a recent BBC documentary. A bridge between filmed biography and autobiographical academic reflection can be found in Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self by the Dartmouth College philosopher Susan Brison, who was raped and left for dead on a visit to France in 1990.
“Biographical or autobiographical accounts outrages can reach millions, whereas cooler academic depictions only thousands. This is not a reason to give up our work, but it does signal our modest ambitions and puts them into political context.
“This is particularly the case when and if we seek to understand violent and abusive customs and practices bequeathed by the past but persisting today.”
David Pilgrim’s paper, ‘Child Abuse in Irish Catholic Settings: A Non-Reductionist Account’ appeared in the special themed issue of Child Abuse Review (December 2012) on ‘Understanding complex systems of abuse: institutional and ritual abuse’.