Hard News by Russell Brown

Visiting the moral wellspring

I presume I'm not the only one to detect the irony in the fact that on the front page of the Weekend Herald there was a teaser for the head of the Catholic church's proclamation of a modern "moral wasteland" - while on page four there was a story saying that police are "considering charges against Catholic priests involved in hiding Alan Woodcock's nine years of sexual abuse against schoolboys and young men."

Roman Catholicism has, like other faiths, offered succour, comfort and satisfaction to its adherents. No sensible person would deny that to them - and, I think, some sense of transcendence is of benefit to most of us in life. We should also avoid glib assumptions about the church and abuse: most abusers are not priests, most priests are not abusers.

But the Woodcock case is damning. To protect its own, collective interests, the Catholic church in New Zealand not only covered up Woodcock's sexual abuse of children, it facilitated that abuse by repeatedly moving on Woodcock to new schools and institutions where he could continue to prey on young people. These actions - which involved senior figures in the church in New Zealand - represented the most grotesque moral failure imaginable. And they are not isolated or unique. The church still has a great deal to prove in terms of its own moral leadership.

It turns out that Cardinal Thomas Williams' essay, The Spiritual Bankruptcy of Liberalism, is a paranoid jumble, distinguished from the average Maxim tract by the fact that he bags economic as well as social liberalism. As such, there will be something in it that everyone can agree with. Personally, I'm glad that my two boys have no interest in the dry-humping that passes for teeny pop videos these days. I, too, am concerned about the pressure on families.

But Cardinal Williams' case is littered with statements so silly and strange as to barely be worth arguing against. "Street walking," he claims, "is now as respectable as shop walking." No, it isn't. I find his claim that "policymakers disastrously tried values-free education," more than a little ironic. My kids have attended a primary school which offers more robust values than schools did when I was young: values like trust, compassion and respect. There is no corporal punishment and, hence, vastly less violence and bullying. Every year, some students are recruited as peer mediators, who assume responsibility for the school environment and seek to head off confrontation in the playground. It's really pretty good.

For a while as a kid, I lived in Greymouth, and maybe half the other kids in my neighbourhood attended the local Catholic school, St Patrick's. They were permanently in thrall of "the Brothers" - the disciplinarian schoolmasters - and I was quite sure that I was better off at the local state secular school. Some of my peers would attend the local Catholic High School, Marist Brothers (now John Paul II High School), others would be shipped off to board at St Patrick's Silverstream. As we now know, there was hidden abuse at both those schools.

The changes in schools in my lifetime are material to me, because both my kids have special needs, and the younger one presents some challenges to the school environment. They'll be okay, and should grow up to be useful citizens. But it is far from out of the question that in another time, they might have wound up simply being whisked out of the system to a place like Porirua Hospital, Oakley or Kingseat - which is what we did as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, Cardinal Williams' moral golden age. Children as young as eight were beaten, injected with paraldehyde and subjected to solitary confinement. If it is "political correctness" and "liberalism" that ended that, then I say that is a considerable moral improvement on what went before.

Of course, many of those who nod sagely at Cardinal Williams' plea will happily go out and shop on a Sunday, or watch the TV programmes he decries. What irks me the most, however, is the ease with which Williams and his ilk regard values other than theirs as an absence of values. Frankly, Cardinal, I have sized up your values and mine and I vastly prefer the latter.

One further observation: once again, the Herald seems happy to allow conservative commentators and their tracts to set its agenda. There will, inevitably, be some rebuttal published in the Dialogue column this week, and various letters expressing passions either way. But I have to wonder what the Herald's editor, Tim Murphy, really thinks he's doing.

The Sunday Star Times has also been keen - when it's not busy being sleazy - to tap into some perceived moral wellspring. Yesterday, it was a deranged rant about liquor laws that included this statement:

There was another piece of not-thought-through law-making soon after when, in an attempt to outlaw those New Year's Eve riots, the government introduced a ban on alcohol in a public place. Commendable, but in its haste parliament turned everyone who put a bottle of plonk in the car on their way to a BYO restaurant a criminal.

Sigh … yes, there was a drafting error at the time, but "the government" never "introduced a ban on alcohol in a public place". The Local Government (Prohibition of Alcohol in Public Places) Amendment Act 2001 granted local bodies the ability to impose a local liquor ban in a defined area, upon consultation with the community. (It has long been against the law for under-18s to consume alcohol in a public place.) Such bans are a constraint on the liberty of responsible individuals, but they appear to have been quite effective. They don't, as the SST believes, turn "law-abiding people into criminals", but they do give police the power to search for and confiscate alcohol within the defined area of the liquor ban. Alac has more information here.

"The problem of youth drinking," the editorial intones with splendid grammatical incorrectness, "has to be solved by instilling in the people who are the future to adopt a far more moderate approach to liquor than their parents have." It then goes on to dismiss as "some feel-good campaign" the impending Culture Change programme that will attempt to do just that.

It is certainly the case that the lowering of the drinking age has not worked out as well as many people hoped (it should be noted that the current Minister of Justice voted against the move), but the general reform of our liquor laws over the past two decades has actually been accompanied by a decline in consumption.

The quantity of pure alcohol for sale per head of population over the age of 15 last year was lower than in 2002. It was lower again in 1998, but is still sharply less now than it was at any time before 1995. Demand for alcohol has fallen. The exception? "Spirit-based drinks" with an alcohol by volume level of less than 23%, which have risen every year since 1995. There is evidence that young people, attracted by the lower price of such drinks, were driving the trend. The additional duty imposed last year on such beverages, in an attempt to halt that trend, is among the government actions angrily scorned in the SST editorial.

Confused? You have a right to be, until such time as the country's newspaper editors display a firmer grasp on the facts than your average talkback caller.