Moral thinking requires a bit of, well, thinking, if it is to be of any value. To get very angry about something, or to find something repellent – that is not a moral position. A moral position has to rest on some form of rationality.
When something bad happens, someone is usually, but not always, to blame. When, for example, someone is killed by accident, there may in fact be no one to blame. This does in fact happen. The people killed by the tsunami died as a result of what is sometimes called an “act of God”; in other words, an event that was not caused by any human agency.
But many deaths do have human agents that cause them, and depending on the deliberate nature of these human actions, then someone is to blame.
Baby P was deliberately killed. There can be no doubt about that. The nature of his injuries makes it clear that he was subjected to repeated assaults, which must have been, could only have been, carried out with malice aforethought. The sheer scale of the injuries makes it clear that this was not an accident but deliberate, and took place over an extended period. And so the courts found, sending his mother, her lover and his brother down for causing the death of a child, not manslaughter, and, oddly, not murder.
Meanwhile, Sharon Shoesmith continues to be the target of unrelenting anger, as this article in the Mail Online shows. She, readers will remember, was the social worker responsible for child protection in Haringey. That she is now unemployed and with no prospects of finding work is sad, but the Mail describes her as “self-pitying”. It seems that Miss Shoesmith will never be punished enough.
It is worth bearing in mind that the Confiteor asks forgiveness “for what I have done, and what I have failed to do”, for sins of commission and omission. The actions of those who killed Baby Peter fall into the first category; those of Miss Shoesmith, in that she failed to prevent the child’s death, into the second.
Could the child have been saved? Probably, but it is easy to judge by results. Did Miss Shoesmith and her department do their jobs properly? An Ofsted report judged their services to be “inadequate”. But it remains the case that theirs was a very hard task, Haringey a tough place, and that public opinion (so unforgiving now) is very much against children being taken into care. Moreover, public opinion dislikes social workers and is only happy to blame them when things go wrong. As a result, the focus of blame shifts away from the real perpetrators, the mother, her lover, and his brother.
The shift of focus from the perpetrators to the person or institution who is perceived as blameworthy because they failed to stop it is not peculiar to the Baby P case. Nor is the demonisation of a professional group something only social workers have to put up with. (Let the reader think of parallel cases.) But this is a dangerous trend.
First of all, it is unjust. People like Sharon Shoesmith do not deserve to be made into social pariahs. Many, in fact the vast majority of social workers do a wonderful job, in very difficult circumstances too.
Secondly, it hides an ugly agenda. A whole load of people who have never lifted a finger for child welfare can now feel good about themselves, thinking that in finding someone to blame they are absolved of moral responsibility.
Thirdly, it disguises an irrational hatred as a moral position, which it is not, and in the process perverts moral thinking.
Fourthly, it makes proper moral investigation difficult, if not impossible. Questions remain about the Baby P case. Where was his father? Why was his mother living with a man not her husband? Is that good for children? Why was the brother living with a 15-year-old girl? It seems to me that this level of amorality, which is widely accepted by many, must have had a bearing on the child’s death. How can you expect social services to protect children from murder when the very people who should be protecting them most turn to murder themselves? How is it that we expect social services to deliver when family breakdown is so rife, and why is no one ever willing to face up to the reality of family breakdown and the high price so many, especially children, pay for it?
There is a word for this moral incoherence, and that is hypocrisy. The Mail is a hypocritical newspaper. It panders to immorality, as a brief tour of its website shows, then blames Sharon Shoesmith for the results of that immorality when it does not like some of those results. But let us be fair. The anti-Catholic Times is worse, and so is the anti-Catholic Independent, both of whom have employed op-ed writers who demonise our Holy Father the Pope. But that is material for another article.