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‘Catholics are indoctrinated from their childhood that priests take the place of Jesus Christ and are to be obeyed at all costs, and never questioned or criticized.’ A church that puts its children from this early age under the spiritual control of its priests, representatives of God to whom they are unflinchingly obedient, has the most stringent of duties to guard against the exploitation of that obedience to do them harm. That duty includes the duty of handing over those reasonably suspected of child sex abuse to the secular authorities for trial and, if convicted, for punishment. It is this duty that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a.k.a. Benedict XVI, has for the past thirty years adamantly refused to accept.

Last month the Irish Times reported that two German lawyers, Christian Sailer and Gert-Joachim Hetzel, had submitted charges of crimes against humanity naming Pope Benedict XVI to the International Criminal Court. The document accuses the pontiff of preventing members of the Catholic church from using contraceptives, and hence stopping the spread of HIV, as well as the systematic cover-up of the abuse of children.

I wonder if the lawyers read this book by Geoffrey Robertson, which given its subtitle ‘Vatican Accountabilty for Human Rights Abuse‘, sets out to explain the legal protections and privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church and the Holy See. ‘Privilege’, is quite an appropriate word, given its etymology in old French: ‘private law’. As it happens, news of the book’s publication was greeted with vociferous defence of the head of the Church by sites such as Protect The Pope, which states that a commentator for the site had refuted many of Geoffrey Robertson’s misguided accusations and erroneous legal conclusions in his legal analysis, ‘A Worldwide Conspiracy? (sic).

Not only does Robertson’s account identify the extent of the horrific crimes against children in the care of Catholic priests across the world, it also seeks to define what is meant by canon law, as well as the Vatican’s status as a nation state and non-member of the U.N., which grants various protections. As a QC, Robertson concentrates on identifying what liability for the crimes committed by priests the Church is responsible for. He argues that the abuse of children is both a crime and a violation of tort law. Given the global occurence of these offences, it falls to the Church to defend itself in a court of international law for crimes against humanity. As Robertson points out, Vatican representatives at the U.N. have repeatedly used their position to lobby against the spread of equal rights for men and women, as well as efforts to combat the HIV virus in third world countries. That it enjoys such a privileged position – one denied to any other religion, charity, or human rights organisation – is due to a treaty signed with Mussolini for their mutual benefit in 1929 is just another piece of uncomfortable history for the Church to ignore. It is also, Robertson claims, a very tenuous basis for the Vatican’s statehood.

The contempt of the Catholic Church for accounts of child-sex abuses in the media, described variously as ‘an American problem’, or a conspiracy mounted by homosexuals, or Jewish newspapers, or even as Pope Benedict memorably phrased it ‘petty gossip’, shows just how much the institution itself is an enclave that sets itself apart from the rest of the world. Hence the importance placed on canon law and the secrecy with which the Vatican protects its findings on the rates of child molestation occurences. Pope Benedict even went so far as to congratulate Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyas for hiding an abuser from the police. The testimonies of bishops responsible for the conduct of priests in their diocese through inquiries in the States, or from the Murphy Report in Ireland, reveal a disastrous combination of gross ignorance in some instances and the willingness to ‘smuggle’, paedophile priests across state lines, or even internationally, in others.

It was actually through commentary on the Murphy Report featured on Irish satirical site Bock the Robber that I discovered that my own parish priest in Rathcoole, Fr. Noel Reynolds, had been identified as a paedophile long before being appointed to the village I grew up in.  Proof of the efficacy of canon law.

Geoffrey Robertson has written a powerful indictment of the Church’s policy of obfuscation, outlining a series of legal arguments that define the case against the institution and the flimsy pretexts of its defence.

I showed Laurence the absurd dome of the parliament building, nailed shut and disused. I showed him the library, which had never been stocked with books. The school, which had never taught a lesson. The blocks of flats, government housing for all the workers who were going to come and run the offices and services that had been planned – and some workers did come for a while. But there was no work. And then the trouble started, and in the end they trickled away again, to the cities or back where they’d come from, except the few who could still be spotted here and there, lost in their own uniforms and all this useless space.

When Apartheid was defeated in South Africa, it became a massive media event, much like the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, which I watched one Sunday morning glued to the television screen at ten years of age. At any rate the liberal West could comfort itself with the knowledge that the widespread criticism of de Klerk’s latterday Apartheid regime had succeeded and now indigenous South Africans would enjoy a long-denied egalitarian society.

Of course that was nonsense. The widespread inequality of before continued. In fact many of South Africa’s economic were tied up in offshore holdings, allowing the same corporations who had profited from Apartheid to continue to do so. Naomi Klein dedicated a chapter in The Shock Doctrine discussing what happened during the ‘handover’.

The Good Doctor brought much of this to mind for me, as Galgut’s writing identifies how much of the divide between the different South African communities remains, how ideology fails in the face of aging enmities and hopelessness.

Frank was posted to a rural hospital literally in the middle of nowhere – a non-place in the South African countryside, created by bureaucratic fiat – seven years ago. He was promised the role of hospital administrator, a new beginning following a bitter divorce and the collapse of his medical practice. Instead the incumbent Dr. Ngema never achieved her own transfer and remained in her office, forcing Frank into a submissive position within the hospital. Understaffed and isolated, he finds an unusual source of comfort in his life in this border territory. Nothing changes there and he, in turn, is not forced to change.

Then Laurence Water arrives. Young and full of enthusiastic ideas about helping countryside communities be educated in health issues, he is given a berth in Frank’s room. Forced to spend his days and nights in the younger man’s presence, Frank quickly develops an intense resentment of him – yet at the same time feels envious of his desire to help. After all, much of his despondency is tied up with how Dr. Ngema herself often talks about change and innovation, but refuses to leave; and how the hospital’s staff are only marking time before the government finally shuts them down.

In addition, Frank is carrying a number of secrets, that in his innocence Laurence manages to stir up. His past with the military for example, which still haunts him, as well as a long-running affair with a local woman who tells him her name is Maria. Through his arrival and the increasing animosity between the two men, Frank is forced to confront his past and whether he, like old South Africa, is capable of change.

Damon Galgut‘s writing is so richly descriptive – the hospital’s state of disarray is so shocking to Laurence upon his arrival that he is left speechless – that the metaphorical content of the book is at first obscured. Still this is a profoundly moving account of how the divisions within South African society remain.

Frank’s inability to change is well captured. His disaffected view of the hospital is as much a product of his frustration with Dr. Ngema’s regime as it is a product of his own refusal to step into the breach to change things. Laurence presence is an insult to his own carefully cultivated impotence. What’s more Frank is closely identified with the ‘old South Africa’. Laurence is the future, threatening to change everything. His desire to educate the local people in HIV prevention, and the apathy of the other doctors, reflects the West’s widespread lack of interest in the epidemic throughout Africa.

Strongly developed and closely observed, this is a fantastic novel.

I deplore the far too easy analogy between the traditional role of the priest and the current role of the therapist. It can only be made by people who clearly know very little of your profession and less than nothing of mine. You may assuage a troubled mind, but you offer no solace to the soul.

The Catholic Church is facing a losing battle with public opinion these days. The horrific revelations of child sex abuse that have increased in recent years were only made more horrifying with the discovery that the Vatican has made it policy to cover up allegations of abuse in lieu of investigating and prosecuting the crimes. This year Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone went even further and laid the blame on homosexual priests, in effect excusing the Church itself of any responsibility. A long-standing antagonistic relationship exists between the Catholic Church and the gay community, one that has led to the ironical claiming of Christian martyrs as gay icons, such as Saint Sebastian. Even the masochistic imagery of the Passion has itself become confused by sexual ambiguity and it is this blurred line between martyrdom and repressed sexuality that author Michael Arditti explores with his first novel.

Each chapter of The Celibate opens with a continuing narration by an erudite tour guide to a group of astonished tourists. We then flit from, in the first half of the novel, a discussion of the Whitechapel murders by the figure popularly known as Jack The Ripper, to a second narration, that of a troubled young man who has been ordered to undergo therapy. Slowly it becomes clear that the tour guide and the young man, an ordinand in the Anglo-Catholic Church, are one and the same. The therapy sessions are entirely one-sided, with the trainee priest’s life story unfolding almost unprompted, as to his increasing frustration, the therapist never speaks.

He describes how his calling was quite a unique one. As the son of an English Jew it seemed odd to many that he would choose to become a priest, but he feels compelled to study the Catholic faith and make it his own. At the seminary he befriends – and from the beginning we are given to understand was betrayed by – another student named Jonathan, who is fiercely passionate and politically active. The narrator at one point mentions that his one-time friend expounded from the pulpit that the Church’s ban of homosexuality is actually a distraction from the breaking of the more serious taboo of incest in the Bible by figures such as Noah and Lot.

The sudden seizure upon the altar which leads to the narrator’s suspension from his studies results in him working alongside more secular charities for a time. While there he discovers something of his old missionary zeal in trying to help London rent boys. He compares himself to William Gladstone, which in turn reflects the narration by his future self of the attitude towards prostitutes held by the Victorian era. Slowly his religious resolve begins to weaken and he discovers that he has been hiding his true nature from himself, something that the rent boys and pimps he meets are quick to guess at. Can someone believe in a Christian god represented on this Earth by a homophobic church and be gay at the same time?

This book is divided into two sections, each bookended with a different opening tour by our nameless guide. The first compares the hypocrisy of the Victorian era with its condemnation of ‘fallen women’, (allowing for a double-victimisation at the hands of the Whitechapel murderer), to the rampant homophobia of the Church and its refusal of mercy to homosexuals. The second examines the parallels between the plague of 1665 and the present-day AIDS epidemic, with bigotry and intolerance increasing the risk to sufferers of both.

As Arditti has chosen the device of having this character engage in ongoing monologues, via his tour guide patter and therapist confessional, we are privy only to his thoughts throughout. Scholarly discussions of the history of Christianity meet a reserved naivety of a man hiding from himself. As such the reader comes to know this nameless protagonist better than he knows himself – and by extension, we come to understand the dilemma of many priests who are called to betray themselves.

This is a stunning, yet disturbing debut novel. Sex and spirituality are twinned, the bigotry of the Thatcherite era equated with Victorian hypocrisy. A powerfully moving book.

Books always tell me to find “solitude,” but I’ve Googled their authors, and they all have spouses and kids and grandkids, as well as fraternity and sorority memberships. The universally patronizing message of the authors is “Okay, I got lucky and found someone to be with, but if I’d hung in there just a wee bit longer, I’d have achieved the blissful solitude you find me writing about in this book.”

Ever since Liz Dunn was a child she knew she was the loneliest girl in the world. Having grown into a 42 year old office worker, she has found herself stuck in the role of a spinster, harangued by her disappointed mother and pitied by her older and more successful siblings. Liz has taken to writing a record of her life after seeing a meteor shower while standing in the carpark of a video store. We learn about her childhood discovery of a dead body, a fateful encounter in Rome when she was on a school trip aged sixteen and the arrival of a handsome and  bewitching young man named Jeremy seven years ago – her twenty year old son.

Liz gave her baby up for adoption when he was born. The first she hears of him is when she is a late night phone call from hospital admissions saying she is listed as his emergency contact. Jeremy is recovering from a drug overdose and Liz agrees to take him in. In a single evening she has become a mother to a child she never thought she would see again. Jeremy is a charismatic, funny young man, who has his own little eccentricities. Including convincing Liz to crawl along a freeway in the middle of the afternoon. Having been bounced around adoption services his whole life, she discovers her son is a capable and independent young man, with a wicked sense of humour. They both get along incredibly well and Liz for the first time in her life no longer feels lonely. She refuses to reveal who Jeremy’s father is though and through her journal we learn more about the circumstances of her son’s conception during the school trip to Rome. Unfortunately having spent her life alone obsessed with death, Liz’s happiness is tragically cut short.

All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?

Coupland writes stories about real people who endure lives of fantastical extremes. All Families Are Psychotic begins as a story about a mother and son who have contracted HIV, yet evolves into a gentle comedy about dysfunction, with a miraculous third act. This book continues Coupland’s themes of feuding families, mortality, owing to his own childhood as an army brat whose parents came strong religious backgrounds. His writing contains a lot of dry wit and low-key eccentrics lost in life’s twists and turns. This is tragedy on novacane, a numbed, weary response to the pain of loss, that gives way to a bleary kind of hope.

Each of Coupland’s novels are self-contained meditations on life and death, a formula he has perfected since his trope defining debut Generation X (despite his objections to being seen as a kind of spokesperson for shiftless slackers and baby boomer offspring).

Oh and the title? It’s Liz’s email address.

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