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Go like the CYMFed Flame Congress 2015 page...

This Friday, CYMFed Flame Congress will be exactly ONE YEAR AWAY. It would be great if the page had 1000 likes by then. So... go hit LIKE!!

siLENT from Million Minutes


If you haven't heard about siLENT, the brilliant Lent initiative from Million Minutes, head over the the website and check it out.. Here's the blurb from the site...

Lent arrives and sweets and chocolate are the first things to go. But instead of cutting out sugar, shouldn't we use Lent to find silence? So challenge yourself and your community to cut out the noise in your life this Lent: go without Facebook or stay silent with us.

Getting sponsored this Lent will help us to give a voice to young people for whom silence isn't choice, those overlooked by society and who are cast out of decision making. So get sponsored to give up Facebook or stay silent this Lent and help us to do something amazing for young people.

Thoughts on Lent No. 1 - Avoiding things that are just no good

As we prepare for Lent 2014, a quick series of posts about ways to make the best of this powerful season.

ONE - Avoiding things that are just no good. In my case, engaging with the wrong people on the internet.

Not so long ago, I found myself chatting to a fairly well known Catholic journalist, who came out with a rather sweeping statement: 'everyone who comments on the internet is just nuts,' he said. The journalist was talking specifically about comboxes underneath articles, and while the statement was one which perhaps requires a tiny bit of modification, it was interesting in two important ways: firstly because it's pretty much true (though not for absolutely everybody), and secondly because it's an accurate reflection, true or not, of how these 'combox jockies' are widely seen.

They say everybody has at least one book in them, and someday, when I've got some time to spare, I'd love to sit down and write a book about the Catholic internet, and about how it has evolved since we first noticed it in the mid 1990s. The rise and fall of the blogs and the stupidly large amount of attention they were given in their heyday by the hierarchy; the wildly inept attitudes to websites and social media; the twitter bullies and those who responded to them; and the crazy decisions by some reputable websites to allow free comments beneath their articles, thus turning them from serious and thoughtful pieces into the cyber equivalent of a kiddies sand-pit! Having worked for the Church for the last 15 years, and having worked professionally in web design, it's a book I'd really love to write. Sadly though, I probably never will. Not least because it would make the Catholic community look utterly ridiculous.

We all have 'occasions of sin' in our lives. Things which aren't actually sins in themselves, but which we go into knowing full well that they will quite probably tempt us into crossing that line. For me, one of the big ones is getting involved in Twitter arguments and website comboxes. It's always the same. It starts out as a simple comment. Perhaps to make a joke, or correct a simple error. Or maybe to contribute something I genuinely think might be useful. Sadly, it often ends the same way too: It's 11pm, I should be in bed, and I'm getting seriously stressed out trying to convince some random guy of something he's simply never going to budge on.

And it's not that some people's opinions don't matter (although, let's just say, when your time is scarce, you sometimes have to make sensible decisions about how you use it). Rather, t's a case that some people simply don't really have a mature sense of what it means to debate and discuss. They are engaging in their particular chosen battleground, not as a way of enriching themselves or others, but as a way of settling grievances from the past.

There are just way too many people getting into spats online who are doing so for the poorest motives and, if we're honest, because their own behaviour and decisions has meant that nobody will engage with them in the real world. Each time I have got wound up; each time I have got them wound up; each time I have failed to make a difference. Indeed, I've made things worse. I've made angry people more angry, and pushed people who are far from the Gospel even further away.

As Christians, I am convinced that we need to find better ways to handle these people. The fact that they're turning to Twitter and the like is a symptom of the fact that they feel isolated and alienated. The Gospel, most likely, has never been explained to them in a way that makes sense, and so all that's left is the battlefield. A battlefield which offers so much in terms of vitriol and catharsis, but so little in terms of actual spiritual and personal growth. 

They need our prayers. They will have mine during Lent and, if you can spare a few, perhaps yours too?

My issue is that I want to be a force for good. I want to being the love of Christ to people. I don't want to join that battlefield and become part of the vitriol. It harms my soul and does nothing for theirs.

Many times in my life, I have promised myself that I am going to reconsider how I approach discussions online. This Lent, I feel, is the time to make a serious and positive change. It's the right time to set some rules and stick to them. And so, my rules are these:

From now on, I am not going to read comments beneath articles, and I am certainly not going to add to them. I will read the article and hope to gain something from what the author has to say, and leave it at that. The comments beneath rarely add anything useful. That's why we turned them off on a few months back, and that's why I wish many other sites would do the same. I often read the Catholic Herald, for instance. It's a great paper, both in print and on the web, but I strongly feel that their decision to allow open comments on their online articles has shot them in the foot. It adds nothing growthful, it probably costs them a lot of time and hassle to moderate, and it creates the impression that the Herald is largely read by nutters.

From now on, I'm also going to stay away from discussions on Twitter, except in certain circumstances. If somebody asks a question I can reasonably and helpfully answer, I will do so. That is, if I see it and if I have the time. If a friend who I know in real life wants to have a chat, I'll happily do that, but I won't use it as a way of building relationships which I don't have in the real world. Using the web in that way isn't really healthy. In addition, if somebody comes at me looking for a fight I will use the good ol' block button and leave it at that. The block button on Twitter, by the way, is a marvellous thing. It takes a problem and makes it utterly disappear. Sometimes I really wish the real world had a block button, but anyway...

So, what's all this got to do with Lent?

I always tell the young people I work with that Lent is a time to look at our lives and make positive changes. Part of that is looking at the things we do and asking ourselves if there is anything we're doing that's frankly just no good. If so, we ask ourselves how we can make a positive change. 

I know in my life I need to stop engaging with certain people and situations. But I know that will never happen if I read comments on websites and respond to nasty tweets. I need to discipline myself. Not just to stop the sin, but to avoid the occasion of Sin too. I need to stop reading comments. I need to stop having protracted discussions on twitter with people I don't know. I need to block people as soon as they offer something nasty.

I really think that if I can do that, I can free up my time, I can make myself happier, and I can stop contributing to the self-destructive behaviour of people who need the sort of help that I really can't give them by tapping keys from a hundred miles away.

Maybe you have something in your life that's just no good. Something that's getting in the way of your spiritual life, your work, your relationships? If so, grasp the nettle this Lent. Make that change that you've been thinking about for a while.


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Want to be happy? Be grateful

A brilliant TED talk by David Steindl-Rast, the Austrian Benedictine.

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Yes, we are allowed to give a balancing view where the abuse scandals are concerned. In fact, justice demands it...

In the wake of the UN's rather sloppy report last week, I let myself get in to an equally sloppy spat on Twitter. It was the usual sort of set up: A person angry with the Church's teaching (in this case, because of his sexuality) versus a Catholic (in this case, me) foolishly thinking that he could evangelise, or at least make a few points hit home.

I came away having completely failed to make a mark on the person I was conversing with. If the interaction were scored as a simple debate, then I would have won it hands down. I wiped the floor with the guy on every single question, but then, that's not really the point. Another angry person made even more angry is seldom productive. As my Christian Union friends used to say 'Win the person, not the argument.'

A twitter spat isn't really worthy of an article. There are way too many of them out there, which is why I usually just block anybody who gets nasty. This was a rare moment of indiscipline. What was noteworthy though, was the specific way in which this guy was debating and one specific point he kept coming back to.

I was trying to make the point I often make. The point that, while the abuse scandals were unquestionably bad, they have also been blown out of all proportion by the media. I backed this up with some well sourced facts and stats, like the fact that only 0.7 percent of priests worldwide have ever been accused of anything, and the fact that the Church now has pretty much the best safeguarding procedures you'll find anywhere.

Normally when you chuck verifiable facts at people you get one of two responses. The clever debater will quickly change the argument (that may be true, but it doesn't change the fact that…). The stupid - or very tenacious - debater will challenge the facts until you're blue in the face, challenging your data and cited sources, or just chucking back lies. In reality, the 0.7 percent thing is pretty well accepted these days and so the vast majority will try to change tack. Usually to something about hypocrisy. It's a pretty lame tactic, but there it is.

What was weird about this guy though is that he chose a different tactic. An altogether far more odd and nasty one. He simply responded to every fact I cited by claiming that I was trying to deny or cover up abuse. Apparently, the fact that I quoted the 0.7 percent meant that I 'defended child rape.'

Yes, really.

The whole thing was rather odd. Like one of those dreams you have where you're lost and asking for directions and keep being told that you can't have the directions because you haven't done the laundry, or because your giraffe is wearing odd coloured sox. When you look back on it later, you laugh at the sheer lunacy of what a semi-conscious state can whip up!

In the same way, it was easy to look back on the whole encounter as a rather odd spat with a guy who clearly has a lot of anger or perhaps who just doesn't get the whole idea of debating, but the approach he took was one I found rather unsettling.

The guy I was sparring with isn't likely to convince many people. He has far too many chips on his shoulders for that. What worries me more is that his basic premise - the idea that offering a balancing view is basically a cover-up - is one which we also hear coming from altogether far more sound voices.

A few years back a Catholic organisation I was doing some work for asked me to put together a briefing document about the abuse scandals. After saying how awful it was and how sorry the Church was (something which is never just a box to tick) I gave some balancing views, making the point that priests are actually less likely to abuse children than men at large. I submitted my draft to my contact in the organisation and was told immediately to take that stuff out, referring of course to those balancing views. We need to appear contrite, I was told. This is no time for apologetics.

I disagreed vehemently. Why take a stand that involves fighting for innocent victims, while at the same time selling out another load of innocent victims - in this case, innocent clergy? We don't offer those balancing views to lessen our own guilt. We offer those balancing views because to tackle a scandal by creating more innocent victims is about as far from true justice as you can possibly get.

Where the abuse scandals are concerned, there are actually three scandals in one. All three have harmed the innocent, all three were denied when convenience demanded it, and, if we are to maintain any semblance of a Christian and just response to all this, all three should be brought to light and learned from: The first scandal was the abuse itself. The second was the cover up. The third was the way in which the first two were reported, allowing the world to believe that abuse was much more widespread and endemic than it ever was.

And, let us repeat those balancing facts just to be thorough. Or, at least a few. The 0.7 percent stat is well known. In the UK it's even lower at 0.4 percent. In the US, it's massively higher at 4 percent, but even that is lower than the male population at large, given that between 5 and 10 percent of men can expect to be accused of some form of sexual offence at some point during their lives.

In 2010 there were 63,527 credible reports of sexual abuse against children. Of those, 8 involved Catholic priests, and that's about average for the last few decades. Between the 1960s and 1980s it was, as you might expect, many times higher, but even then it never made Catholic priests more likely to abuse than men at large.

Since the 1980s insurance companies have offered sexual misconduct coverage to individuals and organisations. Insurance companies are meticulous about analysing their data, and are cold and mechanical about applying it to their premiums. They have no interest in slanting stories. Nevertheless, they don't charge Catholic organisations any more for sexual misconduct policies than any other organisation. A fact which, like so many, tells its own story.

To round off this balancing data, let me quote a few people. Firstly, Ernie Allen, the president of the (US) National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, somebody who isn't Catholic and has no particular interest in defending the Church:

"Based on the surveys and studies conducted by different denominations over the past 30 years, experts who study child abuse say they see little reason to conclude that sexual abuse is mostly a Catholic issue. We don't see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else."

Next, Dr. Philip Jenkins, a Professor of Historical Studies of Religion. Another big hitter, who also isn't a Catholic. His research is quite telling:

"If anyone believes that priests offend at a higher rate than teachers or non-celibate clergy, then they should produce the evidence on which they are basing that conclusion. I know of none. Saying 'everybody knows' does not constitute scientific methodology"

And, in another place:

"My research of cases over the past 20 years indicates no evidence whatever that Catholic or other celibate clergy are any more likely to be involved in misconduct or abuse than clergy of any other denomination—or indeed, than non-clergy. However determined news media may be to see this affair as a crisis of celibacy, the charge is just unsupported."

To the testimony of experts I would add my own. I have been a professional youth minister for fifteen years. I have worked in five dioceses and two countries full-time, and had limited experience working in many more besides. In that time I have known literally hundreds of priests, and have only ever known one who has been accused of a crime. Just one. In fifteen years. What does that say about a Church that is supposedly riddled with abusers?

The evidence that sexual abuse isn't a Catholic problem is pretty vast. No sensible voice really challenges it these days. Any vestige of overt challenge that remained died when the whole Jimmy Savile thing blew up. But nevertheless, the assumption and underlying feeling still persists, as does the idea that by offering this balancing view, we are perpetuating a cover-up, or at the very least, a lack of remorse.

But yet I keep saying that sexual abuse was never just a Catholic problem. I keep saying that priests are no more likely to abuse than men at large and I will keep on doing so until everybody gets it, and here's why.

I am not saying it to lessen the guilt for the genuine crimes which took place. I am saying it for precisely the reason that I would also fight for the victims of abuse: because I have a duty as a Christian to protect the innocent. Because if I stand by and allow a myth about priests to persist because it is inconvenient or unpopular to fight it, I am no better than the people who, for the same reasons, refused to tackle sexual abuse.

Sadly though, the chorus of voices telling us to shut up and just appear contrite are also vast. Some are coming from inside the Church, acting from a mistaken notion of contrition. Others, from outside the Church, acting from a mistaken notion that if they can make believe that the Church is evil to its core then they can mitigate their own guilt for whatever Church teaching they're currently breaking. In both cases, the balancing views are an inconvenience that need to be silenced.

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The Seven Sacraments

Interesting video about the Sacraments. Might be useful...

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Movies: Noah

One thing we love in youth ministry is cool Hollywood adaptations of biblical stuff. Whether it's the Prince of Egypt or the Passion of the Christ, these movies are destined to be loved, and used, by youth ministers and RE teachers until the cows come home.

In a few months (March 28th to be precise. The same day as Captain America 2) Noah will hit the Big Screen in the UK. An adaptation of the biblical classic staring Russell Crowe and Ray Winston.

If you don't understand what's so cool about that, then frankly I can't help you!! Here's a trailer...

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This is a fantastic opportunity, which a lot of young people take up each year. More info here.

David Mitchell on Atheism

I like this. A fascinating perspective...

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A history of abuse that society is only just waking up to

On one particular day last week, the papers noticed that three separate celebrities were in court facing charges of historic sexual abuse. They failed to spot that Freedie Starr was also arrested on the same day, bringing the number of up-to-their-neck-in-it stars of yesteryear to four.

Hot on the heals of that is a leaked report carried by today's Observer newspaper which hammers yet more nails into the BBC's coffin over the Savile affair. Revelations include the fact that Savile may have abused over a thousand people on BBC premises and that "everyone" knew all about Savile and Stuart Hall, even to the point of knowing where their crimes were taking place.

Do me a favour. Before you read any further, go back and read that sentence again. The one that starts with Revelations... I can't do justice to how much of a big deal it is by just pressing keys. It needs to be allowed to sink in.

I've written about the BBC before, and I've also done a fair amount of soul searching about the need to avoid taking pleasure in giving the BBC a kicking just for a bit of payback. That really is a temptation I need to avoid. Nevertheless, I think a few fact-based points in response to this week's news are appropriate and helpful:

ONE - We know for sure now that abuse of children was never just a Catholic problem. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that it was even a comparatively large problem in the Catholic Church. The BBC and the US state school system, to name but two examples, have had proportionally far, far worse problems. Don't be confused by the fact that those problems received far less airtime in the media.

TWO - The Catholic Church was pretty much the first organisation to get its house in order. And before you say they only did that in response to media reporting, consider that the Nolan Report in the UK was done and dusted well before the 2002 scandals hit. Consider too, that the scandals that appeared in the press appeared largely because of Catholics bringing them to light.

THREE - Remember, Catholic priests are statistically less likely to perpetrate abuse than men at large. Worldwide, 0.7% of priests have been accused of these kind of crimes. In the USA it's much higher at 4%. But even that is comparatively low, given that between 5% and 10% of men will, at some point in their lives, be accused of a sexual offence. And, by the by, I'm willing to bet that the rate of high-profile BBC celebs of the last generation accused of this sort of crime is much, much higher.

FOUR - We now know without doubt that the BBC was aware of the abuse going on and did nothing to respond to it. Report shows that BBC bosses were aware of the behaviour of Savile, Hall and others and allowed it to go unchecked. The Catholic Church was criticised for handling allegations by moving priests from one Parish to another. This of course was a poor response, but in moving the priests they at least were trying to do something, albeit completely inadequate. The BBC, on the other hand, just allowed it to go on completely unchecked in a very ho-hum kind of a way.

FIVE - The BBC's hypocrisy is still going on. A few months ago, there was a revelation about some abuse from the 1970s at a Benedictine school in Scotland. Newsworthy, perhaps, but in a completely unproportional and biased way, this story - historical abuse on a small scale in a remote area 40 years ago - led the BBC News website for the vast majority of the day. Let's be utterly clear, we now know for sure that the scale of the abuse was worse at the BBC compared with the Catholic Church. We also know that the response it was given was far worse. I promise you, I am genuinely trying not to give the BBC a kicking here, but I really feel that this level of hypocrisy needs to be brought to light. Abuse was going on at the BBC when they were criticising the Church for abuse. Covering up of abuse was going on at the BBC when they were criticising the Church for covering up abuse. Hypocrisy over abuse was going on at the BBC when they were criticising the Church for hypocrisy. And this, by the way, is why I no longer pay the license fee - but more on that in a few days!

SIX - It is shocking that the abuse was so widespread in the past, but good in a way that we are so shocked. It proves how far we've come. It proves how much more respect we have for children and young people these days, it proves how seriously we take their safeguarding. I really feel that celebrities like Savile, Hall, and all the others whose names will and will not be known, genuinely felt as though what they were doing was a sort of a perk of the job. I doubt they felt it was right, but I'm sure they're shocked to realise just how big a deal it really was. This isn't to defend their actions at all. Their actions were unquestionably wrong, and they surely knew that. But society didn't understand the effects of sexual abuse in the past, and it didn't respect young people. Both things have changed, and we should all be thankful for that.

SEVEN - There is no doubt whatsoever that the reporting on the Catholic Church has been completely biased. Some outlets don't even attempt to hide it anymore. There is an excellent site called The Media Report who do some amazing work cataloguing the bias in the media.Check it out.

Editors Note (February 14th): Since this article was written, two of the celebrities pictured above have been cleared. This is also an interesting parallel with abuse in the Church: So many historical allegations, but very few convictions. We live in a society which says that you are innocent until a jury of your peers says otherwise, and so we must assume that those who aren't convicted are innocent. At least in cases where they are still alive to be tried. I do believe that the general thrust of the piece remains in tact however. There unquestionably is 'a history of abuse that society is only just waking up to' and the seven points I make above still hold water. Especially since the three guys pictured above aren't actually mentioned in the article after the first paragraph. Rather, the focus was on Savile and Hall who were both unquestionably guilty. 

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What it means to be an altar server

Found this on Vimeo a while back. Thought it might make for an interesting something or other...

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Celebrate Conference - Joel's Bar April 2014

This year there isn't a main Celebrate Conference down in Ilfracombe as the Easter holidays do not match up with the school that is used as the venue. Instead there is going to be a dedicated young adult conference - Joel's Bar 2014 - for 18-25 year olds held at Worth Abbey, West Sussex.

If you know of anyone that might be interested, please pass on the details or maybe you could look at organising a group from your Church, Unversity or Youth Project.
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