Category Archives: Religion

Taking stock; guilt; atheism

It’s been a day of processing for us: a dawning realisation of the work we will need to do to reconstruct our life. We still don’t have any idea whether our house, with all our possessions, is still standing, or when we will return; what we can, should be doing – especially with two small kids.

For the moment, however, we are safe and well when so many other families have been destroyed.

Haiti’s tragedy is beyond counting. The United Nations also has suffered another blow comparable – it now appears – to the Baghdad bombing in 2003, although this time due to natural catastrophe rather than human intent. Over coming days the organisation will need to take stock; there will be many important stories to tell about the people who lost their lives in service of a better world. I intend to relate some of them. We have almost certainly lost friends.

On a personal level, it is decidedly surreal to be so connected to, yet so far from, a crisis which has commanded global attention. Miami is just across the water, yet a world away.

We have been inundated with kind comments and offers of help, and – notably – references to miracles, divine providence, prayers. I do not want to jump to any conclusions, but Anna may be one of the last remaining members of the civilian management of the UN peacekeeping mission. Through sheer random chance. Had we been in Haiti, had the quake come next week instead of this, had we not delayed our holiday until after the New Year, she would have been in that building.

I was religious as an adolescent, but later turned to atheism due to my difficulty with belief systems that condemn others who – by accident of birth and geography – do not follow a certain creed. To my developing morality, that was incompatible with our sense of common but diverse humanity.

I also found alternative sources of deep morality in humanist thought, and feel that we can strive to be better people without reference to a divine being. I followed my heart.

But moments like this test atheism to the limit. I have found myself, almost despite myself, whispering a word of thanks. I remember the old religious me; it is down there somewhere. We are hard-wired to see agency, especially in moments of great change, great import; we find it unsettling to see our lives as random events, whatever our rational selves say. Even though I fundamentally see our escape as pure luck, it comes with a niggling sensation. And I do appreciate the prayers, as they are sincerely meant, acts of pure kindness.

The question is what to do with our reprieve. Hopefully something useful.

I also feel a slight sense of guilt.

Not at the fact we were not in Haiti… that was sheer good fortune, and I have no regrets (except a creaky old journalistic pang at missing a major event).

But at the fact that I am considering our own fortunes – the loss of our house, the challenge now facing our potentially homeless young family, our careers – whilst those of others are so much worse. We will be fine. Others will not.

Still, we can’t help it. We all need a sense of where we might be going. That is intrinsically human.

PS This horrifying story about Pat Robertson is a powerful reminder to we humanists why we have chosen the path we have.

On the same issue, someone alerted me to this bizarre claim by some Christians in 1998 that they had actually taken Haiti back from the Devil. Such demented stuff.

It is also disturbing to see David Brooks’ invocation of voodoo as an explanation for why Haiti is “progress resistant”

Aid, priests and sexual misconduct

International assistance and sexual exploitation have, sadly, often gone hand in hand; during the middle part of this decade, I was one of the reporters who covered the story of misconduct by UN peacekeepers in Congo and beyond, while Anna worked on a seminal report on the issue with the charismatic Jordanian UN ambassador Prince Zeid.

At the time, the scandal was used as a stick with which to beat the UN by its detractors in the United States – although that same country subsequently led opposition to UN efforts to create a more effective disciplinary system. The UN has nonetheless, within its limited powers to control the troops of member states, implemented an official ‘no tolerance’ policy, and the rules in Haiti appear quite strict – we quickly learn a long list of no go zones, such as certain bars, where officials may not tread.

But the UN has no monopoly on such practices. Abuses occur wherever powerful people from rich countries find themselves in proximity with the poor, and it comes as no surprise to discover this piece in the  Windsor Star (thanks to Povertynewsblog for finding it).

Youth who claims he was abused by a Canadian aid worker - according to the Windsor Star

“He was 16, and like most Haitian teens, surviving on street smarts. One day, he accepted a job helping a humanitarian aid worker carry supplies to his home.

‘After I finished he asked me to come back for a talk,’ recalled the man, now 23, speaking Creole through an interpreter. The aid worker offered him money for sex, the man alleges, and a relationship began.

‘It was to pay for school for me. That was the main reason. If you do it for me I pay for school.’

Mission sex — it’s Haiti’s dirty little secret.

The western world’s poorest country is, according to one aid worker, a ‘perfect storm’ of socio-economic conditions for abuse by visiting humanitarians. Its tropical temperatures and breathtaking natural beauty are easily, and cheaply, accessible from North America. Heavily dependent on foreign aid and with virtually no regulation of its schools and orphanages, Haiti’s justice system is ill-equipped to deal with a rising tide of sex tourism.”

[UPDATE – The Montreal Gazette has also written on the matter in this piece ‘When evil is cloaked as good

His 12 years of good deeds with impoverished kids prompted Association Grandir, the humanitarian group to which he was aligned, to dub him “a true Father Teresa.”

“You have to see him among the people, eating and sleeping as they do, to understand that a commitment like his is a rare thing,” Grandir said on its website.

Five years later, Father Teresa is a Quebec prison inmate.

Huard, 65, was sentenced to three years for sexually assaulting young Haitian boys while a second Quebecer, Denis Rochefort, 59, received two years.]

Sex tourism appears to have been fairly prevalent in Haiti during the Duvalier era, but took a dip after the Aids epidemic – and subsequent (misguided) claims that Haiti had exported Aids to the US. Most likely, it was the other way round.

These cases remind us it remains a serious issue, and might become more so as Haiti grows a little more stable. Most disturbingly, two priests are separately facing sexual abuse charges:

John Duarte, 43, former leader of the Windsor-based Hearts Together For Haiti, was recently arrested by Dominican authorities on a warrant issued in Canada, on charges of sexually abusing teenage Haitian boys – according to the  Windsor Star. Douglas Perlitz, 39, was indicted in September by a grand jury in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and faces 10 counts related to the sexual abuse of nine boys for about a decade, CNN reported.

Joao Jose Correira Duarte, a former Windsor priest, is now facing extradition to Canada, where he's expected to face 12 charges in the sexual abuse of Haitian youths, age 12 to 17, the Immigration Office and National Drug Control Directorate said in a statement sent to Canwest News Service. Photograph by: Handout, CNS Source Windsor Star

One is left wondering about the religious sector in general.

Despite the Catholic priest scandals of the past decade, I am not aware of any major focus upon missionary work. Haiti is awash with religious groups, largely unregulated and unsupervised.

One suspects the vast majority of such endeavours – as those of UN officials and NGO staff – is extremely well-intentioned. But wherever power is wielded without scrutiny, abuses occur.

With so many missions in Haiti, it might be a valuable endeavour to take a closer look at the spiritual, as well as the profane.