Does the evil of bad men nullify all the good?

I listened to The Moral Maze on Radio Four yesterday evening by candlelight, as we had a power cut in our village. Given that the subject was the late Sir Jimmy Savile and the debate concerned the question of demonising him and conducting a witch-hunt after his death, I felt the atmosphere was appropriately charged by my “bell, book and flickering candle” scenario. What came up time and time again in the debate was the nature of the “blood money” involved, in other words the millions Savile had raised for charity and the problems caused for his charities now that his name and reputation have been permanently tarnished.

Journalist Melanie Phillips, whom I often agree with, although not on this occasion, seemed hell-bent on a one-woman crusade against the evils of modern society; her voice quivering with indignation, she appeared fixated by Savile’s alleged crimes and the abhorrence we should all feel about them. She gave the impression that even to engage in a calm and rational discussion about his behaviour was itself a betrayal of Savile’s victims. Being “calm” is, of course, not Melanie Phillips’ strongest suit; sometimes her righteous anger serves her well – but not in this case. It simply reflected the hysteria that the media has been engaged in for the past few weeks, ever since the first allegations of Savile’s proclivities were aired in the press.

Claire Fox, the other woman panellist (whom I often disagree with) who is director of the Institute of Ideas, came across as the moderate voice. She appealed for a sense of proportion. She wisely pointed out that we cannot know all the complex motivations behind a person’s behaviour (a point also made by William Oddie in his latest blog on this subject) and that Savile was not “uniquely evil”. Michael Buerk, chairman of the discussion, mentioned Eric Gill, who sculpted the beautiful Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral, yet who was also later discovered to have committed incest regularly with his daughters. For Fox this only illustrated how complicated people are. She also rejected Phillips’ belief that the money Savile raised for charity was permanently tainted by association with him; “Philanthropists have done weird things” she commented.

One of the witnesses summoned by the programme supported Fox’s attitude. She had been sexually abused by her step-father, a music teacher, yet he had also provided for her welfare and a stable life when she was growing up. Therefore, she felt, to throw around words like “monster” or “evil” did not help victims of incest, where motivations, behaviour and responses are generally very confused. Life is not black or white.

Naturally, none of the panel made the theological point: that good can come from evil. Yet this is intrinsic to Christianity, almost its foundation stone. As I listened to the reasonable voice of Fox or the angry voice of Phillips, I thought of the brave and life-affirming testimonies of women born of rape or women who have conceived through rape. This is a category which is always exempted when the debate arises about lowering the gestational age for abortion – because, it is reasoned, rape is so evil that a mother cannot possibly wish to give birth as a result of it.

But this is not true. LifeSiteNews includes an item for the 9th October by a woman “who has made it her life’s mission to reach out to women victimised by rape and to protect unborn babies conceived by rape and incest from the injustice of abortion.” Juda Myers was conceived after her mother, walking home one night, was attacked by eight young men. Her mother has subsequently forgiven her attackers and Myers wants “other people to know the joy I have in living.” This, of course, does not lessen the horror of rape or pretend that forgiveness is easy. Not everyone can do it. Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, who subsequently spent his life tracking down ex-Nazis in order to bring them to justice, could not forgive them for what they had done to his people. In the case of Savile, Melanie Phillips, who hails from a Jewish background, appears to share some of Wiesenthal’s implacability. But this is not the Christian way. I live near Stoke Mandeville Hospital, one of the institutions closely associated with the late disc jockey. The spinal unit there, built largely through Savile’s fund-raising, has done immense and lasting good to spinal patients. Is this now to be discounted because of the unit’s close association with him?

I agree with Claire Fox. We need a sense of proportion. But more than this, we almost need a “ritual of exorcism” in this affair – something the Church well understands – to cleanse the tainted millions, to bring healing to Savile’s victims and to expiate the past. Otherwise what are we left with? Bitterness, recriminations, a continual orgy of press revelations and the unproductive anger of a Melanie Phillips.