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Human stories of criminal monsters


Man in prison leans on bars looking despondentFor 11 years I worked as a chaplain in a maximum security prison at Melbourne's Metropolitan Remand Centre. In that setting I would at times meet inmates who were accused of serious crimes that had shocked the community.

In a number of cases I would end up reading about the crime in the newspaper or seeing it presented on the TV news long after I had met the accused person. Invariably the person presented in the media was barely recognisable to the one that I had encountered — often being portrayed as a dangerous and irredeemable monster. And yet that would not be anything like my experience of the person I met.

Portraying a criminal as a monster makes it possible to disregard our shared humanity. It distances us from the person who has done wrong and refuses to recognise that we have more in common with them as fellow humans than we would like to imagine.

In coming to know a little about those who stood accused I came to see that they too had a story. More often than not that story included enormous deprivation, grief and sadness. They had relationships that they cherished, and I never met anyone who in their heart did not want their circumstances to be better. They wanted 'the good' but had done wrong. Certainly their wrongdoing has to be addressed, but as the famous old Pentridge chaplain Fr Brosnan used to say of his charges, they had been sinned against infinitely more than they had sinned.

For many of those who I met in prisons I could truly say that 'There but for the grace of God go I'.

Once we have labelled someone, we lose the opportunity to hear their story. If we call a person escaping oppression and seeking asylum a queue jumper or an illegal or dismiss them as 'just' an economic refugee, it becomes easier to overlook their desperate human plight. Those who are unable to sustain decent employment can equally be labelled bludgers; those who are mentally ill or homeless might be dismissed as no-hopers; those suffering from addictions as junkies.

Each of these labels that our society so readily applies does two things. First, they fail to acknowledge the enormous disparity between the relative privilege of those standing in judgement and the deprivation of those who suffer. Secondly, they dismiss the lived human experience of the 'other', making it possible for us to fail to appreciate what 'of us' is 'in them'. Labels allow us to distance the 'other' and to escape the obligations that arise out of a sense of solidarity and shared humanity. And so it is easy to become indifferent to suffering.

In July, Pope Francis visited recently arrived refugees on the island of Lampedusa. He blasted the rich world for its lack of concern for their suffering and denounced a 'globalisation of indifference'. 'We have become used to the suffering of others,' he said. 'It doesn't affect us. It doesn't interest us. It's not our business.'

If we allow comfort and privilege to blind us to the suffering of our brothers and sisters; if we allow our society to label those who are lost and on the margins of our world, thus rendering them invisible, then we are all diminished. We begin to create our own world that is exclusive, lacking in compassion, intolerant, judgemental and unable to embrace diversity.

Joe Caddy headshotFr Joe Caddy is CEO of CatholicCare, Melbourne.

Man despondent in prison image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Joe Caddy, prisoners, criminals



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Existing comments

Thank you Joe for compassionate article. c.f. Pope Francis' words to 200 Italian prison chaplains Oct 23: http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-unfair-big-fish-escape-punishment

John Wotherspoon | 24 October 2013  

If only the truth, understanding and humanity expressed so beautifully in Joe Caddy's words, could be more widespread in Christian circles and beyond. Thanks and Prayer, Pauline K

Pauline Kennedy | 25 October 2013  

Fr Joe & Pope Francis both touch me, prod me to think (& do) more for our brothers and sisters on the fringes. You make me think, how can I do something? My father always taught us boys never to belittle anyone else - but rather to say "there, but for the grace of God, go I". Lately the political treatment of refugees in Australia makes me ashamed of being Australian and I feel so helpless. The taint of racism in Australian politicians reeks in their decision making process.

Murray J Greene | 25 October 2013  

Beautifully, succinctly expressed. And a great companion piece to Ellena Savage's tourism article. The "other" is everywhere, but seeing ourselves in the other...there's the challenge. Thanks.

Ailsa | 25 October 2013  

Do the readers of, say, The Herald-Sun actually approve of that paper's constant use of shock-labels like "monster", "fiend" and "hoon"? The letter pages seem to reflect this style, usually adding "low-life" and more. Presumably the editor assumes that his readers, on the whole, would not agree with Fr Joe Caddy's very humane article.

Barry Breen | 25 October 2013  

Thank you Joe

John Francis Collins | 25 October 2013  

Fr Joe's main point seems so obviously true - yet lots of people go on referring to monsters and illegals. Tom Keneally was on TV last night making a similar point - that we dehumanize people by using such labels, and dehumanize ourselves in the process.

Rodney Wetherell | 25 October 2013  

Thank you for this powerful article Joe. I could not agree more. I visit a man on Death Row in the US and have friends who came to Australia as assylum seekers by boat. The way we treat these people is shameful and an indictment of the absurdly superior we take when we pass judgement on others.

Chris Cull | 25 October 2013  

There is clearly a Christian sentiment expressed in this article, a sentiment which our society would do well to adopt with a view to its betterment. However, there is good and bad than can be assigned to all things in the human diaspora - and that might also be true of "labelling". Some labelling may be bad and some good, not necessarily always bad. Should we, for instance stop referring to those who sexually abuse children as 'paedophiles', 'pederasts', 'childmolestors" or, indeed, 'monsters'? Even some 'good' labels some might find offensive. I have a good friend, for instance, who is a very humane and generous person and a dedicated atheist, who genuinely hates being referred to as a "saint".

john frawley | 25 October 2013  

Fr Joe, thank you for providing such an inspirational reflection on the situation of many in our society.

Andrew Teece | 25 October 2013  

As a Community worker with Homeless clients, I too have had the priviledge of seeing past the crime to the person underneath. Thanks Joe for your article.

Toni La Brooy | 25 October 2013  

Thanks Joe. The impact of labelling is very true and sad. What can we do to reduce this? Would advocacy for restorative justice or better in house and post release support help in our Victorian system with the highest incarceration rates in Australia. Like Helder Camara says, it runs the risk of being labelled a "Communist" to advocate for improvements to the system? What can we do?

Brian F Kennedy | 25 October 2013  

Thank you Joe for your inspired article highlighting how ready we are to dehumanise in the pretext of showing our abhorrence of another's behaviour. We dehumanise to permit our rejection of the perpetrator, even to the extent of killing them during the conduct of a war. Yet, we find it is really a pretext to hide our own inadequacies and fail to see that whatever we do, or fail to do, to the other rebounds on our self, because the other and I are one. We react too readily to the dictates of media and political propaganda who hone into our proclivity to scapegoat the other and close our eyes to the invitation to see that whatever we do to the other is done to our God.

Terry Cobby | 25 October 2013  

From another perspective. I gave Viaticum weekly and Last Rites to Australias monster hard man,Chow Hayes[ABC series portrayed him rightly as Australias home-bred ruthless psychopath gangster abhored by Sydney underworld. Ironically he shot dead 11 times my grandmither's cousin Bobby Lee in Sydney Ziegfeld club and got life, In his last weeks then free, I met him accidentally in John Street Lidcombe, in 1992, His biography noted his hatred for religion. I suggested point blank then he return to his Catholic Faith[sans Rogerian client centred metanarratives] Erstwhile hardened razor slasher/stand over man for Tilly Devine's Darlinghurst Brothel mid last century,he still remembered the perfect act of contrition, taught by Marist Brothers Darlinghurst, such much facilitated his cancer ridden contrite last moments and last rites before private judgement. Yes, this physician of souls gave him heavy doses on 'Fires of Hell' at his flat and later nursing home[where disgruntled he threatened to shoot his way out ! ] I emailed to Dr Hare re the efficacy of hell fire in converting the hardened psychopath, despite the psychiatric infallible dogma that psychopaths are incorrigibly impenitent ]. Dr Robert D. Hare, C.M. is international expert in the field of criminal psychology. He developed the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL) and Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R), used to diagnose cases of psychopathy. [He was impressed]

Father John George | 25 October 2013  

Heh Joe - reading u from across the seas! Prisons here v different to Melb but the same beautiful characters! Miss our boys though!

Anne Dixon | 26 October 2013  

Responding to John Frawley - yes, we should stop using hate-filled language re those who abuse children (and others). It's so easy to do, feeds our need to feel self-righteous - but more difficult is to remember that these are broken people too, in need of healing. Justice and mercy must embrace for them, too.

Joan Seymour | 27 October 2013  

Joe thank you for this compassionate page. It helps me to put myself in the shoes of the other. I appreciate your comments.

Marie O'Connor sgs | 29 October 2013  

Well said. After many years working with mainly Polynesian prisoners in NSW, I too saw their human side, regardless of the things they might have done. Many had backgrounds of abuse and violence as well as much unrealised potential. Some of the most intelligent people I have ever met were in these situations where they often craved contact with what they called "normal" people, those free of the controls by which they were governed throughout their sentences. I never judged but did all I could to help them focus on creating and preparing for their futures in freedom.

Benjamin | 09 December 2013  

FATHER JG, psychology does not require "conversion" but therapy and perhaps medication, just as having a virus or infection requires medical treatment. Even depression, anxiety and post traumatic stresses are manifestations of psychopathology - but they are not the cause of these evil monsters. If you want to talk about the need for conversion - we should be talking about "sociopaths" - those who do not possess any form of human empathy. But if you talk to any psychologist, "conversion" for a sociopath would require an agreement to be locked away.

AURELIUS | 12 January 2014  

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