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Who can you trust?

Worried about whether your priest is a pervert or your doctor's a dirty old man? Welcome to the world of 'stranger danger', says Frank Furedi

We all know that you cannot trust politicians and second hand car dealers. But what happens when you cannot have faith in your doctor, teacher or even your priest or psychotherapist?

Today we live in an era of institutionalised mistrust. Not a day goes by without another sordid tale of some professional abusing the trust that has been placed in him or her.

One day we hear stories about Catholic priests exposed for abusing young children. The next day reports filter through about a doctor accused of harassing patients in his surgery, or a gynaecologist taking liberties in the examination room. Attention then shifts to the case of a university professor charged with indecently assaulting two of his female students, while an army sergeant is accused of bullying young recruits in his charge.

And if you are traumatised by your experience at the hands of these professionals, it seems you should be careful of seeking professional help for the problem. Not even counsellors can claim to be above suspicion. It was recently reported that unscrupulous employers have used the company's free counselling services to spy on their staff. Meanwhile, the British Psychological Society indicates that there has been a rising tide of sexual abuse claims made against its members.

The theme of abuse has become one of the most distinctive features of contemporary culture. If abusers wearing dog collars are now seen to prey on unsuspecting parishioners, the question that comes to mind is 'who can you trust?'.

The expectation of abuse now informs many kinds of human relationship. Consequently, people tend to regard others with the kind of suspicion that would have been rare not so very long ago. Parents wonder whether the nursery workers looking after their children can be trusted. In schools, children with bruises are apt to arouse the suspicion of teachers about what their parents have been doing. For their part, parents wonder whether the cuddling of their children by teachers is entirely innocent. Such mistrust also extends to relatives and neighbours.

Mistrust has transformed our world, into a world of strangers. And strangers have become equated with danger. In a world of 'stranger-danger', children as young as three and four, who have been 'sensitised' to be 'aware', are growing up with the principle of mistrust deeply embedded in their imagination. No wonder that, in the run-up to Christmas 1997, the shopping mall Santas reported that many toddlers were terrified when told to sit on a strange man's knee and accept a gift in the grotto.

This climate of suspicion has created a culture where Neighbourhood Watch literally means watching your neighbours. Professionals have been in the forefront of advocating new methods of surveillance. Last summer, a top forensic dentist urged members of the British Dental Association to look for signs of abuse while examining the mouths of young patients. Hospital security has emerged as a central issue for health professionals. Such concern extends from protecting new-born babies from potential kidnappers, to keeping an electronic eye out for hospital staff deliberately hurting their patients or parents deliberately hurting their children in hospital.

At a recent meeting of the British Psychological Society, one clinical psychologist proposed that consultations with therapists should be taped to protect the safety of the patients. 'There is no logical reason why patients should not have the right to hold their own video or audio tape cassette to take to and from therapy sessions', argued David Pilgrim.

Institutions and professional associations have responded to the erosion of their moral authority by enacting new codes of conduct for their members. The military, the medical and legal professions, higher education, parliament, the church, even the scouting movement have all been forced to take steps to regulate and police the conduct of their members.

The main aim of the new codes of practice is to maintain or restore trust in the institutions concerned. Documents published recently by the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches all express anxiety about the effect of negative publicity on the loyalty of their members. 'Healing the Wound of Child Sexual Abuse: A Church Response', published by the Catholic Church, warns that unless decisive action is taken 'members will cease to attend any services, others may move away'. The same point is echoed by the Methodist Church in its 'Report on Sexual Harassment and Abuse', which concludes that firm steps should be taken to prevent the loss of 'credibility and authority in the eyes of the world'. Otherwise the church 'may also begin to lose members'.

The new codes of conduct drawn up by the churches seek to establish and formalise boundaries between what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. They warn priests and vicars against over-involvement, physical contact and displays of affection. Their focus is on situations to be avoided. Visiting somebody alone at home late at night is discouraged. Ministers are advised to pay attention to the 'atmosphere of the place of meeting'.

These codes of conduct parallel the approach now routinely adopted by other professions, perhaps most strikingly in the university sector. Some university lecturers and doctors now keep their door open during one to one consultations. Others regularly keep written records of such encounters to protect themselves from any future complaints.

It could be argued that the practices institutionalised by new codes of conduct are sensible and long overdue. But whatever the merits or otherwise of such precautions, they are unlikely to restore trust. Indeed so far as the spread of mistrust in our society is concerned, they are more likely to make matters worse. People who enter pastoral or professional relationships with a presentiment of mistrust, expecting to be abused in some way or another, are more likely to have their worst suspicions confirmed.

The explosion of harassment and abuse litigation in the USA indicates that the attempt to codify appropriate forms of human behaviour actually feeds mistrust. Something changes when mistrust becomes institutionalised. Take the example of the Church of England's 'Code of Ministerial Practice'.

The code provides instructions on the minutiae of correct behaviour. It urges the clergymen not to meet young women late at night, not to drink while working and not to sit too close to parishioners when offering solace or advice. The code warns priests to use 'appropriate bodily posture'. It also offers useful tips on the 'arrangement of lighting and furniture' and about where to sit when visited by a parishioner.

It all sounds very sensitive and ethical. But this code, with its anticipation of clerical misbehaviour, really represents an acknowledgement of moral defeat. By treating vicars as potential abusers in advance, the Church of England has all but acknowledged that it has no claim to unquestioned moral authority, that its ministers cannot be seen as any better than the basest groper. The very meaning of a pastoral relationship becomes redefined when the parishioner's dealings with the priest are regulated through a bureaucratic code based on the supposition of mistrust.

And what happens to the doctor-patient relationship, when the therapeutic session is recorded on camera? An interaction that is monitored involves a range of complex calculations that bear less and less on the problems of the individuals directly involved. A session in the surgery can easily become less about sorting out the patient's health problems and more to do with making sure that the new rules of doctor-patient etiquette are not infringed. It is questionable whether these new arrangements will reduce instances of abuse of power. They will most certainly help to create a climate where creative interaction between the parties will be eliminated by a made-to-order formula.

The attempt to minimise painful experience through a careful regulation of professional practices is having damaging consequences. It means that the expectation that things will turn out for the worse is allowed to set the norm for our daily encounters. The problems such regulations raise may well be worse than those which they were designed to solve.

Human beings need somebody to trust. If not the politicians, then our spiritual leaders. If not the priests then the therapists and counsellors. And if even they are not above suspicion, we are left with the most destructive of conclusions - that we can trust nobody, and consequently we cannot even trust ourselves.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and the author of The Culture of Fear, published by Cassell

Reproduced from LM issue 107, February 1998

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