Vigilante Violence and a Faith Community Response
by Hugh Kirkegaard & Wayne Northey
It was my friend Hugh Kirkegaard who inspired this paper; had worked closely in Toronto (as Community Chaplain, Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) – now (2014) Director of Chaplaincy, Atlantic Region, CSC) with Bobby Oatway. He arranged for funding for us to attend the COV&R (Colloquium on Violence and Religion) conference at Emory University, Atlanta in 1999.
It has been translated, published in anthologies, and referenced numerous times since, thanks to the power of René Girard’s insights on scapegoating. The original paper is still on the Emory University COV&R ’99 website here.
Our friend Bobby Oatway has never read the paper since he was never taught properly to read.
In May of 1996, an offender was released from prison to a halfway house in Toronto. The response of the community to his presence in their midst was anger and hostility, and the insistence that corrections officials remove him. This situation, while not unique in the North American context, was particularly noteworthy as it became the subject of a documentary film which chronicled the actual events that took place.
The film, Hunting Bobby Oatway [John Kastner, produced this hour long documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) program Witness. It was first aired in January 1997.], focussed on the controversy around the release of a convicted pedophile and incest perpetrator after serving ten years in prison. The story of his victims and the harm that was done to them and his own story of an abusive childhood are mingled with the hostility of the community and fellow offenders in the halfway house toward him. The calls of local community activists and politicians to move him out of their community are particularly pointed. “Bobby Oatway, you are not wanted here, you are not wanted anywhere”, shouted a local politician, through a bullhorn, to cheering protestors gathered on the street and the frightened offender hiding inside the halfway house. In an ironic twist, the perpetrator had become the victim.
This attempted expulsion, which led ultimately to Bobby Oatway requesting to be returned to the prison he was released from, to serve the remainder of his sentence, is reminiscent of other expulsions and other victims. The broken taboos that sexual offending, particularly those offences against children, represent, create a kind of “holy fear”. But this alone does not explain the visceral and violent response which demonizes individuals like Bobby Oatway, rendering them less than human and the most heinous of offenders. There are other impulses that prompt such responses, that legitimize the violence that is an all too common response to them. Viewed through the lens of mimetic theory these realities beg the question, ‘Is it possible that sex offenders have become scapegoats among us?’
In the case of Bobby Oatway’s offenses, there is no question that harm was done and that the pain and suffering of his victims, presented in the film, and that of other victims of sexual offenses, is real and lamentable. Let us be clear, these things ought not to happen. And further, more than merely recognizing the harm, and dealing with the perpetrator, we must work to find concrete ways to address the needs of victims of sexual offenses for healing and restoration. At the same time, how we view and treat the perpetrators of these crimes in our communities, says something about us and the human condition.
Please click on: The Sex Offender as Scapegoat