Internet pastoral responsibilities of clerics: Nalliah and Trevor
Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-02-12
Clerics justify their privileged position in society because their preachings provide benefits to society, not least because they improve the spiritual and psychological well-being of their
sheepish followers flock.
Through tax rules, if nothing else, society gives credence to such claims, and by implication, expects clerics to live up to them.
But what are the pastoral responsibilities for clerics who interact with their sheep in the electronic age? What competencies should the state require of religions in return for those privileges, and what should be required of clerics, whether ordained or lay?
Let’s look at those responsibilities in the light of Nalliah and Trevor, initially without reference to the recent tragic bushfires.
(I’ll use male pronouns because I’m referring in particular to Danny Nalliah and "Trevor").
When would a reasonable pastor "take aside" a member of the flock when the sheep showed signs of distress, especially if their is a hint that the sheep was dangerous to (him|her)self or others?
- A face-to-face conversation?
- A phone conversation?
- Seeming distressed in the pews?
- An email?
- A comment on the pastor’s blog?
When should "taking aside for a quiet chat" progress to encouragement for the sheep to seek assistance from a professional (including health professionals, other clerics more experienced with the particular issues, lawyers, etc)?
When there is no church rule for a "confessional seal", when should a cleric contact the police?
Danny Nalliah should have been particularly sensitive to the possibility of vilification and incitement of violence via unreasonable listeners because of the court cases involving accusations Nalliah was inciting hatred.
After such a run-in with the law, a reasonable cleric would have taken care to avoid indirect incitement, both in what he said, and by hosing down any hint that someone would engage in religiously-motivation violence… unless the cleric was happy for people to be so incited – explicitly or implicitly.
For the moment, let’s give Nalliah the benefit of the doubt, and assume there was no such intent in the prophecy about the wrath of god descending on Victoria because of freedom-of-choice legislation (2008-11-07).
It is fair to infer that a cleric with innocent intent, and Nalliah’s understanding of incitement laws, would review comments to such a blogpost by readers.
Given this, how would a competent cleric with innocent intent react after reading the 2008-11-11 comment by Trevor quoted below? (Any bolding or emphasis is mine.)
I quote "Whoever causes one of these least little ones of mine to sin it would be better for him if he tied a millstone around his own neck and cast himself into the deepest part of the ocean" Those words scare me and they should you. After all it is also said that "To whom much is given much is expected."
Fire will indeed come but not for the reason you have said. " Since the days of King David the people called by My name have learned nothing. Nothing has changed about the fire of Molech except the shape of the Altar. Still my children are sacrificed to vileness and depredation and no-one cares except about their position in a cauldron destined for the furnace. It is written "My people perish through lack of knowledge. My children perish because their natural fathers have no place. They have abandoned the place I made for them. They follow the way of their fathers always seeking but never perceiving. The heathen know what is wrong we reap what we sow. They have proved My precepts although they know not Who formulated them.
Become a father to the fatherless and a friend to the alien. says the Lord. Yes do this and I will save you. I will save you and not as an urchin from a house fire. When you see the fire I start you will smell your clothes and they will be fresh.
Turn My little ones from their error and their fathers from their sin and you will be a true prophet. You will be one of My elect. Consider these words.
Apart from the incoherent nature of the comment, many of the key phrases written as if they were biblical quotes do not show up in Google searches, as you expect any real quotes would, even if they were of unusual translations, even if any such texts were not canonical but apocryphal.
If Nalliah was a competent cleric, he would have recognized that many key phrases are not found in any scripture, and thus were the invention of Trevor.
I’ve done a quick search for some of the phrases in Trevor’s comments to see if he might be quoting from a text, canonical or canonical.
Bear in mind that Moloch is not merely a god of fire, but is strongly associated with the sacrifice of children by parents, especially by fire.
Note too that Trevor is obviously deeply concerned about spelling pronouns of deities with the initial letter capitalized, but misses out some and that there are many other syntactic errors in the short text. However, we all make typos in blog comments, even if not with Trevor’s frequency, so we cannot read to much into his typos.
Despite the pseudo-scriptural "quotations", which you would expect Nalliah and many of his flock to have recognized as false (given their professed attention to scripture), no-one identifiably sympathetic to Nalliah made a comment about the false scripture from Trevor.
Before going any further, I’d stress that I have no psychological qualifications, although I do have some experience that would give me some lay credibility:
- I did a few years of Medicine about 30 years ago, including not only psychology but a unit or two of clinical psychiatry and pharmacology.
- I developed software used by clinicians to assess not merely psychological profiles suitable for human resources, but providing quantitative assessments of neuroses and the possibility of psychoses
OK, now to some thoughts about how a competent cleric would have reacted to Trevor’s comments:
- Clerics claim to appreciate psychology, and that ability to intervene beneficially.
- Trevor’s statements included many pieces of invented pseudo-scripture.
- The juxtaposition of scriptural and pseudo-scriptural fragments is highly unusual.
- The explicit statements associated with fire and deaths of children, and intent, such as "When you see the fire I start", should have raised questions.
I believe it is fair to assume that Trevor is, or was when typing those comments, deeply distressed. My guess is that there are quite a few signs of psychiatric illness, suggestive of a delusional psychosis, a lack of "insight" (knowledge of your own brain processes that can allow psychotics to control irrationalities, required for the coping strategies of Nash depicted in "A Beautiful Mind").
If hazarding a guess, I’d certainly include schizophrenia or schizophreniform illnesses in a differential diagnosis, although it would be impossible to tell if it was chronic or an acute episode. While parsing is difficult in this instance, there is a pretty good chance that Trevor considers himself to be a deity, which would certainly indicate severe psychotic delusions requiring urgent treatment without consent.
Was Nalliah pastorally competent? If so, Nalliah must have recognized that Trevor was an at-risk individual, even without attempting to diagnose Trevor’s condition. Nalliah would also have recognized the psychological damage his comments after the bushfires would have done to victims.
Is Nalliah significant in Catch the Fire Ministries? Yep, founder.
Did in "Catch the Fire" read Trevor’s comment? Probably. As of yesterday, perhaps before, all comments are moderated before publication. My own comment yesterday noting Trevor and recommending that logs are kept and offered to investigators is yet unpublished, and may have hit the "sin bin".
If comments were moderated before publishing in November, should Trevor’s comment have been published? I think not.
Does Nalliah’s blog give the possibility of followup? Yes. It is WordPress 2.5, and commenters have the opportunity to put in an email, and set to require name and a well-formed email at a minimum.
Did Nalliah try to contact Trevor? Only Nalliah can answer this, but he can prove he did by producing an attempted email to Trevor from his "Sent" tray and, if the email was incorrect, the "bounce" message that often results.
Were there any comments by Catch-the-Fire personnel in response to Trevor’s? No, despite the advisability of one warning about the false scripture, and ensuring that all readers knew the "When you see the fire I start" was not endorsed by CTF, indeed that it was deprecated.
What followup message to Trevor did CTF send? If there was followup, the email should advise caution by Trevor. It should not have been encouraging Trevor, except to seek professional help.
Has there been any followup of Trevor’s comments by investigators? I cannot know. There should have been. Nalliah should have offered up his logs, including backups of deleted/edited comments, to investigators in the last few days.
If Nalliah had Trevor’s email, what should he have done in the run-up to the heatwave? This is a toughy. If Nalliah can show that he had reasonable indications that Trevor was getting appropriate professional advice, then Nalliah is in the clear. Without a confessional seal, and if there was no indication that Trevor was getting appropriate support, perhaps Nalliah should have raised an alert with police.
What should politicians do now?
It is appropriate for politicians to firm up the rules on religions that have special privileges compared to other organizations (like football clubs). There has never been a better time.
Here is what I would require for religious organization that have special privileges:
- Clerics, ordained or lay, down to the level of (and perhaps especially) the equivalent of "Sunday-School teachers", must demonstrate competencies with scripture, and with "Psychology 101". These should be codified in laws and regulations.
- The responsibilities of clerics to sheep, wherever their can be a relationship demonstrated (and leaving comments on a blog creates a "relationship" that gets a spammer out of trouble with the Spam Act), must be formalized, even where the relationship is purely electronic.
- Because of the fine line (if any) between religious fervour and a health issue, one that can raise risks to third parties, websites of clerics should be required to keep adequate logs and backups that are available to appropriate authorities, especially of moderated comments.
- Clerics should be able to have their licenses revoked by the state, and religious organizations would then have to demonstrate that they had done all in their power to ensure nobody took the words of those individuals as having any authority.
- The websites of the more immoderate denominations should be scanned regularly by appropriate authorities, much more so than they’d scan any feedback to Salvos or Rowan Williams.
- Failure to comply with the above points should result in all privileges being withdrawn from the religious organization, including tax benefits. Failure to comply with any recordkeeping obligations should result in prosecution of officers in effective control.
It’s the best time to act. If people have been angry about untrained clerics in Mosques causing harm, directly or indirectly, or if people are offended by Nalliah, then better regulatory oversight including some for of licensing of all clerics in positions of influence, lay or ordained, whatever the sect or denomination, is the way to go.
What should be done to Nalliah now? Sue him for damages!
Given a cleric implicitly claims some basic psychological understanding, then Nalliah must have understood how distressing his comments after the fire would be. With so many suffering in the fires, with so many lost friends and relatives, Nalliah’s comments would have traumatized many, caused much pain and suffering.
Surely there is a legal firm willing to take on Nalliah in a civil case on behalf of the many that he must have hurt, for restitution for pain and suffering, on a no-win no-fee basis, and include Nalliah’s personal and CTF’s assets as sources of compensation.
Mind you, if there is a "duty of care", perhaps Trevor can sue Nalliah if Trevor’s condition worsened after that comment, especially if Nalliah didn’t contact Trevor!