The importance of fathers


Universe Column July 18th 2004.

by David Alton

I am always struck by the importance placed in the Bible on long descriptions of genealogy – who begat whom, knowing who your father is.

In the New Testament we are told in great detail about the genealogy of Jesus – because of the importance of “knowing the rock from which we have been hewn” – as Isaiah puts it. Knowing who your father, is and from where you spring, is crucial in creating your own identity.

That’s one of the reasons why I tried, in 1990, to persuade the Government to allow IVF children to know who their biological father was. It has taken 14 years, but new regulations enacted by Parliament finally allow for this. Although it won’t be made retrospective (at least, until someone challenges this inconsistency in the Courts) this is a welcome change and one we should welcome.

But there are deeper questions here.

In Britain today there are 800,000 children who have no contact with their fathers. There are few role models in their lives, no-one to transmit values, no man to encourage or correct, no father to cherish or love them.  And every day more children are brought into the world who have no contact with their fathers: some deliberately created via in vitro fertilisation with the deliberate intention of denying the child a father.

Where here is the certainty of identity that genealogy can provide?

Earlier this year I was in Brazil’s notoriously violent favelas. As we heard about the four to five children killed every day in gun violence I wondered where their fathers were.

One Catholic woman, Aurelina De Concepcione, told me how she cradled her son in her arms as he died in the street. Outside Rio’s Church of Our Lady of Candelaria I saw the silhouettes of eight children etched in blood red marble on the footpath. These children had been gunned down by the police as they slept rough on the street. Where were their fathers?

In Egypt I met Maggie Gobran, in Cairo’s ‘Garbage City’. This Coptic woman leads the ‘Stephen’ ministry for abandoned children.  There are thought to be a million such children.  Many of their fathers have left their wives and converted to Islam so that they can marry again, have more wives and have more children. Many have accepted financial inducements to convert.  Many of their wives and children, left unprotected in appalling circumstances are raped and abused.  Here in the midst of it all is Maggie Gobran. But where are the men?

On the Burma/Thai border, I met ‘Sister Love’, Sister Lawrence Poutine. This young Thai nun had gone to work on the African missions.  On a journey back to Europe for a break in Madrid and in Rome she met Thai girls who had been sold into sex slavery and into prostitution by their fathers.

Having seen their plight she returned home and she went back there and opened a school and centre on the border to care for children, to stop them being sold into slavery. There are now 1000 children, including 40 orphans living there in safety. Men, meanwhile, continue to raid the remote villages and nearby refugee camps, buying and selling their human merchandise.

In Moscow I met a young Catholic sister from Belarus who helps run the Holy Family centre for street children. She pointed out a boy whose father had sold him to another man for the price of a bottle of vodka. What kind of man would do that?

In all these situations men had disappeared off the radar screen. Concepts of fatherhood and the responsibilities of men to their children should become the subject of urgent debate.

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