The disappearance of Madeleine McCann more than seven years ago has become one of those extraordinary events that become embedded deeply in the awareness of a nation. The snatching of a child from the safety of their bed is every parent's nightmare and it's hardly surprising that this made the headlines in 2007; what is surprising is the way that this terrible event still makes the headlines today. Somehow what was a criminal case has become a media obsession, with the result that Madeleine McCann has been described as 'the most famous missing person in modern history'. The image of a girl who was nowhere to be found is now known everywhere.
The abduction has brought out the very worst in our media and the tabloid press in particular have managed to continuously revive and refresh the story with new leads, angles and accusations. It has even acquired a distinctly dark side, with the repeated attempts to portray her parents Kate and Gerry as being either negligent or even complicit in their daughter's disappearance. And partly in response to the 'feeding frenzy' of the media Madeleine herself has become the subject of jokes in 'alternative comedy'. I don't find that at all funny.
So with the story still unresolved and likely to run for years, how are we to react? Reviewing a small measure of the millions of words on the subject, let me suggest three things.
First, we should choose compassion over curiosity. This case raises numerous questions: what exactly did occur that May night? Who was responsible? Is Maddy dead or alive? That we ask such questions is hardly surprising given our constant diet of crime dramas in print or on the screen. But this is no brain-puzzling fictional thriller created by someone's imagination. In an age when fiction and fact can become uncomfortably blurred we need to remind ourselves what the Madeleine McCann story is really about. This Maddy is as real as you and me. She and her parents are actual flesh-and-blood people and their sufferings have been - and are - almost too terrible for words. This is a genuine tragedy, not an entertainment for us to gaze at or puzzle over. If we adopt even the most minimal version of Jesus' rule that we should 'do to others as we would have them do to us' then we need to put voyeuristic curiosity aside and stand back with respectful compassion.
Second, we should choose resolution over rage. In many of the words on this case I find anger, even fury. Amid the uncertainties and accusations we all know one thing for sure: somebody took Madeleine. Someone somewhere is to blame and that person should be brought to justice. The hunger for judgement and punishment has been heightened repeatedly by the media. Indeed, over the years, the blame has not simply been laid at the door of the unknown perpetrator but has been liberally sprinkled around on almost everybody involved: the Portuguese police, the British police and even the McCanns themselves. Now, there is something good here: it is right that we desire that justice be done. Nevertheless, what we are seeing here is not just a noble desire for justice but its mutation into a blind, angry hunger to punish someone. Here too we need to stand back. History overflows with sorry tales of quests for justice that ended up with a lynch mob. As a Christian I would want to say that we must always seek justice but need to be well aware that, in this world, our best efforts will never be completely successful: ultimately, perfect justice belongs to God. In the meantime we should do all we can to encourage sober, quiet but persistent investigation in the hope that the matter will be resolved.
Finally, I think we should choose action over apathy. One reason why the story of Madeleine McCann is so popular is that it is a story that is safely distant from us, and so doesn't demand any real response. The abduction happened in Portugal some years ago and it is unlikely that we personally are going to be involved in solving it. Frankly, following the Maddy story is now a spectator sport. Let me suggest that the best response to this tragedy is that, instead of dully focusing on an evil that happened in another time and place, we turn our attention to those evils that we do meet, that are all around us and about which we can do something. So, for instance, we live in a country where people trafficking is a problem, where perhaps 500 children are abducted each year, and where young girls are bought and traded as sexual toys. It is too early to use the phrase 'a memorial to Madeleine McCann' - it should be our prayer that she is even now found alive - but if her abduction was to encourage us into determined action for good it would bring something positive out of the evil of her loss.