Protecting Children while Defending Families

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The situation could happen anywhere. A five-year old child is horribly abused by the people who are supposed to care most for her. Sadly, it happens far too often. A recent case of such abuse prompted a letter to the editor at “The Republican” newspaper of Springfield, Massachusetts to inquire whether the child was in school. The writer felt that if the child was in a pre-school or Kindergarten program, perhaps this tragedy could have been averted. Perhaps someone would have noticed that all was not right with this child and been able to help her. The writer went on to argue for universal access to pre-school for all because it becomes a safe-haven for so many children. Access to pre-school is certainly not a bad thing. It should be available for all those who want and need it. What happens, however, when the argument becomes that only the government and social service institutions are equipped to adequately protect our children? Does this mean that all children should be in day care as well? Should a government representative have contact with every child from the time of birth to make sure he or she is well cared for?

Society as a whole obviously has a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us. Children should never be mistreated. Many parents, for a variety of reasons, have difficulty providing their children with a nurturing environment. Social service agencies can certainly help protect children and help to educate children when parents aren’t up for the task. The Church can help as well.

In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, the Bishops put forth the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The Bishops wanted to make sure that abuse was never tolerated again in the Church. To achieve this end, certain norms were set in place. Every employee and volunteer who works with children in Churches, Catholic Schools, or Catholic sponsored activities must have a background check. They also must receive training on how to recognize and report child abuse. In addition, children in Catholic Schools and Religious Education programs are to be taught what constitutes abuse and what to do about it when it happens to them. According to the 2007 nationwide audit, nearly 94% of Dioceses are in compliance with these requirements.

For a little over a year, I have been the Child Advocate for my parish. This means that I am responsible for making sure every employee and volunteer completes their background check and watches a video on recognizing child abuse. I am also responsible for making sure that the education programs take place in the school and religious education program. Most of the adults who need to complete the background checks and watch the video are understanding. They know the reality of the world we live in and the reasons why we need to be as sure as we can that the people who work with our children are not predators. The process itself serves as a deterrent to anyone who might have plans to do harm to our children. The video is very informative and explains exactly what abuse is, and is not, how to recognize it, and how to report it.

The education programs, however, are not met with the same enthusiasm or tolerance. In general, no one wants to touch them with a ten-foot pole. We did complete the training last year in our Catholic school. The classroom teachers, however, did not want to take on the task. They had done it before and found it awkward and uncomfortable and not appropriate. A volunteer who had worked as a guidance counselor for many years in the public schools was thankfully willing to do the presentations for the older grades. The physical education teacher presented to the younger children. The religious education teachers were even more reluctant. Talking to children about sex is always difficult. Talking to children about sexual abuse is even worse. As a parent, I have talked to my children about their private parts since they were toddlers, and taught them that no one, except a doctor, is allowed to touch them. As Child Advocate, I did what I could to make sure that the program was taught at an age-appropriate level. Several parents, however, came to me with concerns when they heard of the presentations that were to be given. Some pulled their children from the classes, which is their right. The Church has emphasized that parents have the primary responsibility for educatng their children in sexual matters. In 1995, The Pontifical Council for the Family wrote ” … the educational service of parents must aim firmly at a training in the area of sex which is truly and fully personal: for sexuality is an enrichment of the whole person – body, emotions and soul – and it manifests its inmost meaning in leading the person to the gift of self in love. Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centres chosen and controlled by them.”

While it may be acceptable at the 5th grade level and up to have frank discussions about sexual abuse, discussing abuse such as incest with young children is a thorny topic. Many parents want to be the ones to educate their children on these matters when they feel it is appropriate, not when the school or Church says that it is. There is also the very real issue that parents who are abusing their children may be among those who choose to have their children not attend these sessions. Lastly, there is the question of whether it should be the child’s responsibilty to protect him or herself from abuse. While a child should always be taught to say “No” to any behavior that he finds inappropriate and to tell a trusted adult when something is going on that shouldn’t be, the final responsibility for preventing child abuse should reside with the adults who care for them. Perhaps more energy could be put into educating adults and helping to prevent child abuse from that angle.

So, then, how do we respect the role of society (the government) and the Church in protecting children while at the same time respecting the rights of parents to be the ones to raise and educate their children? Do we punish all and sacrifice the innocence of our children because of the sins of some? There are far more good parents than bad, but child abuse is a reality for far too many children. Obviously, this is not acceptable and things need to be done to stamp out child abuse in our society. Honestly, I don’t have the answer of how to fix this problem, but I do feel that the conversation about how we, as a Church, continue to tackle the problem needs to be ongoing. We may be moving in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done.

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