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The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics


Priest scandal offers chance to teach young about abuse

by Debra W. Haffner

May 15, 2002       USA TODAY

ust say no" didn't even work in the Garden of Eden. Vows of abstinence, marriage and celibacy don't have a 100% effectiveness rate. They break. And they break with disastrous effects when one person has power over the other -- a priest, for example.

Parents have been struggling over what to tell their children about priests who didn't "just say no." I've been giving talks to parents for more than 20 years about how to discuss sexuality with their children, but this recent question was a first: "My 8-year- old doesn't want to go to church anymore. What should I tell him?"

I asked the group's members if they had talked to their children about clergy sexual abuse; only one parent raised her hand. The others said, "they are too young to know" or "they haven't heard about it." I told them it was next to impossible for a child to turn on the TV and not hear "Priests and sex! The latest coming up at 10!"

How sad and ironic. A U.S. president teaches the nation's elementary school children the words "oral sex." The Catholic Church introduces them to the words "pedophilia" and "sex abuse."

Yet just like the Clinton-Lewinsky headlines, this is a potential teachable moment for parents. Unfortunately, too many parents are leaving their children to make sense of it by themselves.

Asking too much from kids

I'm getting calls from schools and churches about beginning sex abuse prevention programs. Sex abuse programs tend to fall into two categories, neither of which safeguard children:

* "Good touch, bad touch" programs try to teach small children the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching, but it is difficult for young children to grasp. Sexual touching by an adult may feel like "good touch;" having your hair washed for most 6- year-olds is "bad."

* "No, go, tell" programs tell the child to say no to the abuse, leave the situation immediately and tell a parent or a caregiver if someone has tried to hurt them. Their faulty assumption is that a child has the physical or social power to stop an adult's actions.

While children can't protect themselves from sex abuse, they can learn to tell a trusted adult if anyone tries to touch them that way -- anyone. Although parents may not be able to prevent the first case of sexual abuse, they can prevent the second one. But do we really want a child's first lesson about sex to be that it's something that hurts children and teenagers?

Knowing their rights

Children first need to know that their bodies are wonderful and that sexuality is a wonderful part of adult life. They can learn that children have the right to tell others not to touch their bodies.

They need to know that sexual abuse occurs when an older, stronger, more powerful person looks at or touches a child's genitals for no reason. They can be reassured that most adults would never hurt children. Sadly, they need to know that anyone can abuse children; somehow in the focus on clergy, we have forgotten that in more than three-quarters of cases of sexual abuse, boys and girls are abused by their own male relatives or mothers' boyfriends.

The discussion with pre-teenagers and teens is more complex and difficult. Teens coming to grips with their sexuality are confused that authority figures like priests and presidents and athletes and rock stars make such bad decisions about sex. As the news makes clear, many of the cases aren't pedophilia at all, but sexual coercion of adolescents and young adults. Teens, ever looking for excuses to resist authority, have asked, "How can you expect me to abstain when even priests can't do it?"

We now have an opportunity for a national discussion about moral sexual decisions. A sexually healthy adult understands the difference between having a sexual feeling and acting upon it as well as the difference between sexual behaviors that are life- enhancing and those that are harmful to self and others. That needs to be taught in seminaries -- and discussed in homes, schools, faith communities, businesses and the White House. We need only to look to the priesthood to understand that "just say no" isn't enough.

Debra W. Haffner, the director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, is the author of From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children.

Deborah Haffner is a Participating Scholar in The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics.


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