Consultation on Population, Reproductive
Health and Ethics
scandal offers chance to teach young about
by Debra W. Haffner
May 15, 2002 USA
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
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
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
* "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
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
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"
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
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