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putting children first -- or, "mom, what color's a perp?"

By Diogenes (articles ) | Mar 28, 2008

Back in 2002, after the President of the USCCB confessed "we have all been enlightened" at the revelation that "sexual abuse of minors is a crime," the bishops launched a combination public relations/child protection campaign for which OTR provided the motto "Working to Rape You Less!" The signal accomplishment held up for our admiration was the finding that, when the proper safeguards were in place and demographic variables were duly adjusted, the rate at which Catholic priests engaged in sexual predation was no greater than that of bricklayers.

More recently the Archdiocese of New York has also gone in for program implementation. You can visit their Safe Environment website here. It takes the form of an eerie mixture of the images and vocabulary of traditional piety divorced from their natural context and employed in the service of psychic well-being: considerations of the kind public health officers find important.

For primary grades, we're presented with a Safe Environment coloring book and accompanying posters, in which a winged and Maybellined guardian angel instructs us on various kinds and occasions of bad touch. In the fun-at-the-beach panel, the angel says: "If anyone tries to touch you where your bathing suit would be, say 'Stop!' and tell a trusted adult right away. You won't get in trouble for telling and I'll be with you to help you tell." See the switch? The guardian angel from the old illustrated Baltimore Catechism -- then pictured shepherding children out of the path of trucks, e.g. -- has undergone a makeover and been reassigned as a child protection officer. Would a real angel (even an angel under contract to the Archdiocese of New York) make the deceptive promise "You won't get in trouble for telling"?

Another panel shows an altar boy robing in a sacristy yet happily protected from the potential predator by the open door, the windows, and the presence of two smiling angelettes coincidentally on hand for the Mouseketeer try-outs. No pederast can beat those odds, at least if it comes to trial.

It's the constant note of moral defeatism underlying the text that robs the pious props (saints, angels, crucifixes) of any power of reassurance and makes the overall picture frightening and macabre. The fact that the evils are not directly exposed but have a sinister background presence communicates the message that the dangers are all too real while the hope of defense is, at bottom, just another comic book fiction.

A comic book for older grades (downloadable here) presents a similarly grim world in which the rough stuff takes place off-stage and the victims are given lots of Roy Lichtenstein tears to convince us it wasn't pretty. Yet once again there's a weird theological vacuum in which the "force" for good is a kind of inert superhero whose action we never understand. While these texts are obviously meant to "empower" young people, in effect they multiply the anxieties they purport to relieve. No matter how many angels are pictured fluttering in the sacristy, most young people will realize that something's radically off-kilter when their pastor (in the voice of the child protection office) says, "I don't trust myself alone with you, and you shouldn't trust me either. Remember that I am the minister of God's mysteries of salvation. And stop chewing your crayons."

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Mar. 29, 2008 9:08 AM ET USA

    Did anyone catch the gender bending? Notice "Adults" and "Children". If I ran a spreadsheet on the "M" and "F" columns for perps and for the victims, would I have a 50/50 distribution? I think not. Also, notice the subtle implication that you'd better get used to LOTS of women watching over you? They sure don't seem to be worried about the males going after them. Why would that be? The one in mid air is packing Richard Rohr's Enneagram book in her side holster.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 29, 2008 7:47 AM ET USA

    I find it deeply troubling that this teaches fear instead of righteousness. Didn't Jesus say, "Be not afraid."? It also put the responsibility on children to protect themselves and sets adults up as a class to be avoided. We have something similar in our diocese. Although I reluctantly underwent the fingerprinting (the abuse crisis wasn't about catechists), I refused to let my children be abused by their "information and protection" program. God forgive us.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 28, 2008 11:16 PM ET USA

    The U.S. bishops (motto: the glass is half empty) continues to assume that the worst will happen and are so occupied with guarding against the worst that they have forgotten to teach as Jesus did. Yet, the bishops are advocating abstinence programs over condom use, trying to appeal to the best in our young people, while their actions assume clergy and laity are immoral. It doesn't work. It is one more example of "what you are speaks so loud I can't hear what you say".

  • Posted by: - Mar. 28, 2008 8:48 PM ET USA

    Educating children about potential abuse (from any source) is a parental responsibility. What the Church has done is what liberal big government does---takes on roles which belong elsewhere. They promise to be all things to all people, to protect people from harm and in so doing they imply that parents can rest easy. Parents cannot unless and until they (parents) meet their responsibilities in terms of educating their children. The Bishop's program (and that of the AD of NY) is "PR" fluff!

  • Posted by: - Mar. 28, 2008 8:43 PM ET USA

    Sweet Lord! Does this mean that the Church has completely failed to vet and rid itself of known and suspected predators? Apparently! And it also means that that the Church is counting on children to look after themselves. This comic strip approach breaks my heart. How did we ever come to this? Does anyone remember Alec Guiness's great moment when he was in a movie portraying a priest? Children came running to him in his costume clericals. Their trust hastened his conversion. Pray!

  • Posted by: - Mar. 28, 2008 5:41 PM ET USA

    As a girl, my parents (of the 60s) never protected me, in fact, they encouraged behavior that was morally dangerous to me. Increasing this moral vaccum was the fact that they did not know me. I spent the lion's share of my life being cool with the school kids/teachers. Here's the answer: My husband & I homeschool. Our children are innocent and we aually KNOW our children. It would be hard, bordering on impossible, for one of them to be molested by someone and hide it from us.

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