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

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Mar 28, 2008

Vision Book Cover Prints

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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