Sexuality – a church’s need to learn as well as teach

According to a report published last week by an Oireachtas Joint Committee, plans are in hand for the introduction of reform into sex education programmes in our schools.

There are a number of responses to this. At one end of the spectrum are those who see it as accepting responsibility for preparing young people for life in a the world that has changed beyond belief.

At the other end are those who regard the proposal as another opportunity to attack the Catholic Church, another way of opposing Catholic schools and humiliating the Catholic Church – effectively, part of a takeover of Catholic schools, what they see as the last great battle to be won.

In between there are those who see the whole area of relationship and sexuality as a battle-ground for competing perspectives between civil and religious contexts. Distrust and accusation are the order of the day.

Already the brisk entry into the debate of the Iona Institute’s David Quinn and Breda O’Brien gives a flavour of what’s in store for us.

We’ve been there before, of course, where the rights of parents, the ethos of schools, civic responsibility and questions of conscience are taken out and dusted – never more so than when human sexuality is at issue.

We’ve been there before, so this will be just another battle in a long war.

The Stay Safe programme (SSP), a child abuse prevention initiative by the Department of Education, was introduced into primary schools in 1991 with the aim of developing the personal safety skills of primary school children.

The aim of the SSP was to enhance children’s self-protective skills by participation in lessons, given by their teachers, on ‘safe and unsafe situations, bullying, inappropriate touch, secrets, telling and stranger danger.’ The main idea behind it was to encourage children to tell adults about any situation they would find unsafe, upsetting, threatening, dangerous or abusive.

Though the course was very limited in scope – just six hours in the year – it became a target of a phalanx of traditional Catholics, anxious to turn back the tide of change, real or imaginary, particularly in the area of sexuality. The SSP worried them as they saw it as the thin end of the wedge of the Department of Education going beyond its remit.

In particular two things concerned them greatly. One, they believed that the incidence of child-abuse was lower than some commentators were suggesting; and, two, discriminating between abusive and non-abusive acts on the basis of feelings was too problematic.

In Intercom, a Catholic Church-funded magazine, Professor Gerard Casey of UCD, rejected a statistic of one in ten children being abused and suggested that a figure of .9% or nine in every thousand. His conclusion was that therefore the SSP approach was unwarranted.

At the time I was a columnist in Intercom and, in reply, I suggested that if the same figure applied to meningitis, would setting at risk nine children out of a thousand not justify some fairly dramatic intervention? I suggested that while the true extent of child sexual abuse was impossible to establish, the prudent and responsible approach to an area so clouded in secrecy and denial, was to assume the incidence was probably higher than the available evidence would suggest. (It was, substantially, as we know now.)

I also questioned Professor Casey’s second reservation that using feelings to discriminate between different acts would introduce confusion into the moral instruction of the young.

I felt, moreover, that this disjunctive, compartmentalised approach to life was not helpful; that feelings are important and help to suss out values; and that the only protection a five-year-old girl may have against sexual abuse is how she feels about behaviour she can’t possibly be expected to fathom. Blocking a programme like SSP that was designed to protect children was, I suggested, a serious matter.

The SSP, I concluded was a sane, sensitive and sensible approach to a difficult and distressing problem and we needed to support that balanced middle-ground against the condemnations of those who wanted us to stay in the old black and white world of the nineteenth century and gurus from America predicting some form of moral Armageddon unless we blocked a programme that might offer some protection to abused children.

As it happened I wasn’t thanked for my words as, around that time, a phalanx of very traditional Catholics was beginning to organise an opposition to anything that didn’t fit into their very narrow view of religion. Conspiracies to attack Catholicism abounded, they believed, and anyone who didn’t speak from their particular hymn-sheet was dismissed as disloyal. And, of course, any mention of sex and they lost the run of themselves entirely.

We know now, of course, that the incidence of child abuse in Irish society was significantly greater than the then figures suggested. And we know that the Catholic Church, after all that has emerged from a series of government tribunals, has lost its authority in this area. And we can see too the mistake that Catholic authorities made in giving extreme Catholic groups too much attention.

The hope would be that more than a quarter century later we’ve learned a bit from our mistakes: that we don’t know it all; that we can learn from those we may disagree with; that those who wave the Catholic brand often do more harm than good to the cause they espouse; and especially that, given all that has happened in recent decades, we’re not in the best place to pontificate on matters sexual. In other words, that we can learn as well as teach.

Can we find, as the SSP turned out to be, a sane, sensitive and sensible approach to another important and sometimes difficult area in the lives of the young?

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One Comment

  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    This article is a courageous exception to the rule that seems to govern clerical behaviour in the Irish Church re sexuality: ‘Don’t ever go there!’

    The unfortunate result is that it is left – almost always – to a dialogue of the deaf – the secular sexual libertarians on the one hand and the Catholic right on the other.

    How on earth can the mandatory celibacy rule for clergy be helpful in this situation? How can an Irish priest ever see himself in the role of facilitator of an open discussion on the family – the context in which most sexual abuse occurs? In fact how can he risk facilitating any open discussion when such a central aspect of life is effectively off limits?

    If ever there was formula for the rapid collapse of Catholicism in Ireland, mandatory priestly celibacy – combined with the governing monopoly still given to the same hamstrung fraternity – was that very formula. It is the ecclesiastical equivalent of equipping an entire army with exploding rifles.

    According to an interview in the Irish News with Archbishop Eamon Martin, he will be heading to Rome next week to the abuse summit to help bishops from other countries to deal with denial.

    No obvious iceberg or gaping hole in the hull is being denied hereabouts then? As if!

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