Children's rights triumph - at last
By Anne Manne
June 15 2002
A father once confessed to the child psychologistPenelope Leach: "I don't really think of children as people." He meantlower on the hierarchy than adults. Not with feelings and needs ofequal weight and importance to adults. Not like Us.
In the stormclouds of controversy swirling around sexual abuse in the CatholicChurch, one fact is clear. For more than 30 years, some churchofficials knew of, but turned a blind eye to, Father Gerald Ridsdale'sserial sexual predation on children. From his ordination in 1961 to hisarrest in 1992, Ridsdale was repeatedly and suddenly shuffled sideways,after complaints, in a deadly game of musical parishes. In each newparish, he fell upon a fresh crop of victims.
After a decade ofsuch activities, a psychiatric report was commissioned. It took afurther two decades of repeated criminal activity against childrenbefore the church sent him to New Mexico for treatment in 1989. Hiscareer of sexual crime only ended because, in 1992, he was charged bypolice. Had the matter been left with the Catholic hierarchy, Ridsdalemight still be a practising priest and a practising paedophile.
Whywasn't just one offence enough to have him expelled from the ministry?Had he been guilty of theft of church property rather than the theft ofa child's innocence - made off with the altar candlesticks rather thanthe altar boy - wouldn't he have been instantly defrocked? Why did aninstitution - hardly known for its relaxed attitude to sexualtransgression - show such indulgence to a paedophile like Ridsdale?
Theanswer, it seems, is inescapable. In the immediate past - for all oursentimental dross about the preciousness of children - one adult male'simagined "rights" carried far more weight than the rights of thecountless children he violated. The harm that might follow to him, tothe brotherhood and to the church, of exposure and expulsion wasconsidered far more important than the harm done to children. Theadult's interests - his liberty, reputation, livelihood, needs forforgiveness and rehabilitation - clearly took precedence overchildren's interests. There could be no better evidence of children'slowly place in the chain of being.
Thatage-old hierarchy is painfully, uncertainly, being overturned. Theseexplosive affairs, which can so destabilise our most powerfulinstitutions, derive energy and impetus from an important new andradical discourse about the place of children in the social order.Moving from outer darkness into the public light, the movement forchildren's rights has run parallel to those struggling againstinjustice done on the basis of race or gender. It, too, focuses on themisuse of power, only this time the misuse of adult power overchildren; perhaps the most vulnerable group of all.
Like thoseother political movements, the new sensibility concerning childrenbrings to the open injustices hitherto invisible. It penetrates theforce-field of privacy and secrecy behind which the lies, misconductand dark secrets of the dominant group could shelter and flourish. Itpoints out the moral carelessness possible when a powerless group istreated as the Other - as inferior, and thus not within thatconstituency to whom equal respect need be granted. It punctures thenotion that injustice matters less because it's not happening to "chapslike us".
Like feminism and the anti-racist movement, thechildren's rights movement is capable of throwing up subversivecultural flashpoints, which destabilise old patterns. The Lewinskyaffair, for example, threatened the president of the United States.Sexual use of women by powerful men is not new - just think of theKennedy brothers and Marilyn Monroe. What is new, shaped by feminism,is the way we see it.
Likewise this year, first theGovernor-General Dr Peter Hollingworth, and now the most powerfulCatholic clergyman in the land, Archbishop George Pell, have seen theircareers engulfed by controversy. Neither affair would have beenpossible without the sea change in our attitudes to the seriousness ofthe violation of children's rights.
If once children's lowlyplace in the hierarchy - the sense of them as "not really people" andcertainly not "chaps like us" - was enough to ensure silence over adultmisconduct, it is no longer. That is why the moral evasiveness of thechurch retreating behind shabby legalese, niggardly compensation andconfidentiality clauses to keep victims quiet, and the exhortationsencouraging them to "just move on", now appears so grotesque.
Onemight as well tell Christians to "just move on" in relation to thecrucifixion of Christ. After all, it was a long time ago, and in thosedays there was lot of it about.
Anne Manne is a Melbourne writer.
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.Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia