Training Children to Obey Authority Doesn't Keep Them Safe, It Puts Them in Danger

By Jeff Sparrow
The Guardian
March 7, 2016

‘Child sexual abuse is, then, fundamentally a crime of authority. And that’s why traditional responses to it so often fail.’ Photograph: Alamy

By one of those peculiar historical coincidences, Cardinal Pell appeared before the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse just as the conservative attack on Safe Schools reached its peak. In doing so, he provided a striking example of why the program matters so much.

Several years ago, when working on my book Money Shot, I asked Save the Children’s Karen Flanagan, one of the country’s most experienced advocates for children’s rights, about the forms that child abuse took in Australia.

“Intra-familial abuse, that’s the most common,” she said. “Most children are abused by someone very closely related to them or very well known to them – in other words, a trusted, respected person. About a third of all sex offending is committed by adolescents, about 6% of reported sex offences are by women and the rest is by men. Probably about 95% would be intra-familial.”

In other words, most abused children know the perpetrator.

“If it’s not within the home,” Flanagan said, “it’s the babysitter, or the school or the sporting club. It’s people who know the child, who have a relationship with him or her, who are trusted.”

Child sexual abuse is, then, fundamentally a crime of authority. And that’s why traditional responses to it so often fail.

In her book Child Pornography and Sexual Grooming, the academic Suzanne Ost quotes a policeman from the sexual abuse squad in Britain:

We go to an awful lot of trouble and have done over the years [to say], ‘Don’t go with strangers, don’t take sweets.’ However what we don’t say is, ‘Don’t do what the babysitter tells you when they tell you to go and do this. Don’t do what your uncle says when he tells you to do this.’ What we tell them is, ‘Do everything the babysitter tells you to do. Be good for your uncle’.

Think about that in the context of Pell’s testimony. His evidence painted a picture of the Ballarat diocese as an intensely hierarchical institution, in which kids were instructed (by schools, by the faith, by tradition) to look up to precisely those people doing the abusing.

It’s a perfect illustration of Ost’s point. Training young people to obey authority doesn’t merely fail to keep them safe. It can actually put them in danger. Statistically, they’re far, far more likely to be abused by someone they trust than they are by a stranger.

That’s why child advocates talk so much about “empowerment”. What does that mean? It means, among other things, that young people possess accurate and meaningful information about sexuality, their own and others’. It means that they can talk about their bodies, their feelings and emotions without embarrassment or awkwardness. It means they have access to support and resources. It means they know that they’ll be listened to if they speak, even (or perhaps especially) if what they’re saying makes others feel uncomfortable.

It means other things, too, but, even from the incomplete list above, the relevance of Safe Schools should be apparent. The Safe Schools coalition gives its mission as creating “safe and inclusive school environments for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families”. Obviously, it’s not a program about sexual abuse; equally obviously, institutions that aren’t “safe and inclusive” are more likely to become breeding grounds for abusive behaviour of all kinds, simply because if young people feel ashamed or guilty or even just confused about their sexual identity, they’re a lot less likely to stand up against an exploitative adult.

“The Safe Schools program has nothing to do with highlighting bullying,” says Victorian MP Bernie Finn, the latest politician to condemn the scheme. “It is, in fact, a full-frontal assault on the innocence of children and the role of families in society. It should be cut immediately from all Victorian schools.”

In practice, the invocation of “childhood innocence” has always meant preventing kids from talking openly and honestly about their own bodies, their own feelings and the sexualised world they see all around them.

Naturally, such prohibitions on frank discussions of sex means the subject becomes shrouded in prurient mystification. Take, for example, the cartoon produced by the Australian’s Bill Leak, a man whose work invariably gives form to the conservative id at its rawest. His contribution to the Safe School debate portrays an old fashioned housewife sending a cute little kid off to school – and telling the girl that there’s a “strap on” packed in her bag. Leak thus depicts Finn’s innocent child so as to transform an anti-bullying program into a sniggering baby boomer fantasy from Penthouse Forum.

As for Finn’s rhetoric about “the role of families in society”, let’s say it one more time: the vast majority of sexual abuse takes place within the family. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Mums and Dads should be treated as child molesters. Nonetheless, the statistics make clear the dangers of kids unquestioningly accepting familial authority rather than, say, feeling confident enough to seek help, even when the man making them uncomfortable is dear old Uncle Ted.

At one point in the testimony last week, Gail Furness SC, counsel assisting the commission, suggested that Pell’s insistence that he’d been deceived by bishop Ronald Mulkearns and other senior clergy was “extraordinary”.

Pell replied: “Counsel, this was an extraordinary world, a world of crimes and cover-ups and people did not want the status quo to be disturbed.”

That exchange suggests that Cory Bernardi was on to something when he accuses Safe Schools of radicalism.

Sexuality programs should be radical – if by that we mean they should enable students to stand up for themselves and speak freely and raise issues that almost by definition will make an older generation feel uncomfortable.

To repeat: child sexual abuse is a crime of authority. As Pell himself implies, the more that young people are equipped to disturb the status quo, the safer they will be.








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