The Protection of Children
The same day that news of the indictments against multiple dioceses of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania were announced we saw the movie about Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
More than 1,000 children were sexually abused and molested by scores of priests, according to the allegations. Moreover, there was a thorough and systematic cover-up reaching the highest levels. The Catholic Church failed — again — to protect the children in its care.
Edmund Burke once wrote, “An event has happened upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent.”
Apt words. Of these things, it is difficult to speak but impossible to remain silent.
The only way such evils can happen is if perpetrators don’t really consider their victims human. The truly hideous thing about such abuse is that it so wounds the humanity of the victims that many never recover. They carry the shame, a shame that does not belong to them, but to the perpetrators. They often carry it as a secret, one that is constantly there, whispering, “you are dirty,” “you are bad,” “you are not worthy of love.” “You are unloveable.” Such is the voice of the evil one.
Watching the moving and powerful film about Fred Rogers the thing that is so clear is how deeply he saw and got the humanity of children. Moreover, he never used children the way that, say, Art Linkletter did in an earlier generation (and the way many ministers do in “children’s sermons.”)
And the movie revealed to me a side of Rogers I didn’t know before. He had a prophet’s anger against the ways that children are mistreated by adults, and in particular by “children’s television.” I don’t think I had ever seen “Mr. Rogers” angry — until this movie. The violent, slapstick, jeering fare that was passing for children’s programming in his time outraged him. He would be only more distressed today.
His message to children was precisely the opposite of the sadistic child-abusing priests.
It was, “I see you. I like you for who you are, just the way you are. You have feelings. You have fears. It’s okay. You’re okay, just the way you are. I love you.”
I was also unaware that toward the end of Mr. Rogers’ life he was attacked in the conservative media. Various pundits alleged that his gospel resulted in children who felt complacent and entitled. They felt, these critics alleged, that because of Mr. Rogers they didn’t need to do anything as they he had told them they were just fine the way they were.
What horse shit! How low will people go to find a villain, to come up with a provocative column or post!
When children know they are loved and lovable without having to pretend or be someone else or something they are not, then most will flourish and grow and do all sorts of wonderful things.
That is not to say, of course, that children are wholly innocent and just little angels. Get real. Children can be self-centered and mean too. And adults have a responsibility to say “no” to such behaviors while protecting the basic humanity and worth of a child.
In Christian ethical teaching, a primary reason the family unit exists at all, a primary reason for marriage, is the protection of the vulnerable, i.e. the children. We parents, grandparents and godparents can never completely protect our children, nor should we. Life involves risk. But the duty to protect children is part of what it means to be an adult. And this applies to all adults, not just the parents or other family.
Protection of children does not only mean bigger and better car-seats, more protective devices, hyper-vigilance about diet, or monitoring every minute — as a so-called “helicopter parent.” Protection cannot be reduced to a technological matter or to endless rules. It is a spiritual matter. It means protecting the humanity of a child. It means communicating, “You are precious. Beloved.”
The failure of priests and of the Catholic Church to protect children calls to mind the terrible words of Jesus, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9: 42)
Fred Rogers embodied a different text from the same gospel. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Mark 10: 14)