The welfare of children comes first. The job of adults is to make sure this happens. But over and over, we let our children down.
Take the hard-right Ford government decimating the modernized sex-ed curriculum in Ontario schools. In a society as sexualized as ours, children need to be able to defend themselves from predators, and in the case of St. Michael’s College School, allegedly from some other students.
If government removes information from class — about names for genitals, different sexualities, and how to find a sympathetic adult who will hear your story of abuse and danger — then children are without armour or recourse.
Who does that assist? Basically, pedophiles. It’s in their interests for children to remain unwary, mystified about sex, and without defence. “It’ll just be our little secret,” says the abuser. “Right?”
Here’s one case recently reported by the CBC. How did three sexually abusive teachers end up at Bell High School in Ottawa and prey on students for decades, while not necessarily overlapping? Do abusers trade notes on the most oblivious schools?
A smart child knows to go for help. The St. Michael’s boy who is alleged to have been sexually assaulted with a broom handle by a gang of boys — it sounds very much like a horrific scene from 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix drama about teen suicide — did not tell his parents. It’s not clear if he told anyone but if he had grown up since primary school with the new curriculum, this brave boy would have known that somewhere out there was an adult who would help.
And then we come to the parents. There seem to be two camps, with some parents on camera demanding transparency and reform from the school and angry that the police weren’t called right away.
Then there are other parents, who may feel precisely the same way but took another angle: they blamed the media for uncovering the story and reporting on it. Though I received emails from good men who had survived victimization in private school or who knew of other cases, I heard from one distressed St. Michael’s mother, and it worried me.
She devoted one short sentence to collective sorrow for the “victims” and then launched into a defence of 1,000+ “innocent victims,” who had done nothing wrong but were being mocked and bullied for attending St. Michael’s College School.
She then repeated rumours, with no evidence whatsoever, of actual media offering children money for the pornographic videos, which is absurd. It’s a crime to own child pornography, much less pay for it, and no Canadian journalist pays for stories. It would be a firing offence or worse. Yes, there is always worse.
I am grateful to CityNews reporter Tina Yazdani, whose calm, measured TV interview of two mothers outside the school grounds revealed so much about modern — or otherwise — parenthood.
The women did not want the story reported. “What the media is doing to this school around this incident, you are part of the problem. You’re a problem.” one said angrily.
But how is one to solve this problem? Apparently with silence, by not reporting a story of national interest about alleged gang sexual abuse in a Catholic school, as if an editor in this day and age would say, “Nah, leave it alone, it’ll damage the Church.”
I sympathize with the anguished mothers. But their stance sounds Cardinal Law-like, as in Boston, as in the movie Spotlight. Sex crimes against children must not be discussed in clear, open air.
The most bewildering thing about Catholic priests tormenting children worldwide was not the crime. Pedophiles do what pedophiles do. But the priests went unquestioned by parents, were defended by the corporate church, and were hidden by other adults who didn’t want to cause trouble.
The silent era has, I hope, ended.
I am thinking of the parents protesting the modern sex-ed curriculum — they’ve been complaining since 2015 and pulling their kids from public schools — because it went against their various religious beliefs. But secular schools put children’s safety first. Parents’ complaints necessarily come second.
If the media hadn’t uncovered this story and Yazdani hadn’t done her interview, we would know so much less about this part of the world and the people in it. Maybe parent power isn’t so great. Maybe candour, even in secretive private schools, is the best path.
I like the modern world. Cellphone cameras reveal racism and brutality against women, record American politicians’ remarks to the faithful, get Trump on tape, and record one owner’s torture and death in a Saudi embassy. If only small Indigenous children had had cellphones in residential school.
There is a terrible side to digital life — yes, it ruins lives and breaks brains — but there are currants in the cake. Children are rescued. I hope that boy at St. Michael’s will be wrapped in love and understanding and his alleged tormentors come to understand the horror of their group effort.
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Heather Mallick is a columnist based in Toronto covering current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @HeatherMallick