Monday, June 25, 2012

Fortnight to Freedom - Wolf In Sheep's Clothing

     The Catholic Bishops have begun a two week campaign leading up to July 4th with a centerpiece of removing contraceptive coverage from health insurance reform.  Of course, the Supreme Court any minute now may end or modify the Affordable Care Act, which may make this debate moot.
     They are calling it a “Fortnight for Freedom” and cloaking their objection to modern methods of contraception in a religious liberty argument.  It is a classic example of those on the religious right who would restrict individual freedom to make private sexual choices co-opting language to confuse and gain supporters.  It is reminiscent of the right’s coinage of “partial-birth abortion” for abortion procedures after 20 weeks and “death panels” in health care.

    As a religious leader and as a person of faith, I of course support religious freedom.  So does the U.S. Constitution and so I presume do you.  To me, and millions of people of faith, religious freedom means that all persons should be free to make their own personal decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives, including their decisions about when, whether, or if to have children.  These decisions are optimally informed by their conscience, faith tradition, religious beliefs and families, but ultimately they are deeply personal decisions that individuals can and should have the freedom to make. 

    Religious freedom means that the government should not privilege the teachings of one religion over another or deny individual religious freedom.  Individuals must have the right to accept or reject the principles of their own faith without legal restrictions.  The Bishops do not speak for all faith traditions on contraception; indeed they don’t even speak for the people in their pews who use and support family planning in overwhelming majorities.  It is past time for the Vatican and the American Bishops to understand that they cannot claim final moral authority in domestic – or as we saw in Rio last week international – discourse.

    It is up to each of us to not allow the Bishops or anyone else to co-opt religious freedom.  Universal access to family planning does not require anyone to use contraception – rather it assures that individual moral agency and conscience are respected.  Supporting religious freedom means supporting the right of all of us to make our own moral decisions.  We know a wolf in sheep’s clothing when we see it. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Twin Teachable Moments To Talk to Your Children About Sex Abuse Prevention

The news is full of the twin horrifying trials in Pennsylvania of men who have allegedly perpetrated sexual abuse against children -- one directly of children in his care, the other by not removing priests who had abused children from direct involvement with other children.

There have been many articles and blog posts about these trials, but I have been struck that none of them have been aimed at helping parents protect their own children from possible abuse.  The "solutions" to these alarming stories have discussed legislation and registries, but not how we can empower children.

In my book "From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children" I provided detailed information on how to educate your children to prevent sexual abuse.  Even preschoolers need to know that their bodies are good, that their bodies belong to them, that they have the right to tell someone not to touch  any part of their bodies, and to tell right away if an older child or adult has made them uncomfortable in any way.  Make sure you screen nannies and babysitters, and that your preschool does background checks on everyone who works with the children, including part time teachers, babysitters, and custodial staff.

Elementary age children need to know that sexual abuse occurs when an older, stronger, or more powerful person looks at or touches a child's genitals, and that a person who is sexually abusing a child may tell the child to keep the behavior secret.  Make sure they understand that a child is never at fault if an older child, teen, or adult touches them in a way that is wrong or uncomfortable.  Tell them that most adults would never abuse children, but children are generally hurt this way by people they know who act as if they are special to them.  Tell them to tell right away.   

Make sure that the school, Scout troops, soccer leagues, and yes churches and synagogues are doing background checks on anyone who will work with your child.  Watch out for adults who seem too interested in your child, and don't let your child spend alone time with adults one on one unless you know them well.  Empower your children to say no to requests for kisses or hugs from anyone, including relatives.  Let them know that they have the right to say no to any unwanted physical contact.

Most important, know that you may not always be able to protect your child from the first time of sexual abuse, but you can stop the second IF your children are educated to tell you right away and that they can count on you to take action.  Over and over again in these trials, we have heard adult men say that they were too afraid to tell.  Make sure your children know you want to know immediately. 

The Sandusky and Lynn trials, while traumatic to watch, are providing you with a teachable moment.  Don't let it pass for your children's sake.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Nun Story Redux

Growing up Jewish in the 1960’s  my understanding of nuns was shaped by Sally Field as Sister Betrille, the Flying Nun, and Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke in The Nun Story. They were both passionate, courageous and authority defying, as well as loving, caring, and dedicated to the poor.

I didn’t actually know any nuns until I began my seminary studies, when I had the privilege of taking a class with Sister Mary Boys at Union Theological Seminary, spending time at the Peace Council with Sister Joan Chittister, and being guided in an independent study by Sister Margaret Farley at Yale Divinity School (YDS). These Roman Catholic theologians inspired me with their brilliance, their deep understanding of ethics, and their unending compassion for their students and the world.

Two weeks ago, my adviser at YDS, Sister Margaret Farley was publicly condemned by the Vatican for her 2006 book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Ethics. They said it could cause “grave harm” to the faithful, in presenting a sexual ethic based in justice.  My denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, actually encourages our candidates for ministry to read this book for grounding in sexual ethics. Ironically, the Vatican’s action means that Farley’s book now has an audience much larger than ever before: it’s gone from being a somewhat obscure read for seminary students to apparently selling out its print run on Amazon.
The statement against Farley follows the Vatican’s public crackdown on the Leadership Conference on Women Religious, an organization that, according to their website, includes 80% of American nuns and whose mission is to “further the mission of the Gospel in today’s world.” The Vatican has called for a full-scale overhaul of the LCRW, because they have not done enough to speak out against abortion and same sex marriage—an accusation that could be leveled at the Gospels as well since neither issue is ever mentioned in them. The Board of the LCRW went to Rome earlier this week to speak directly to the Vatican officials, calling the charges “unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed practice that lacked transparency.”

This attack on American nuns is nothing short of incongruous by the all-male, celibate Roman Catholic hierarchy. On the one hand, they are censuring Farley because of her public stance on sexuality; on the other hand, they are trying to take over the LCRW because of their lack of a public stance on sexuality. This should come as no surprise after the U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops declared earlier this spring that removing contraception from health care reform would be their number one public policy priority, even though overwhelming numbers of American Catholics find birth control morally acceptable. As Roman Catholic theologian Mary Hunt notes, “The Roman men are hell-bent on reining in American nuns, if only to prove that they can rein in somebody in a world that pays them increasingly little heed.” There seems to be no end to the Roman Catholic hierarchy wanting to prioritize sexuality issues.

Except perhaps among their own ranks. Ironically, just as the news of Farley’s censure was being reported, so was a news story that the Milwaukee Archbishop had paid sex-abusing priests to leave the priesthood, rather than holding them accountable for their actions. The U.S. Roman Catholic Church has spent millions of dollars settling cases of priest sexual misconduct with children and adolescents. No other religious denomination has been tainted by such widespread abuse of children, cover up of cases, or moving abusing clergy to other parishes.

Meanwhile, the Sisters are speaking truth to power and standing for the full inclusion of women in religious life.  I am hopeful that the Sisters who went to Rome let the Vatican know that it is way past time for the male hierarchy to cease seeking to control Roman Catholic women, either secular or religious.

I noted in my Huffington Post piece that the LCRW posted a prayer on their website that ends with these words:

May we continue to faithfully live the
questions of our time and witness to
the people of God that we are women
at home with mystery and filled with
fierce hope for our shared future.

So may it be during these upcoming days. The prayers of the Religious Institute are with these Sisters.