Safeguard Children AND Liberties

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Submitted by Boston Discussion Group on June 07, 1998 at 10:21:25:

Last year, the brutal rape and murder of a young boy in Cambridge triggered a wave of indignation which targeted all 'pedophiles.' Supporters of the death penalty in Massachusetts used this case and almost prevailed. A national group called the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) was especially assailed, with calls in public meetings to find and kill local members, even though NAMBLA was not implicated in the crime. [Roman Catholic] Cardinal Bernard Law was quoted a saying, "This is the closest thing I've seen to a lynch mob since my days in Mississippi."

Some of those working against the death penalty realized that hysteria about child sex cases had to be dealt with directly. Many who work with prisoners and criminal justice had long recognized that a panic about child sex was the context in which a number of new laws about children, sex and sex offenders were passed almost unopposed despite major civil liberties and other concerns. Yet to speak about these problems was tantamount to being accused of support for child molestation.

A discussion group of about twenty people formed, hosted unofficially by a non-governmental organization. Participants included women who are incest and sex abuse survivors, NAMBLA members, anti-censorship and civil liberties activists, feminists, gay and lesbian people, health-care workers, church activists, peace and social justice activists, academics, and those who work with prisoners.

We have met regularly for six months, sometimes almost as a kind of group therapy or consciousness-raising session, dealing with deep and justified angers and emotions. We continue to hold a wide range of views about children's sexuality and certainly about intergenerational sex. But we found that we all strongly condemn rape and other forms of genuine abuse against children and youth. We all believe in the possibility for redemption and rehabilitation of all people, no matter what their 'crimes.' Finally, we all value essential civil liberties and believe that many recent measures have dangerously increased state repressive powers. Slowly we formed a consensus on these matters. The result is the enclosed statement, "A Call to Safeguard Our Children and Our Liberties" We now hope to broaden the list of those signing the statement so that it can become a tool to encourage further dialogue. We do plan to use the statement publicly, on the Internet, published in various formats, including Op Ed pieces, and in a variety of other formats.

We believe this process - dialogue between those who hold strong views about sex and children from differing perspectives - is unique. We believe it is urgently needed in the United States, and in some other societies directly affected by U.S. attitudes and policies.

We call on our counterparts in other places to form similar discussion groups and work to craft a consensus about these topics. Various non-governmental organizations, churches, colleges and civil liberties groups should be approached to host the discussions.

We hope that groups who work with children, with prisoners, with other legal issues, in areas of social justice and ethical concerns, will consider this statement, endorse it or draw up their own organizational positions.

We ask ... individuals in the Boston area, to join us in signing this statement now. We believe the time is overdue to begin a serious and humane discourse about how society should handle sex and children, and sex offenders generally. In Boston, it has again become immanently needed as the Jeffrey Curley murder trial is covered in the media, and as two major new laws will be on the floor of the Massachusetts State Legislature. These are the Sexually Dangerous Predator Act (H5498), which includes two-strikes-and-your out provisions for life sentences without parole for many categories; and the revised Sex Offender Registry Act (H5352), which adds new categories of offenders and provides for mandatory one-year sentences for unregistered offenders (who number several thousand in Massachusetts). We hope you will also consider calling your legislators to ask them to amend or oppose these bills.


Cathy Hoffman, Paul Shannon, Chris Tilly and others....


This is the statement of an informal group of Boston-area educators, health workers, criminal justice workers and other community activists. This statement is circulated to individuals and organizations to initiate discussion, and for additional signatures. It is hoped that others will endorse this call, or will formulate their own statement, tailored to their own communities.

As people concerned about children's welfare and a just society, we speak out against the troubling direction of current campaigns to protect children from vaguely defined sexual dangers by criminalizing and scapegoating a wide range of people and behaviors. These approaches often ignore the realities of childhood and adolescent sexuality and they sometimes equate affection with violence. They distract us from the problem of far more serious forms of violence against children and young people. They erode essential freedoms for everyone. Current hysteria is so pervasive that anyone who suggests a more thoughtful discussion risks being branded a child abuser. To truly protect children as well as empower them to be themselves, and to protect a free society, we insist on a more sensible and compassionate approach.

* Most child abuse has nothing to do with sex. It is important to speak out against true sexual abuse, which has so often remained hidden and denied within families and communities. However, non-sexual violence and murder of children is as pervasive as sexual violence. Poverty, malnutrition, ethnic discrimination, poor education, and inadequate health care are all forms of abuse that threaten millions of young people in our affluent nation. Yet there is no national commitment to halt these deadly and more pervasive forms of harm to children. Instead, our attention is riveted by any case involving sex.

* Recent child sex abuse campaigns make little or no distinction among diverse behaviors and circumstances. Any sex equals violence, and seventeen-year-olds are 'children.' The brutal rape of a six-year-old girl by her father; uncoerced sexual relations between a fourteen-year-old boy and a thirty-year-old woman; an affair between an eighteen-year-old boy and a sixteen-year-old girl: these are clearly very different cases, yet they are all portrayed as rape under the law and in the media. We do not believe that affectionate, mutual sexual expression is the same as violent rape. To equate them is to trivialize rape. Furthermore, in sex cases involving children, hard evidence seems unnecessary: the allegation suffices. It also seems odd that we speak of older and older youth as children in need of protection from sex abuse, but consider younger and younger children to be adults when accused of crimes.

* Demonizing any class of people as devoid of humanity and beyond redemption is wrong. Laws now brand any transgressor of under-age sex rules as a 'sexual predator,' even when no violence or force is alleged, and even when the young person is a month or a day shy of the legal age of consent. In addition, society's fears and hatred of homosexuality often leads to a scapegoating of gay people, falsely stereotyping them as child molesters. Demonization is destructive even when applied to truly violent offenders. Those who commit sexually violent crimes do not come out of a vacuum. They come out of our communities and families. The message conveyed is that the main danger to children is the stranger about to pounce on them, the pedophile whom we can expose and stigmatize. Yet most sexual contact between adults and minors is among family and friends. To view dangerous offenders as totally 'other' than us prevents getting to the roots of such crimes. Permanent stigmatization not only makes impossible re-integration into society of those who are rehabilitated, it signals a breakdown in civil society.

* "Protect the children" has been a battle cry to expand coercive state power and imprisonment. The past two decades have seen many new forms of state repression in the name of protecting children: There are sweeping new censorship laws; registries to track people for life and expose them to public ridicule; civil commitment to incarcerate those not convicted of a crime but deemed 'dangerous;' life-time parole for sex offenders in some states, and mandatory life sentences without parole for second offenders; thought police empowered to monitor those imprisoned, on parole or under 'civil detention' with mandatory lie detector tests and aversion therapy in some jurisdictions; mandatory reporting laws that turn doctors and therapists into agents of the state; prohibitions against freedom of association; and extra territoriality - allowing prosecution of citizens for behavior outside the state or nation, even when that behavior is legal in the other jurisdiction. These assaults on civil liberties have befallen us because so few have been willing to risk being seen as 'soft on child molesters.' We hold that civil liberties are indivisible. We argue that longer sentences, harsher treatment in prison or calls for the death penalty merely escalate and perpetuate the violence. Repressive state powers cannot be neatly applied only to 'bad' people. They threaten us all.

* The power and capriciousness of the laws and attitudes wrought by these campaigns have put up a destructive barrier between adults and children. Currently, caring adults may reasonably fear that any affection will be branded as abuse. This fear means that adults - whether parents, teachers or strangers - often withhold that which all kids need most: affectionate, respectful attention. The real challenge is to support and expand programs for children and youth which develop caring, loving, thoughtful, whole human beings. Among these are day care, after-school care, sex positive sex education, and better training and pay for those who work with children. The aim of all these programs should be to empower young people to learn to make their own decisions about their lives. Children and youth need to view themselves not as potential victims, but as part of a community which supports and nurtures them, encouraging them to speak up and act responsibly on their own beliefs. We want children to love life, not fear it. If this is to happen, there must be adults courageous enough to demand an honest and constructive approach to sex and youth and to call for an end to the prevailing hysteria. Only then will we be able to safeguard the liberties we all need to develop fully.

Dr. Richard Pillard, psychiatrist;
Paul Shannon, educator;
Cathy Hoffman, peace activist;
Chris Tilly, economics professor;
Marie Kennedy, community planning professor;
Eric Entemann, mathematics professor;
Tom Reeves, social science professor;
Bob Chatelle, writer & anti-censorship activist;
Jim D'Entremont, playwright and anti-censorship activist;
Ann Kotell, health worker;
Carol Thomas, social justice and religious activist;
French Wall and Bill Andriette, gay writers and editors;
Nancy Ryan, feminist activist;
Dianne McLaughlin, community & criminal justice activist;
Reebee Garofalo, popular culture professor;
John Miller, economics professor;
Molly Mead, urban social planning professor;
John MacDougall, sociology professor;
Laurie Dougherty, social science researcher & editor;
and others...


Source for the above: BoyChat Digest,

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