Both the family and the society have a responsibility to provide for and to protect our children.
Parents have the primary responsibility for care and protection of their own children. But the State also has a role in legislating for and enforcing the protection of children. We need special legislation about children because they are a special class of humans with particular dependency and vulnerability.
They need to be protected from making foolish and harmful decisions whose consequences they are not sufficiently mature to understand. They also need to be protected from older people whose greater amount of power and knowledge enables them to manipulate and abuse juveniles. In particular, adolescents need to be protected from those adults – such as teachers, leaders, doctors
ministers, or parents, – who are charged with the responsibility of protection of children. These are the most dangerous adults, partly because of their greater access to children, but mainly because there is the double failure of harming the child and of destroying trust.
One area the State must act is in the protection of minors in sexual abuse cases, especially where children have been entrusted to ‘responsible’ adults. All kinds of abuse are wrong, but few forms of abuse cause such long term personal damage and heartache as sexual abuse. That the NSW government is planning to introduce legislation highlighting the seriousness of this offence is to be welcomed.
But at what age does the child cease to be a child? At what age should parents give more independence, or society become less involved in differentiating a child’s vulnerability from an adult’s independence and freedom of choice? For the parent these decisions can be attuned to the individual development and differences of maturation. Changing age levels for legislative protection can have large and long-term effects in providing safety for our children.
It is hard not to be cynical about the perversity of linking the legislation reflecting harder attitude to pedophilia with legislation lowering of the age of homosexual consent for males from 18 to 16. The two issues are not the same – in fact they are heading in opposite directions. One is providing more protection for juveniles while the other removing some existing protection.
Our society does not permit 16 year olds to vote, buy tobacco products or alcohol, join the armed forces, marry, watch ‘R’ rated movies, change their name or obtain a passport. Not till they are 18 do we allow them to have the full range of adult freedoms and responsibilities.
The State’s role is to protect minors from predatory adults. The key to this protection is not just the age of consent – though that is one useful guard – but the difference in age between the parties involved. It is one thing for two 16 year olds to be experimenting – tragic and foolish as it may be – it is another thing altogether for a 16 year old to be the target of the advances of an adult 5, 10, 20 years their senior. This is the unequal relationship of power and abuse that lies at the heart of our revulsion against heterosexual or homosexual pedophilia.
It appears that the arguments for such lowering the age have to do with consistency with the heterosexual age of consent. Such consistency is the blinkering of ideologically driven small minds. Girls – the main object of predatory heterosexual adults – mature on average two years earlier than boys who are the main object of predatory homosexual adults. The difference in ages is not arbitrary or irrelevant.
As Christians we are opposed to the use of sexuality outside the committed relationship of marriage. We do not think that encouraging young people to engage in sexual activity before sufficient maturation to understand the need for relational commitment is ever right or helpful. The Government has not legislated to this effect. These are matters of personal choice and family guidance.
However, the age of consent is not about personal choice, but about the denial of such choice by lack of maturity and the unfair differential of age or power. This is a matter of protecting the vulnerable and resisting the predators. This is a matter of legislation.
It is not a matter of party politics, there is to be a conscience vote on the issue, but it is a matter of urgency. For without warning during the recent election campaign this matter has been brought on to the legislative program of the parliament with only two weeks warning.
As the predators will no doubt be keenly advocating their cause with the conscience of individual members of parliament, it is important that people concerned for the protection of our young people also make our concerns known to our members. It is arguable that consistency could be equally served by raising the age of consent to 18! There is very little evidence that encouraging earlier heterosexual experiences is beneficial to personal development.
Anti-pedophilia actions will be very popular with the electorate, while lowering the age of consent will be very unpopular. This is reflected in our restrictive legislation for children to protect them in a range of areas that we consider children are in danger. Sliding scales of community attitude are not enough to justify wrongdoing, especially when it not only involves sin but also the betrayal by those entrusted with protection. Our current revulsion of pedophilia is an appropriate response to the community’s failure of yesteryear.
We have just passed through a state election where I cannot recall any mention that this would be one of the first legislative acts of the newly elected government; let alone that it would be undertaken with such haste. I can understand why we need to immediately address the issue of pedophilia but I cannot recall any discussion of the courts facing difficulty maintaining justice because of many cases over the age of consent. Personal development and sexual guidance are best done individually within the family. Protecting them from their own foolishness is the difficult task of parenting.