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Retribution, neglect deprive children of hope


Having recently returned from the Youth Ministers/Ministry Conference in Denver, I found myself thinking about the state of our children. What I found most challenging about the conference was the presence of so many young adults, eager to participate in our church but also seeking and open to guidance from those of us who attempt to serve them in youth ministry.

Attempting to respond to their questions about the future gave me pause, however, as I thought of the many young people not represented or present there. They were absent from this and many other church gatherings for far too many reasons. Many have no experience of life in the Catholic or any other church, be-cause they have not been exposed to a life of faith. Others find themselves in soulless neighborhoods where cynicism is rewarded over faith, and in homeless shelters, foster homes, juvenile detention centers, and increasingly in adult correctional facilities where they are sexually and in other ways abused. How could their lives be different? What was missing from the lives of such unfortunate children and present in the lives of the young people gathered at Denver?

The world is a cruel place today especially for the young, those innocents we as adults have been mandated to care for, nurture, encourage and protect as they explore with wide-eyed wonder the world unfolding around them and seek to find their place in it. I shudder as I read of children only a few months old being beaten to death, drowned in the bathwater, whipped until their bodies are covered with scars, tied to radiators and left in dark closets without food and clothing. How could anyone hurt an innocent child? we ask in horror, yet we know the answer.

For it is their parents and grandparents, their uncles and aunts, their stepparents, their caretakers, their teachers, and yes, even their ministers and priests who have abused and continue to abuse them, shattering their innocence and often ending their lives. What kind of country do we live in where a 3-year-old child can disappear from the home of her foster parents and no one is concerned about her disappearance for over a year? Where is our outrage at the incompetence of those assigned to help children who too often contribute to their harm, whether willfully or not?

Yet why should we be surprised? There’s no direct link as far as I know that can be proven between the increase in reported cases of child abuse and the increased rate of incarceration of children as young as 10 years of age who have been tried as adults. But surely there is some connection. Our children have been turned into “others,” faceless and nameless things, and as such have lost not only their identity as human beings but also all of the rights that accompany such an identity.

Recently two brothers, ages 12 and 13 at the time of their alleged actions, were tried as adults and convicted of murder as the result of a twisted effort by the prosecution to bag three birds at one time. The adult who had sexually abused the youngest and certainly emotionally abused both of them, tried separately, was found innocent to the shock of many including, fortunately, a judge who overturned the boys’ convictions and had their charges and sentences reduced. Yet the charges and sentences were still based on their status as adults rather than as children.

We have demonized our children. Yes, many of their crimes are heinous but has anyone, in the rush to false adulthood and vindictive retribution, asked why over the past 25 or so years, our children have supposedly become savage animals without morals, sensitivity, or any normal human and social responses? Do we simply blame rap music and violence on TV and films or do we acknowledge our own failure to parent, to lead and guide these children onto other paths? Their socialization too often takes place in the company of other children rather than with the moral and social leaders of our decaying communities because, too often, these leaders are too busy pursuing their own goals, oblivious to the destruction and despair left in their wake.

We are as complicit in child abuse as those parents and grandparents who have inflicted the actual physical or emotional abuse. A 10-, 11- or 12-year-old is not an adult. No rewriting of the law, no language about “wilding,” or “savages,” or “animal-like behavior,” will change that fact that they are still children. Yet we condemn them as adults because it is easier, it rids us of their presence. We sentence them to jails already overcrowded and filled with hardened criminals and look the other way because, after all, they have committed a crime or even crimes.

Should we not ask what led them down this fatal path? What happened to rehabilitation, or forgiveness or a second chance? As Christians, we believe that Christ offers his salvation to all, over and over and over again, for God’s mercy has no bounds and God’s grace is overflowing.

If we truly believe that life is sacred from womb to tomb, why do we as Christians not only apparently accept this travesty of justice and faith but also actually promote it just as we promote the death penalty? There is no chance for conversion, no possibility of repentance, no avenue for salvation under such circumstances. I am sickened daily by the violent acts of children, but also by the adult response to those acts. If a child commits a crime, they should and must be punished for it, but that punishment should not just fit the crime, it should also fit the criminal. It must offer the hope of their rehabilitation, of a life change that will enable them to become decent law-abiding citizens. This is not possible under our present system of law and injustice.

Of course, to wait until the crime has been committed is much too late. Intervention should and must begin so much earlier, literally from the date of birth. Ironically, however, those who are so vehemently protective of the life of the fetus too often seem completely indifferent to the child that emerges from the womb nine or so months later, at least until that child commits a breach of the peace or an act of violence towards them or their property.

I am appalled by the lack of concern in our church and in our country about our children. We prattle on about standardized tests while we cut the funding for public schools and argue over teacher salaries while paying exorbitant ticket prices to pay athletes outrageous salaries. We eliminate physical education, art and music classes, recess and even foreign language re-quirements to save money and give more time to tests but we refuse to recognize the negative impact these cuts have on a child’s future, on his or her ability to be creative, to imagine worlds other than his or her own, to have hope.

What are we offering our children today? Schools that resemble prisons more than places of learning, overcrowded schedules of activities that leave them little time to create on their own, and endless days of boring repetition and rote memorization with few activities that stimulate their creativity, wasted lives in blasted out inner cities and impoverished rural towns with no resources or outlets, providing no hope for viable futures or else lives of rampant materialism and indulgence. We teach them by our own example to give in to their every impulse, to lie, to cheat and to blame others rather than taking responsibility for their own actions. At Little League and PeeWee football games, at cheerleading tryouts, in camps and in clubs, we teach them to disregard the needs and concerns of those smaller, weaker or less fortunate than themselves, to ride roughshod over others feelings and needs, to think only of themselves and to be violent when things don’t go the way they want them to go.

Our country and our church are doomed if we do not recognize the injustices being perpetrated on those least able to defend themselves, our children. Their future is ours and it is slowly and irrevocably being destroyed for the sake of a few dollars. We’re building a legacy of despair in the train of endless and needless war, disease and poverty.

My prayer for this Christmas season and for the coming year is that the true meaning of Jesus’ birth will fill our hearts and open our eyes and ears to the sins being perpetrated every day against our children, the least among us. We must work together to change their lives for the better and, in so doing, change our own lives as well.

Diana Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University, Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002