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But what do parents do? (10/08/2006)
By Frances Edstrom

Let's talk about the gay congressman and his relationship with some teenagers who served as congressional pages.

We've heard plenty from the party politicos about who should apologize/resign/eat worms/be electrocuted. We've heard enough laughable excuses from the congressman. (Alcohol problem? Abused by clergymen? Um, can you say "have a weakness for boys?")

What I want to talk about is what the rest of us are supposed to do. How do we relate in our social circles to men we encounter whose sexual language and behavior make us uncomfortable? How do we deal in our own lives with men (it seems usually to be men) who are attracted to young people, specifically, our children, both our boys and our girls? What sort of caveats and advice do we share with our kids? And how does society's increasing taboo against questioning another's sexual proclivities (both homo- and heterosexual) confound our parental instincts?

In the years that the Winona Post has been reporting local news, there has been an unfortunate amount of it about sexual abuse of children. I say unfortunate, because what too often happens is that those who come forward to accuse adults of sexual abuse find themselves vilified. Vilified unmercifully by the very people they hope can help them defend themselves, and by naive adults who cannot accept that someone they have trusted is not only untrustworthy, but a sexual predator ("but we just had dinner with him!" "I just saw him in church!"). I can think of two such very high-profile cases in recent years.

Certainly it is not unheard of for children to lie. Intelligent adults know that. But they should also know that if careful and methodical police work shows there to be some cause to believe such accusations, society must pursue the truth diligently, and our judicial system must punish such behavior (which has often been done rather half-heartedly).

Parents, understanding that public accusation of an adult abusing their child may have the opposite effect from what they intended, might understandably shy away from taking their fears to the authorities. They might be able to remove their child from danger by making changes and being vigilant, but the abuser is left alone to search for another victim.

And how is a parent to know when "creepy" behavior by an older person could become any more than that. Certainly we've all known someone older than us who seemed always to be leering, or "accidentally" brushing body parts. When does that go from the harmless activity of an old lecher we advise our kids to "just stay away from" to a predictor of deviant sexual abuse?

The recent case of the creepy congressman also serves to shine a light on the plight of parents in dealing with homosexuality. On the one hand, we must teach our children tolerance, but like those surrounding the congressman, at what point do we admit to our kids that yes, even "protected" classes of people may act inappropriately and dangerously?

Bottom line, we don't want anyone preying on our kids, and we must remain vigilant. Without alarming them we must let our children know that people, even people they know and who are in positions of authority, may do them harm. Without becoming paranoid we must keep our eyes open and our sixth sense well-tuned. And we all must withhold judgement of the accuser and accused alike until all the evidence is in. Only then will the preyed-upon have the courage and the authorities have the strength of mandate to protect us from those we need protection against. 


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