Monday, August 30, 2004

Sex Ed Likened to Child Abuse

Mon 30 Aug 2004
Cardinal's attack wins pledge on sex lessons

JACK McConnell moved quickly yesterday to try to head off a damaging fight with the Catholic church after being accused of ushering in "state-sponsored sexual abuse" of children.

The First Minister was responding to an unprecedented attack by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholics, who warned him not to liberalise sex education guidelines.

Cardinal O’Brien claimed the Executive was preparing to give sex education lessons to children as young as three and provide free contraceptives to teenagers without their parents’ knowledge.

But Mr McConnell insisted he had no intention of allowing that to happen, saying there was "no prospect" of the Cardinal’s fears being realised. The spat between the two represents the start of a battle over sex education which Cardinal O’Brien is determined to win.

The First Minister’s approach yesterday - he acted swiftly to try to reassure the Cardinal - suggests it is a battle the Church has all but won.

The central issue is a review of sex education which is being conducted by Malcolm Chisholm, the health minister.

The consultation, Enhancing Sexual Wellbeing in Scotland, ends next month and Cardinal O’Brien was clearly alarmed by the early drafts of the strategy which suggested sex education for nursery children and a widening of access to abortion and contraception for teenagers.

In an attempt to pre-empt the final version, Cardinal O’Brien used an article in The Sunday Times yesterday to warn ministers they faced a war which would dwarf the battle over Section 28 if they tried to implement a sex education strategy which bore any resemblance to the early drafts.

"The Section 28 debate could be a mere flicker compared to the protests of parents determined to preserve their children’s innocence and protect their childhood," he said.

"Parents are rightly appalled at the idea of prepubescent, far less pre-school children, being provided with graphic and intimate sexual instruction. Should such material be used, it would amount to the state-sponsored sexual abuse of minors."

Mr McConnell will be aware of the battle in the first year of devolution. Opponents organised a massive public referendum in protest at the Executive’s plans to abolish Section 28, which outlawed the promotion of homosexuality in schools.

He has also clashed with the Catholic Church over shared-campus schools and his proposals to reform family law, paving the way for so-called "quickie" divorces.

Mr McConnell does not need to further confrontation with the Catholic Church, and he made it clear yesterday that the final draft of the sexual health strategy would not be as extreme as the Cardinal feared.

The First Minister told Real Radio: "There is no suggestion that there should be sex education for very young children in Scotland, and it is wrong to suggest that is the case.

"There is no suggestion that we are going to be handing out the morning-after pill in Scotland’s schools and it is wrong to suggest that is the case.

"If an opinion poll is commissioned on those subjects then clearly the answer will be that it shouldn’t happen and it is not going to happen.

"I would want to reassure everybody that any policy that is introduced in Scotland will be based firmly, fundamentally at its very core, on respect between young boys and girls, on teaching youngsters to respect each other and have decent relationships, and teaching youngsters that it is not necessary in order to have a good relationship as a teenager to get involved in sexual activity."

Mr McConnell’s remarks, in which he also voiced his admiration for Cardinal O’Brien, appear to suggest that the final sexual health strategy will not contain some of the proposals of the earlier drafts.

But they also indicate the First Minister’s determination to shut this issue down as quickly as possible.