Lack of physical affection damages children - priest


IRISH SOCIETY has overreacted to the child sex abuse problem, and this may be damaging more people than were even abused, Redemptorist priest and author Fr Tony Flannery has said.

"This imbalance in our reaction is brought about by a naivete in modern Irish life, and particularly the media presentation of it," he says in his new book Fragments of Reality.

He recalled recently seeing a young female teacher among her class of infants "They flocked around her. In a totally unselfconscious way she straightened their caps, zippered up their jackets, and hugs were exchanged while they chatted away. Physical contact was the order of the day."

Due to changes brought about since the child sex abuse issue emerged, "a slight pat on the head is the limit of the physical contact I would have with a child now, and even that would only be attempted in a very public area."

This, he said, "is not because I am a priest, but because I am a man."

Being a priest probably added to his constraint," but the fundamental reason for my reticence with children is my maleness. It is increasingly regarded as inappropriate for a man to have any physical contact with a child, unless it happens to be his own son or daughter."

He felt that "by effectively depriving our children of the possibility of appropriate male intimacy and affection, we may end up doing more damage to a large number than was caused by the (sex abuse) problem we are trying to solve."

Dismissing the view that "we can actually eradicate wrong behaviour if only we put the proper structures and sufficient sanctions in place", he said it reflected an "absence of a sensible and balanced philosophy of life".

Every human was involved in a struggle between good and evil, and "that struggle will continue until the end of time", but this Christian view was now rejected by influential sections of society.

He remembered a conversation with a man who said he had known some convicted child abusers. "In so many ways they were good and lovely people," the man had said.

Fr Flannery commented that "in the Christian understanding of the human person that makes perfect sense. But to those who wish to brand abusers as inhuman beasts it is incomprehensible."

Trying "to retain a sense of balance in dealing with the problems of life is very important,"he said.