Rights, child molesters and the Constitution

I watched Thusian SDA speaker Nicole Pajotte on the news, at a constitutional reform consultation, warning about protecting boys from sexual abuse. She didn’t mention the Seventh Day Adventist pastor, father of five and principal of one of the denomination’s primary schools, just charged with abusing his students 14 times. Nor her Thusian colleague Nyron Medina who has publicly denied other allegations.

She warned about “sodomites.” But reviewing the nauseating headlines of sexual abuse of children, which I’ve urged in this space our leaders must never see as unavoidable, two other groups stand out—those in parental roles and those in religious roles, including religious teachers.

A right to one’s own sexuality, which would protect those children, is not explicitly recognised in our Constitution. Both parental and religious rights, however, are specifically referenced.

Single fathers’ advocate Rondell Feeles and my Caribbean Male Action Network (CariMAN) colleague Marlon Bascombe campaign for public policy to stop treating fathers as default predators, not trusted by courts or hospitals to be equal parents to their own children, visit them, take them home. Policies and protections recognising fathers’ rights and critical roles in children’s lives foster the kind of parental bonds that prevent sexual abuse.

Raised in what was the state religion when I was born, but is now the faith of just 1/17 of our population, I am a big defender of religious rights. Hindus, Muslims, Baptists, Rastas, Orisas know this place’s long history of Christian majority oppression and social stigma. We made them second-class, labelled their practices demonic and nasty and passed laws against them, and didn’t allow them to marry their believers.

All people have a right to hold faith beliefs, including ones about sexuality and what is right and wrong. The right to practise faith means the right to do or not do things with your body— shout, mortify your flesh, manifest spirits, fast, not eat beef or pork, be circumcised, not shave your beard, lock your hair, be chaste, cover yourself in a hijab, lie down before God—the same rights over their bodies others are asking for. Denying individuals’ religious rights won’t protect young men from sexual abuse any more than denying gay people’s will.

Denying some rights doesn’t protect others. That was colonialism’s recipe for social order. Societies that are more equal are more stable, have less crime and higher development levels.

But something has gone terribly out of control in our current public debate over the Constitution. We’ve forgotten that the guarantee of protection from imposition of other people’s faiths on us means we, too, don’t get to impose ours on others, or to have the State do so on our behalf.

In a multi-religious nation, religious freedom means precisely that your right to believe can’t infringe my right to not be bound by your belief. Just as sexual rights mean my right to have sex can’t infringe your right to not have sex with me.

As for protecting little boys, it’s this power of religion to abuse others—which is nobody’s right—that is at the root of sexual abuse of boys and girls that happens in religious settings, the power religious leaders wield over others who do not consent.

“Our children are being targeted,” Nicole cautioned, wide-eyed on my evening news. And I tend to agree.

Except young people aren’t being turned gay because they are sexually abused. They’re the same boys targeted and preyed on by bullies because of their gender expression. And sexual predators also target them, knowing in a climate of shame and criminalisation of same-sex sexuality, they can be sure these young people will hide their sexual abuse.

Men commit almost all cases of sexual violence, whether the victim is male or female. Deeply dysfunctional notions of masculinity (which my CariMAN brothers are working to transform)are what we see at work in the worst incidents of sexual abuse of children.

It’s these factors, not homosexuality, that fuel men’s predatory sexual abuse of boys. Just like they fuel preying on gay adults by opportunistic criminals who have discovered they can rob or rape others with impunity who won’t go to the police, believing they too are breaking the law, fearing public exposure, or simply assuming they’ll be called “bullerman” by officers and humiliated, as they know other victims who’ve reported these crimes have. Homophobia, as this reality is clumsily labelled, is also a stubborn barrier to boys’ healing from sexual abuse, and some carry a lifelong burden of stigma.

Perhaps, too, if consensual acts between adults of the same sex were legal, and they too could beg each other for numbers in the market or maxitaxi, fewer men who desire other men would seek sex from people whose vulnerability protects their secret.

I expect those whose religious rights I am committed to defending to be as passionate about protecting boys from sexual abuse as I am. Until we end their vulnerability to homophobia, we won’t be doing enough to make the world safe for the boys Nicole and I both want to protect.

Here are five constructive ways we could do this together:

  1. Decriminalise consensual homosexuality between adults in law
  2. Support protections for homosexuals from discrimination
  3. Create spaces where young people who think they may be homosexual can find support and affirmation
  4. Help people be loving parents and families to young gay and lesbian people
  5. Most important, talk to young people themselves about what will protect them—like those from the Silver Lining Foundation, a youth group that formed after a friend’s suicide, who also spoke at the constitutional consultations and are working with the University of the West Indies to create safe spaces.

Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith

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