Could More Sex Education Prevent Child Abuse by Clergy?

Parents who want less sex education at school are putting all children at risk.

Posted Aug 15, 2018

As the new school year begins, a small vocal minority of parents are again trying to take sex education out of the schools, or at the very least, narrow the focus to “vanilla” sex between consenting, married adults. The newly elected Ontario government, in Canada’s most populous province, seems to be listening and has said it will scrap a brand-new curriculum that took years, and thousands of hours of consultation with parents, to create. Instead, the province will use a time machine and re-institute the curriculum from the late 1990s.

All of this is taking place at the same time that we are finally getting to see a Grand Jury Report on child sexual abuse by clergy in Pennsylvania. That report found more than 1,000 cases of sexual assault by Catholic clergy over the past half century. The stories are horrific. There are graphic accounts of priests “weaponizing” church teachings to manipulate children to pose naked, perform oral sex, and be penetrated. Most telling of all, the priests did all this while many superiors were well aware of their crimes.

If clergy and parents aren’t going to protect children, doesn’t it make sense that we provide kids with the information they need to protect themselves? Being fondled by your church leader is a long way from the sanitized discussion of “love,” “intimacy,” and how babies are made that we feel most comfortable sharing with our kids. The grittier, more complicated facts need a professional educator to be taught correctly. Kids need to know the realities of what consent really means, the truth about oral sex and its consequences, the dangers of internet porn (and how they can be exploited), how pedophiles groom young people for sexual assault, and much more about same-sex relationships than prudish heterosexual parents want to admit their kids have a right to know. The good news is that this is one issue that may unite the political right and left. A recent study of Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. and their attitudes towards sex education found very few differences between the groups. If anything, Republicans were a little more likely to endorse sex education than Democrats, though the reasons aren’t clear.

Regardless of voting pattern, the parents who are most hesitant to let their children hear the truth about sex have children who are the most at risk of becoming victims of abuse, or unintentionally causing, or having, an unwanted pregnancy.

All of this is avoidable. Sex education works. A quick scan of the voluminous literature finds numerous studies, like that by Nicole Jaramillo and her colleagues at San Diego State University, which show that the more information kids receive, the safer they are. Jaramillo’s study asked over 500 15-to-20-year old sexually active heterosexual males about their sexual knowledge and practices. They found that the more topics young men reported having covered in sex education classes at school, the greater the likelihood that they would use contraception. Topics like HIV/AIDS were common to almost every curriculum, but fewer and fewer young men could recall being taught important information such as where to get condoms, or the variety of birth control methods available. Again, the lesson is simple: The more information children receive, the safer they will be.

Indeed, I wonder if the number of children who were assaulted by the Pennsylvania clergy was the same over the past 50 years? I have a sneaking suspicion that the number may have declined, in no small measure because sex education has been improving and children have become less easy to dupe into unwanted sexually abusive situations. They are also more likely to tell and be believed.

While I understand that parents want to maintain control over the values being taught to their children, the fact is that all children are potential victims of sexual abuse in their homes, schools, on their sports teams, and in religious institutions. That noisy minority in Ontario told a group of conservative politicians that parents should be the ones to teach their children about sex. The politicians listened, but at the peril of the children. If history teaches us well, children denied better sex education will be the ones most vulnerable to predators, and the ones most likely to have an early pregnancy or contract a sexually transmitted disease.

There is no way around this truth. Ignorance does not make children less likely to have sex. I know that from my years doing family trees (genograms) with families in therapy. Go back one or two generations (before sex education in the schools was common) and it is easy to find families with one, two, or three older daughters over the age of 16, and a much, much younger “sibling." Where I come from, women refer to these children as “post-menopausal surprises," but in fact, scratch for the truth and one hears that they are more likely to be the children of their older siblings. Quietly, the real mother became the baby’s sister, and the grandmother took over the role of mother. Some of these secrets endure for decades, if they are ever discovered at all.

When it comes to sex and children, the more the kids know about their bodies and about the pleasures and dangers that come with sex, the safer and happier they will be.


Kantor, L. & Levitz, N. (2017). Parents’ views on sex education in schools: How much do Democrats and Republicans agree? PLoS one, 12(7), e0180250

Jaramillo, N., Buhi, E. R., Elder, J. P., & Corliss, H. L. (2017). Associations between sex education and contraceptive use among heterosexually active, adolescent males in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 60(5), 534-540.