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A clear case for abstinence

What possessed Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Scotland's senior Catholic, to desert his reputation as a mild and measured public figure this week? His warning that he is going to place his troops on a war footing against the battalions who would sanction "state-sponsored sexual abuse of minors" is unlikely to encourage the considered debate he wants or (as a consequence) achieve the ends he seeks.

The Cardinal's position is based on a highly speculative and tendentious assumption of what the Executive's unpublished sexual health strategy will stipulate. The First Minister, the Health Minister and the Education Minister have all completely rejected his assertion that graphic sexual material is to be presented to pre-school youngsters or that sex education will promote the prescription of the pill to girls without their parents'

consent.

The fact is that the existing guidance on sex education, which by its nature is sensitive and can be challenging, could not be clearer in underlining some of the values that Cardinal O'Brien espouses. Children should be encouraged to "appreciate the value of commitment in relationships and partnerships", it states. The guidance, issued in the wake of the section 2A imbroglio, is hardly a value or moral-free zone.

The Church's leaders appear to be engaged in a two-pronged strategy - upping the ante as a warning shot to the Executive not to give in to the lobbyists in the "sexual health business" and promoting its own agenda of sex education which preaches (we use the word advisedly) abstinence and chastity. But, as with the section 2A controversy, the Church completely ignores one of the major defences against inappropriate sex education - the professionalism of teachers, backed by the panoply of inspection and quality assurance within which they have to work.

Cardinal O'Brien's advisers have not served him well in this matter, particularly in his use of apocalyptic language which does nobody any favours. A period of abstinence would now be in the Church's, and everyone else's, best interests.

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