THE American cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church took steps at the Vatican this week to prevent sexual abuse of children by errant priests. Their meeting with Pope John Paul II made a historic shift in recognizing that the church has an obligation to civil authorities beyond treating such abuse as only a sin to be absolved and covered up.
The pope himself made the shift by saying the abuses are "rightly considered a crime by society."
Their corrective steps can be viewed as part of a larger historical trend over the past century for governments to assume more responsibility over children. The Catholic Church is just the latest institution including the "institution" of the family to have to relinquish authority over some aspects of children's lives to the state.
How far will the American Catholic Church finally go in letting police and prosecutors deal with reports of sexual abuses by priests, even ones that seem marginal, like a kiss on the cheek? What if the charges prove false? The cardinals will work out the details at a June meeting in Dallas.
But many institutions from day care to sports clubs to churches as well as parents have discovered that there is a strong momentum for state protection of children.
The welfare of children began to be national US policy early in the 20th century. Federal action to protect children began with a women's movement to reduce infant mortality rates among immigrant families. It was also justified in ending the historical practice of seeing children as economic assets to be put to work, often in appalling conditions.
The world's view of children has shifted to seeing them as having their own autonomy and rights, and not just as the property of parents. Children began to be defined by their individual uniqueness.
By the founding of the UN in 1948, "children's rights" began to be encoded into law. In 1989, the UN set down a Convention on the Rights of the Child (which the US has not yet ratified).
The decision to place large numbers of teenagers in high schools and colleges for long periods, rather than work, further cemented government oversight of children, and helped lead to the explosive celebration of youth in the 1960s and the corrosive marketing of goods to children, from cigarettes to junk food.
Children's causes have often been used to justify reforms important to adults, such as racial integration (Brown v. Board of Education) or universal healthcare (Hillary Clinton's "It Takes a Village"). The breakdown of marriages has further justified state intervention. The rise of child experts like Dr. Benjamin Spock has led parents to think that others might know better what is best for a child.
All these trends have accelerated quickly, and very recently, in terms of human history. In cases where state control of children went too far, such as in communist nations, the trends have been reversed.
As the Catholic Church and others come to grips with society's demands to both protect children and improve their welfare, society itself needs to set limits on the level of state control over children, and find a balance.