(OPINION) Last week, millions of believers and nonbelievers across the globe were shocked when a video went viral showing the Dalai Lama asking a boy to suck his tongue. It’s been described as a “playful” exchange. We’re not so sure. The more appropriate word might well be “creepy.” In education circles, an incident like this is often called a teachable moment. But the real lessons to be learned from this video could be titled “How NOT to respond to possible child sexual abuse” Or “How NOT to respond to a troubling sexual situation with a child.” For more than three decades, I've been monitoring clergy sexual abuse. I’ve seen all kinds of responses to abuse reports and suspicions by accused men and their supporters. The reactions of the Dalai Lama’s spokesperson and admirers are every bit as troubling as his hug, kiss and request of the boy itself. If you know, like or admire someone whose actions around kids is causing concern, here are some of the ways you should NOT respond:
Don’t suggest or imply that the child took the initiative
The terse, four sentence “apology” release issued by the Dalai Lama’s office begins with “a young boy asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama if he could give him a hug.” Right off the bat, it is the boy who is described as essentially taking the initiative. At worst, this could be seen as a subtle form of victim blaming: “The kid shouldn’t have done that; what was he thinking?” At best, it is irrelevant. It makes no difference who approached whom or who made the first contact. It is the adult’s responsibility — always — to set and keep boundaries. And the adult must be held responsible — always — for what he does, no matter who takes the first step. Don’t emphasize words like ‘playful’ or ‘innocent’ You may feel it’s not accurate to call a man kissing a boy on the lips “abuse.” But we submit it’s not accurate to call it “playful” either. To do so minimizes the adult’s questionable actions and behavior and accepts the adult’s questionable framing. The sad, simple truth is that no one knows the Dalai Lama’s intent. To assume it was playful or innocent is to give the grown-up the benefit of the doubt. The benefit of the doubt in situations like this always goes to the child. Don’t assume since it was done in public it’s harmless Predators often test the waters by overstepping boundaries in front of other adults. They may aggressively tickle a girl or wrestle with a boy or engage in what he may later call “just horseplay.” If he’s not told to stop or if he gets no negative response, then he may believe he can gradually move ahead to more aggressive touching or more. Don’t overemphasize supposed cultural differences Obviously, different nationalities, ethnic groups and religious denominations have different ways of doing and saying things. It’s important to be cognizant and respectful of these differences. In most places, a grown-up hugging a child who isn’t their own is acceptable, especially if the child initiates the contact. In most places, a grown-up kissing a child who isn’t their own on the cheek is also acceptable. But an adult kissing a child on the lips is usually less acceptable. And not to put too fine a point on it: We know of no culture in which it’s OK for an adult to say “suck on my tongue” to a child. Again, if there’s doubt, we err on the side of the potentially victimized, not the potential victimizer. Don’t ascribe ill motives to those who publicize the incident It’s true that the Dalai Lama is both a religious and a political figure. And it goes without saying that his political opponents will try to capitalize on this moment to undermine his power and advance their own. Those two facts, however, are irrelevant. What matters are his actions, not who discloses those actions or what their motives might or might not be. Democrats highlight the rape allegations against Donald Trump. Republicans highlight Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct. And none of that impacts the truth in either case. Don’t use the passive voice “He regrets the incident,” reads the Dalai Lama’s actual apology. Again, the suggestion here, intended or not, is that something just happened. The reality is that an adult did something to a child. No incident just happened. This is hurtful and minimizing language. Don’t minimize what actually took place Technically, the Dalai Lama’s office is correct: There was “an incident.” But really, “incidents” is a better word. First, an adult hugged a child. Then the adult kissed him on the cheek. Then the adult kissed him on the lips. Then the adult said, “Suck my tongue.” Then the adult hugged the child again. Don’t take our word for it. Listen to this fuller description of what happened from The Guardian newspaper: “The Dalai Lama kept hold of the boy, saying ‘I think here also’ and then planted a kiss on his lips. ‘And suck my tongue,’ the Dalai Lama then said, sticking out his tongue, forehead to forehead with the student. The boy quickly stuck out his own tongue and went to move away while the Dalai Lama laughed and pulled the boy in for another hug, as the audience laughed.” Later, the spiritual leader gave him “a final hug.” The formal apology, however, mentioned — vaguely and only briefly — an incident, which makes it sound like it was a quick one-off kind of encounter when it seems to be more than that. And that apology was for the Dalai Lama’s words, neglecting to mention his actual deeds. Don’t misinterpret the victim’s reaction One Buddhist blogger writes, “The boy’s and his mother’s comments afterward were joyful.” That may be accurate. Or not. But it’s irrelevant. The two could have simply been in shock, unsure of what just happened or how to react to it. Have we learned nothing from years of rape victims being blamed because they didn’t respond to the trauma in ways we assume they would or should respond? “She didn’t seem that upset.” “She didn’t seem angry at the guy” “She was quiet, not freaking out the way I’d expect a victim to act, “She finished her shift and didn’t rush home after the boss supposedly attacked her.” “She didn’t block the man from her social media until days after the party.” “If that had happened to me, I’d be screaming and hollering.” Don’t be critical of the timing of disclosures like this Another Buddhist wrote of “the strange timing of this disclosure.” Again, the focus needs to be on what an adult did to a child, not when that adult’s actions surfaced or were disclosed. And if we as a society are to keep kids safer, we must learn to welcome abuse revelations regardless of whether they happen immediately or decades later.
For more than 30 years, David Clohessy was the national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He was sexually abused as a youngster by his parish priest.