Keep the Children Safe
Back in 1989, a week of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes was devoted to story lines about working mothers. In one story that week, we were introduced to Helena Ruoti, an employee at the small music shop in the neighborhood run by Joe Negri. As the episode begins, Helena is on the phone with her babysitter. Her young son, Matthew, is screaming, and nothing will comfort him.
Joe suggests she go home to be with her son. Helena feels torn. “I’d like that,” she says, “but I also want to do my job for you.”
“You’re a wonderful worker,” Joe responds, “but Matthew needs you at home right now more than the store does.” A moment later he adds, “That’s one thing about this neighborhood—families and children come first.”
This story, recounted in Michael Long’s wonderful book Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers highlights a central tenet of the program and a lifelong maxim of the man who created it. Fred Rogers stated that tenet clearly in a public service announcement he recorded in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001: “I’m grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe, and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.”
Keep the children safe, and when they are unsafe or hurt, listen to their stories in a way that helps them to heal.
A Timely Message
Rogers lived in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and produced his program from the studios of WQED in Pittsburgh. Recently, this same area of Pennsylvania has been in the news due to a grand jury report identifying more than 300 Catholic priests across Pennsylvania who sexually abused children over seven decades and were protected by a hierarchy of Church leaders who covered it up.
The heartbreaking truth is that the Church, for years, did not do everything it could to keep the children safe. Moreover, when the children were unsafe and hurting, the Church did not listen to their stories, and thus left these children unable to heal.
The struggle Helena Ruoti feels in the fictional music shop in a fictional neighborhood is mirrored by the struggle faced by real parents, every day, in very real neighborhoods. At some point, we have to leave our children in the care of others. When that happens, how can we trust those adults to do everything they can to make sure our children—indeed, all children—are safe?
Naming those who are guilty of abuse and bringing them to justice are important first steps, but more is required. As a Church, parish by parish, person by person, we must be willing to listen to the pain and confusion of those who have been abused in a manner that can help them heal.
This is a responsibility placed upon each of us, not only by Mister Rogers, but by our Lord and Savior. We read in Matthew 21 that when Jesus entered the Temple, he drove out all those engaged in selling and buying there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves.
Then he began to heal the people. And the Scriptures tell us that the priests were indignant at the sight of it, but when Jesus was finished, the sanctuary was again filled with the songs of children.
The neighborhoods are calling. Our parishes are calling. Our schools are calling. Let us do everything we can so that all are safe, heard, and healed.