3 min

Courage and cowardice from Toronto Catholic educators

Empathy needs to go beyond the personal sphere

Angela Kennedy in 2012, was selected to serve on the Board of Health, but Councillor Joe Mihevc introduced a motion that substituted her name for that of a public school trustee.  Credit: Rebel Media/Youtube

First the courage.

To talk about abuse, to openly discuss trauma, with either loved ones or with the public, is an act of utmost bravery. That’s what Brian Kennedy, a Toronto Catholic school teacher has been doing these past few months.

In February, he wrote about the shame he felt living as a survivor, in the hopes that it would help others break the silence.

It’s a powerful piece of writing that should be read in full.

At the end of his piece, Brian talks about his rage towards those silencing or censoring Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum.

“I’m a living example that we need more dialogue around sexual health, not less,” he wrote. “We need to encourage boys and girls to ask questions, or risk that they’ll bury them, like I did.”

But for a long time, his mother, Angela Kennedy, the chair of the Toronto Catholic District School Board has been one of the main opponents to modern sexual education in this city.

Until now.

After Brian told his mother about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child, she has come to change her mind on sexual education.

“After hearing about Brian’s story, I delved into the curriculum more in depth and I reflected a lot,” she told Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway earlier this week.

Now Angela has publicly reversed herself.

“When something this horrendous happens to someone who is this close to you, it causes you some pause, it causes you to think,” she said. “I’m in a position at the Catholic board where I have an opportunity to influence other people.”

Angela should be applauded for finally coming to the right side of the issue. However, her reasoning should not.

First, let’s recall that this is the same chair has consistently opposed gay-straight alliances, HPV vaccinations and abortion. Last year, she was unwilling to even say the word “gay” during an interview with Metro Morning. Will her new enlightened stance on sex education lead her to embrace, or at the very least acknowledge, gay-straight alliances?

But even beyond that, the problem with this form of logic is that it restricts empathy to those that we know.

Of course personal experience informs political views — that’s one reason why many people want their elected representatives to reflect the backgrounds of their constituents.

And there is political power in familial persuasion. The astonishingly rapid acceptance of gay marriage came about, at least partially, because gay people came out of the closet and many, though by no means all, of their families came to accept them.

That’s how staunch conservatives like former US vice president Dick Cheney and Senator Rob Portman came to change their views on gay marriage.

But if advances in human dignity only come about when those in privileged positions are prodded by their loved ones towards change, we are doomed.

Political leaders especially have a responsibility to open up their moral imaginations.

It’s not as if many people hadn’t been talking about how helpful the sexual education curriculum would be in combatting sexual violence, homophobia and transphobia. It’s just that Angela Kennedy wasn’t listening to those voices.

This way of thinking is pernicious and wide-spread. Why else do we try and stop sexual assault by reiterating that all women are someone’s daughter, sister, mother or wife? And how will we provide justice for indigenous or black Canadians when they’re much less likely to be part of the decision-making elite?

If we only allow for human dignity to be acknowledged when it touches us, we fail. If politicians only push for the dignity of classes of people they personally know, they fail all of us.

We should commend Angela Kennedy for changing her mind about the sex-ed curriculum. Her support will help children of all sexual orientations and gender identities be safer and more supported.

But if this is where her revelations end, then she will continue to be an example of moral cowardice.