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After months of heartbreaking news about the widespread sexual molestation of children by officials of the Roman Catholic Church, the crisis has drawn an awkward response from an institution apparently more concerned with its image than protecting the children of its parishes. But let us not despair. The church has a golden opportunity to atone for its sins, not only by fully addressing this issue, but also by wholeheartedly affirming the sanctity of the child.

Abuse is not the word that describes the sexual violation of children. Assault is. It's an assault of the child's psyche and spirit, a gross betrayal of trust between the powerful and the vulnerable. We may speak of abuse in the sense that one can use or abuse a substance such as alcohol. But children are people and people are not to be used, and thus we cannot speak of children in terms of abuse. Sexual violation of the young is a sin - a crime that in other sectors (sports, education, medicine) is punishable by law.

There's much more at stake here than a church needing to make amends. I believe that the moment is ripe for a breakthrough. These times cry out for the world's spiritual leaders to stand together as never before in support of the world's children.

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The growing recognition that children are people who are worthy of respect is enshrined in recent human-rights treaties and movements. The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified international treaty for children. (Only the U.S. and Somalia have yet to ratify.) In 1999, my Covenant for Honouring Children recognized children as whole people, "original blessings, here to learn their own song." The Dalai Lama, who has long advocated a universal ethic regardless of religion, echoed the call for honouring children. Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela, Unicef and other partners formed the Global Movement for Children. And in response to a UN study on violence against children, the Coventry Charter for Children and Non-Violence (2006) affirmed children's personhood and full human rights. (Despite this progress, the UN's vision of "a world fit for children" remains elusive.)

Will Pope Benedict XVI seize the moment and add his voice to this chorus? Would he join with other faith leaders in a new covenant to love and protect children?

The Golden Rule bids us to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." If we include children in the word "others" - and we must - here is the basis for according not only the normal respect given to adults but also the special consideration due to children's unique status as beings at the start of the human journey. How we regard and treat them is etched in their brains, hearts and minds for a lifetime.

The tragedy of child soldiers, child prostitution and sexual slavery, extreme child poverty, female genital mutilations and other forms of violence and maltreatment of the young persist throughout the contemporary world. Add pervasive exploitation by advertisers and marketers and child labour in the globalized production of goods, and you have a rampant disrespect of impressionable humans in their formative years. This travesty maims generations, but it's preventable.

The maltreatment of children has no place in an enlightened world. Various forms of violence - threats, smacks, beatings - whether in monastic settings, the classroom or the home are counterproductive and harmful. As countless studies have shown, violence against children not only violates their rights, but it also is detrimental to their sense of self.

Religious leaders can inspire their faithful to forgo the outdated view of children as incomplete adults to be coerced or taken advantage of. A clear call to replace physical punishment with positive discipline and coercion with respect could herald a moment in which the world's faiths jointly affirm the young as people endowed with innate intelligence and dignity, worthy of respect.

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