Rebecca Tyrrel: When is a kiss not just a kiss? When it's a silly mistake

That he did nothing wrong is irrelevant. The damage is done
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The Independent Online

I don't believe the reason the Rev Alan Barrett has quit his post as chairman of the board of governors at William MacGregor Primary in Tamworth is because he really thinks the peck on the cheek he gave a 10-year-old pupil was "inappropriate". I think the vicar of St Editha's, a married man with three children, has ended his work at the school in sheer desperation.

Mr Barrett woke one morning to find that the police and the social services had leapt into action on the word of one angry mother and that there were two separate investigations into his character being carried out. That the vicar was ultimately found to have done nothing wrong is irrelevant. The damage is done; he will for ever be damned as the one who behaved inappropriately with a 10-year-old girl as he presented her with a certificate for maths.

Now clearly, it is possible to award prizes for academic achievement without kissing the recipients and there are no written rules to say you can't pucker up in congratulation, especially if the student in question has struggled in the subject at which she is now excelling. (How nice that the clergyman had taken the trouble to get to know this about the girl.) Except that social mores dictate that kissing the cheek of an under-16 is absolutely not on these days because it might be thought to represent a paedophile "grooming" activity.

Perhaps in the next update of Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners, this will be made clear.

In the meantime, confusion is set to reign. The complaining mother may have thought that Mr Barrett was a paedophile or, at the very least, a paedophile manqué, otherwise why would such a furore have ensued from such an apparently innocent act. It was an act even more innocent, come to think of it, than Vladimir Putin's recent spontaneous decision to lift a five year old boy's T-shirt and kiss him on the stomach - and no one seriously believed that the Russian President was harbouring inappropriate thoughts. Still he was obliged, in the face of frenzied, widespread speculation, to explain why he had done it. Then President Putin made everything much worse by saying he did it because he wanted to "stroke [the boy] like a kitten", which to some could sound very much like grooming.

What both these menwere actually doing was making silly faux pas. Except that's not what the Tamworth mother thought. She described it as "common assault".

Actually, I agree in as much as I would not be too happy with "faux pas" either. I would describe Mr Barrett's behaviour as being entirely within the bounds of what is normal and acceptable. As were the actions of the 60-something teacher who gave my son and all the other eight-year-old boys leaving her school a goodbye peck this time last year.

"It's not gross," I said, "it's good manners. Stop gagging." Of course, he didn't stop because all his peers were at it too - it's how children behave. It is not inappropriate for a child who has been kissed on the cheek in public by a much older authority figure, especially one in a tight, tweed skirt, to gag.

And it wouldn't have been inappropriate if the 10-year-old kissed by the vicar had gone home and said to her mother: "I got a certificate for, like, maths but, gross, a man who looked like Ian Paisley kissed me and it was, like, really embarrassing." The next appropriate thing would have been for the mother to tell her daughter to stop being so ungrateful and to go and watch The OC on the telly. What she did instead was the most inappropriate thing of all in this silly saga.

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