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St. Nixed: Store Santas Shunned Over Child Safety Fears

Kevin McCandless, CNSNews.com, December 21, 2006

London - In a development that would make the Grinch smile, Santa Claus is said to be in danger of disappearing from British homes, stores and streets -- a victim of the fear surrounding child sex abuse.

According to the Manifesto Club, a free-speech group, stringent British child protection laws are threatening to ruin the traditional Christmas custom.

In recent years, the British press has focused increasing attention on the threat sex offenders pose to young children. Because of pedophile scandals, the group said in a new report, most adults playing at Santa in schools, churches and stores are now required to undergo costly criminal background checks before donning the red suit.

Concern about lawsuits has prompted many department stores to ban children from sitting on Santa's knee, touching him or visiting him in the traditional grotto (Santa's workshop).

As a result, report author Josie Appleton said children were learning that Santa is a character to fear -- not the jolly, happy figure of years past.

"The whole point of the experience of the grotto was that it was dark and mysterious," she told Cybercast News Service. "Now you've got a standoffish guy, standing under track lighting."

Although the report did not provide statistics showing a decline in the number of Santas over time, a prominent entertainment agency in London says it has seen its bookings decrease by half over the last five years.

The Manifesto Club said the current atmosphere of suspicion and fear also has tainted other customary Christmas activities, including caroling, Nativity plays and bell-ringing. Even at such apparently innocuous events as barbershop quartet concerts, adults are not allowed to be alone with children, the report said.

People who volunteer to take part at children's Christmas parties and events are not legally required to undergo a background check, but Appleton said many community groups organizing such events insist on checks regardless.

She said the situation could become even worse once new legislation comes into effect in 2008.

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act will require every adult who works or volunteers with children to undergo a background check, with failure to comply carrying a fine of around $ 9,750.

Appleton said the free-speech organization was fully supportive of efforts to catch those who would harm children, but she felt that such a blanket approach would backfire.

"If you have a procedure that's checking millions of adults, how are you going to catch the hundred or so of screwed-up individuals?" she asked. "You'll spend your time checking grandmothers."

Conservative Party lawmaker Tim Loughton's office confirmed Thursday that when the lawmaker volunteered as Santa for a fundraising event in his constituency in southeast England this year, children were forbidden from sitting on his knee.

David Pearson, head of the Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service charity, had a mixed reaction Thursday to the Manifesto Club report.

He said his group works with dozens of faith and community groups each week and believes that concerns over child protection sometimes go too far.

For example, some schools in the country ban parents from photographing and videotaping their children in Nativity plays - a measure he found ridiculous.

At the same time, Pearson said he had come across several instances in which known sex offenders had been hired to play Santa. Community groups were right to be cautious, he added.

"We try to bring good sense into it but we do have a responsibility to our children."

Pearson said dealing with Christmas and child protection was a thorny problem, and there are no simple solutions.

"It's easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize. It's another thing altogether to suggest what you would do."

Five years ago, the Ministry of Fun, an agency that supplies Santas for events throughout London, was taking 500-600 bookings for Christmas, but the numbers then began to slide.

Director James Lovell said Thursday bookings reached a low point two years ago and were currently around the 200-250 level.

Although none of the department stores that usually use his agency had cancelled their contracts, he said, they were using fewer Santas than before - mostly because Santas in grottos were no longer in demand. Those now being booked typically only walk around store aisles.

"Child protection laws are aimed at providing the safety and security that every child deserves and every parent expects," a spokesman for the government's Department for Education and Skills said in a brief statement responding to queries.

"These guidelines and laws are clearly laid down and should be applied using common sense," he said.

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