- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

LONDON — A kiss on the hand may be quite continental but one elsewhere can get a boxer, a president or even a vicar into an awful lot of trouble.

Perhaps the Rev. Alan Barrett thought that what was good enough for the Oscars was good enough for prize-giving at the William McGregor Primary School.

Perhaps he thought that a handshake was too formal for a 10-year-old girl receiving a math certificate. Perhaps he just didn’t think about it at all.

Whatever, the vicar from Tamworth, Staffordshire, got it wrong when he kissed the pupil in front of her class and teacher.

The girl’s mother complained, and Mr. Barrett was accused of common assault. Although investigators cleared him of any wrongdoing, Mr. Barrett has had to resign as a school governor.

The vicar had stepped into a minefield, stretching across continents, of getting it wrong. Russian President Vladimir Putin raised eyebrows last week when he paused at a gaggle of tourists in the Kremlin, stooped before a shy 5-year-old boy, pulled up the boy’s shirt and planted a kiss on his belly.

Mr. Putin was forced to defend the kiss after critics said that even by local standards, it was overly familiar. “I just wanted to touch him like a kitten,” he said.

Eddie Daniel, a boxer from the Cook Islands, was certainly overly familiar at a lunch during the Commonwealth Games in March when he broke with royal protocol by giving the queen a peck on the cheek.

He thought he was only being courteous. “I just walked up to her and kissed her, and she just smiled back,” Mr. Daniel said.

Arguably, the complexity of kissing strangers has never been greater. Although the touchy-feely politics of “inclusiveness” encourages public figures to be more intimate with the public, panic over pedophilia and the threat of sexual harassment accusations increase the risk of a kiss.

“We used to think of Reds under the bed,” says Lembit Opik, a member of Parliament from the Liberal Democratic Party. “Nowadays, we think everyone has cruel intentions. It’s utterly heartbreaking to think that, of all people, a vicar’s innocent behavior should be regarded in bad faith.”

“[Britain] must be the most pedo-hysteric country in the world,” says Mary Killen, the social writer for Spectator magazine. “There’s no problem with people kissing in France.”

Nevertheless, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in France expressed shock yesterday at the furor over Mr. Barrett’s osculatory adventure.

“I have seen many priests and teachers kiss pupils on the cheek,” said Elizabeth Cordier. “In France, we kiss easily. In this case, we’re talking about kissing a 10-year-old girl in front of the class. If it was an adolescent, then perhaps one might think twice, but not at that age.”

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