Catholic World News News Feature

Talking about Touching June 01, 2003

In March, a group of parents of students at St. Catherine of Siena school in Norwood, Massachusetts, gathered at their suburban Boston parish for a presentation on a new curriculum that will be taught to all students. The program was to be inaugurated this year for children at the class levels from pre-kindergarten to the 4th grade; next year it would be expanded to cover the 5th through 8th grades at all parochial grammar schools in the archdiocese. Although the program is billed as a broad-based "personal safety" curriculum, in practice the focus is more specific. The course is entitled "Talking about Touching," and it is primarily a response by the Archdiocese of Boston to the clergy sex-abuse scandal.

As the parents were given their first exposure to the curriculum through an introductory video, some of them were shocked at what it contained. The video opened with the tableaux of a young child of about 5 years old asking his mother, "Mommy, what is sex?" And the mother responds, "Sex is when two people get undressed and rub their private parts together."

At that point John Bettinelli, a father of three boys who are students at the school (and the brother of this writer), knew something was wrong. "There was no mention of chastity or love, that the two people should be married, or even that they should be of the opposite sex," he said. Referring to the video itself, he said, "And whether the child (in the video) was an actor or not, I knew that the child had just been sexually abused."

Some of the parents in Norwood were concerned that such a troubling, secular understanding should be at the heart of a curriculum being taught in a Catholic school and touching on such a sensitive topic. But when they asked whether they would be able to have their children excused from the lessons, they were first challenged, "Why would you want to?" When they pressed, they were told that this year their children could be exempted, but that the Archdiocese of Boston had decided that every child in parochial schools and religious-education programs would be required to receive training in the sex-abuse program beginning next fall.

So these parents--all of them loyal and orthodox Catholics, active members of their parish--began to organize, and to inform themselves about their rights as parents of Catholic-school children.

The parents had several significant concerns:

  • that their parental authority, as outlined in Church teaching and canon law, was being usurped;
  • that the program's contents violated their children's innocence;
  • that there were secular, worldly principles being fostered in the program that were inimical to their own Catholic principles; and
  • that the curriculum placed their children as the first line of defense for the archdiocese against legal liability.

PARENTAL AUTHORITY

Several fathers first approached the pastor of St. Catherines parish, Msgr. Cornelius McCrae. The pastor urged them to organize the parents who were concerned, which they did, forming the group that took on the title "Shared Concerns of School Parents." Msgr. McCrae proved friendly and helpful, but he made the revealing statement that, as a priest in Boston in the current climate, he could not publicly oppose the program, because he could not risk being seen as an opponent of any measure that might conceivably protect children from clerical abuse. So the parents, he said, would have to undertake their own campaign.

The Norwood parents did exactly that, organizing a meeting at which the cadre of concerned parents would present their objections to other members of the parish. This meeting was originally to be a lay-run affair, but then Msgr. McCrae changed his mind, and said that the meeting would be run by school administrators and archdiocesan officials, including Deacon Anthony Rizzuto, the director of the Boston archdiocese's newly formed Office of Child Advocacy, Implementation, and Oversight.

At that April meeting, the parents confronted the deacon with their dismay at being required to involve their children in a program that would, in their informed opinion, expose their children to harmful material.

In asserting their rights, they presented the Church's teaching, including Pope John Paul II's words from his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio :

Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents , must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them. In this regard, the Church reaffirms the law of subsidiarity, which the school is bound to observe when it cooperates in sex education, by entering into the same spirit that animates the parents. [emphasis added]

Deacon Rizzuto's response, reported by several of the parents who attended the meeting, was that he had not read any of the Church documents to which they were referring, including Familiaris Consortio and Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality , a 1995 document of the Pontifical Council for the Family. In fact the deacon, a retired Air Force officer, had no particular claim to expertise in the fields of family life or child protection; he had been chosen to head the new archdiocesan office from his most recent post as overseer of the archdioceses cemeteries.

So the parents quoted Truth and Meaning , the Pontifical Council's document: "Parents must protect their children, first by teaching them a form of modesty and reserve with regard to strangers, as well as by giving suitable sexual information, but without going into details and particulars that might upset or frighten them ." [ emphasis added ] And Deacon Rizzuto replied simply that the unhappy parents should trust the teachers and the archdiocese. Rizzuto added that alternative programs and "making this program more Catholic" were options that could possibly be considered, but unless there were "enough concerned families," nothing was likely to change. And it was not clear how "enough concerned families" could be mobilized, if loyal parishioners were being encouraged to set aside their concerns and trust their teachers.

The Norwood parents were not to be so easily dissuaded from voicing their concerns. William Germino, father of a 5-year-old girl in a pre-kindergarten class, said he was concerned that the way in which sensitive material was presented in the "Talking about Touching" program would do more harm than goo--that use of explicit terms for male and female reproductive organs in front of a 5-year-old, and examples of "You put your hand in my pants and I'll put mine in yours," could very well "upset or frighten small children." He added, "It has the potential to undermine their innocence."

Despite such concerns, the Boston archdiocese has decided that parents will not be able to have their children exempted from the lesson plans. Nor will parents even be allowed to monitor the classrooms in which their children are exposed to this sensitive material. In an interview with the Associated Press, Father Christopher Coyne, the official spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, reasoned that parents are not forced to send their children to Catholic schools, or to keep them in parochial schools if they object to particular programs. He did not address the fact that the same curriculum will be implemented in religious-education classes for those students who do not attend Catholic schools, so that students may not be considered qualified to receive the sacraments if they do not take instruction in the "Talking about Touching" program.

Echoing the advice presented by Deacon Rizzuto, Father Coyne said that the parents of schoolchildren should trust their teachers and administrators. "At a certain point, you buy into a program," he told the Associated Press.

But what is it, exactly, that parents of Boston schoolchildren are being asked to "buy into?" It is important to recall that the "Talking about Touching" program was brought into the Boston parochial schools in response to public outrage over the sexual abuse of children by priests of the archdiocese. Should concerned parents now "buy into" a program that they recognize as abuse in a different guise?

Moreover, the sex-abuse scandal that has shaken the Boston archdiocese was perhaps caused, and certainly aggravated, by the failure of chancery officials to respond to parents' complaints. When lay people complained about the behavior of abusive clerics in the past, they were ignored, or kept at arm's length, and assured that the clergy knew how to deal with the situation. Now, after having seen the grotesque consequences of that approach, Boston's parents are again being advised to trust the "experts." And in a direct clash with the teachings of the Church, which clearly teaches that parents are the best "experts" in the formation of their own children, in this case the "experts" recognized by archdiocesan officials are psychologists, teachers, and administrators.

EXAMPLE LESSONS

During the introductory meetings at which "Talking about Touching" was presented in Norwood, the parents were given examples of lessons that would be presented to students. In a 3rd grade class, the students would be given the following story:

This is Kerry. She is worried about something that happened to her last week when she spent the night with one of her friends. Her friend's older brother came into the bedroom, put his hand under the covers of the bed Kerry was sleeping in, and touched her vagina (private parts). She said, "Stop that!" in an assertive voice. He stopped, but then he told her to keep it a secret. Kerry is wondering what she should do. Question: How do you think Kerry felt when her friend's brother touched her vagina...

In the 1st grade, children would receive this instruction:

Cole and Mai are playing at the beach. When they go to the beach, they wear bathing suits. Their bathing suits cover up the private parts of their bodies. On boys, the bathing suit covers his penis in front and buttocks or bottom in the back. Those are his private body parts. The girl's bathing suit covers her vulva, vagina, and breasts in front, and buttocks or bottom in the back. These are her private body parts.

A 2nd grade class would be presented with this example:

This is Alex. He was visiting his aunt and uncle. Alex and his uncle were watching television and eating popcorn. His uncle told Alex that he had a special game he could play. He called it the "touching game." He said, "Let's take off our clothes and touch each other's private body parts." Alex knew this game wasn't safe, so in a strong voice he said, No, I don't want to do that. Then he got off the couch and left the room. When he got home he told his mom and dad what had happened. Alex's parents were glad that he said "No" to his uncle. They were also glad that Alex had told them what his uncle said to him.

The objection might be raised that the last scenario itself imparts a false lesson. The situation may or may not be "safe," but it is unquestionably wrong . Most children would feel a natural revulsion toward the uncle's actions, but rather than affirm that revulsion and engage in moral discourse, the children are instead presented with the vague secular idea of "wellness."

The "Talking about Touching" material could also frighten young students, parents suggested, because the case studies could encourage them to see familiar adults as threats to their innocence. In several of the scenarios presented in the curriculum, the perpetrators of attempted abuse are a mother's boyfriend or foster parents. "Their minds don't need that," said Pauline Irwin, mother of three girls at the school. "You start putting these things into kids heads."

When several parents questioned the program's emphasis on the use of explicit terms for reproductive organs, they were advised that this terminology was necessary so that the children could be "good witnesses" for prosecutors if abuse did occur. That answer provoked two objections. First, it seemed grossly unrealistic to suggest that a prosecutor could not make use of testimony in which a child referred to his "private parts." Second, and far more important, the children were being trained as witnesses in abuse casesin a seeming admission that such cases are inevitableat the expense of their own innocence. In other words, the "Talking about Touching" campaign was pushing the children into an unwanted position as the first line of defense against abusers, putting children at risk in the name of protecting children!

THE COMMITTEE FOR CHILDREN

The genesis of the "Talking about Touching" curriculum provides a fascinating case study in how secular forces--and highly questionable forces at tha--come into play within a Catholic-school curriculum.

The curriculum was funded by the State of Washington and produced by the Seattle-based Committee for Children. This committee is a non-profit organization that grew out of 1970s group called Judicial Advocates for Women, which itself originally grew out of Seattle COYOTE, and whose initial mission was to "educate the public about the realities of prostitution." In fact, COYOTE is an acronym for "Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics;" the group was founded in 1973 "to work for the repeal of the prostitution laws and an end to the stigma associated with sexual work." As of 1997, Seattle COYOTE's executive director was Catherine LaCroix, who billed herself as a "Dianic Wiccan priestess" and a "Shameless Sacred Whore."

The curriculum itself consists of lesson plans for children from pre-kindergarten to 5th grade and will cost each parish about $2,500 for the complete set. Sales of this program as well as other child-safety curricula netted the Committee for Children more than $8 million in revenue in 2001, according to its filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

"Talking about Touching," while recommended by numerous groups including SIECUS, an organization known for promoting the breaking down of taboos against adult-child sex, was proposed for use by the Archdiocese of Boston by the blue-ribbon Commission for the Protection of Children. The commission set up by Cardinal Bernard Law in 2002 amid the firestorm of criticism against the cardinal and the archdiocese for the mishandling of sexual abuse allegations against priests over several decades. Its overall mission was to recommend policies for the prevention of child abuse.

The commission's members included a dozen business leaders, mental health professionals, and educators, but no theologians, official representatives of the archdiocese, or even Catholic parents. As one Norwood parent observed, it seemed odd that the cardinal, who had excused the shuffling of predator priests from parish to parish by saying that the Church relied on psychiatrists and doctors, would turn to the same secular "experts" to come up with a program to prevent child abuse.

THE LIABILITY ISSUE

One of the primary reasons for implementing a curriculum that was available immediately, rather than developing an original program that could take Catholic moral principles into account, may have been the requirements of the archdiocese's insurers to decrease legal liability. In fact, "Talking about Touching" was accepted by the commission on the recommendation of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group (NCRRG), an insurance group formed in 1988 by the US bishops, which has also developed a companion program for training of adult parish leaders, called "Protecting Gods Children." That group's primary mission is "financing and managing the liability risks of the Catholic Church" through "cost-effective excess liability programs."

In the end the Archdiocese of Boston has made it clear that the "Talking about Touching" curriculum will be implemented in schools and parish religious education with or without parents' support--although Father Coyne, the archdiocesan spokesman, has conceded that the mandatory requirement of the program for all parochial school children will be reconsidered.

Still, many of the concerned parents in the Boston archdiocese are unwilling to wait and see whether their children will have to endure these lessons in their schools during the next academic year. "We will be homeschooling my daughter next year," William Germino said, adding that he knows of at least one other parent who has already pulled his child out of the school. John Bettinelli added, if nothing changes in relation to the program, "We will have to homeschool. We'll have no option at that point." And the controversy shows no sign of abating, as parents with children in other Boston-area Catholic schools are joining the Shared Concerns of School Parents group at an increasing pace, and national media attention is being focused on what could be a model program for other US dioceses.

Even if they do choose to homeschool their children, the parents may be faced with another crisis in a few years, when those children are ready to receive the sacraments. If the parents cannot in good conscience send their children to parish religious-education programs that include the "Talking about Touching" curriculum, will the children be able to receive First Communion, or to be confirmed? At this point none of the parents in Norwood can answer that question. They only know that today, they may have no other options.

[AUTHOR ID] Domenico Bettinelli, Jr. is the managing editor of CWR . The Shared Concerns of School Parents web site is at (www.germino.biz/scsparents/).