Safe Environment Series


BOSTON — The Church teaches that childhood should be a time when sexuality is not discussed. But “Talking About Touching” teaches just the opposite, say critics.

A number of parents have asked for changes to this and other parish-based “safe-environment” programs used by thousands of parishes to fulfill U.S. bishops’ abuse prevention mandates.

Talking About Touching, intended for children in kindergarten through third grade, was first developed in 1981 by the non-Catholic, Seattle-based Committee for Children. It is currently used in 4,000 public schools in North America and the United Kingdom.

It is also used in about 350 Catholic school and parish settings in the Archdiocese of Boston and the dioceses of Orlando, Fla., and Joliet, Ill., and others. Several hundred Catholic schools and parishes are using Talking About Touching independent of a diocesan implementation and mandate.

Long before the clergy sexual abuse crisis made headlines, several Catholic schools and parishes had implemented Talking About Touching. In 2002, the year the scandal broke in Boston, a Commission for the Protection of Children established by Cardinal Bernard Law recommended implementing Talking About Touching in the archdiocese.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the glare of national media, adopted a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” in 2002. Article 12 of that charter requires dioceses to “maintain ‘safe-environment’ programs … to be conducted cooperatively with parents, civil authorities, educators and community organizations.” The charter also specifies that these programs “be in accord with Catholic moral principles.”

When Talking About Touching was rolled out in Boston the following year, a group of parents from Norwood, Mass., were alarmed enough to form the Concerned Catholic Parents Group. They were concerned with the program’s explicit naming of body parts, its usurpation of the parents’ role as primary teachers and its mandatory student attendance policy. They felt the program had been selected hastily to limit the legal liability of the archdiocese.

When Archbishop Sean O’Malley was installed in Boston July 30, 2003, parents brought him their concerns about the program. The archbishop asked then-Auxiliary Bishop Richard Malone, the secretary for education, to assemble a committee to study Talking About Touching.

A panel of psychologists, researchers, education experts and moral theologians reviewed the programs. According to Joan Cole Duffell, director of community education for the Committee for Children, “their clear recommendation was to continue use of the Talking About Touching program in the archdiocese.”

Some changes were made, however.

“The program has been adapted and modified for teaching in the religious education environment,” said Terrence Donilan, spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese. “It has been aligned with the archdiocese’s religious education curriculum guidelines and the Catechism to allow its principles to be taught in a Catholic catechetical framework.”

“We worked very hard to get some changes made to this program, and ultimately that’s what happened here in Boston,” said Bill Germino, coordinator for the Concerned Catholic Parents Group.

Parents in the archdiocese now have an opportunity to opt out of the program.

“But the overwhelming majority have allowed their children to stay in the program,” Donilan said.

At least one priest from the Diocese, Father David Mullen, pastor of St. Brendan Parish in Bellingham, doesn’t think the changes have gone far enough. He has refused the Talking About Touching program for his parish.  As an alternative, he created his own program, “God Made Me Holy,” which has parents teaching their children that all parts of their body are holy. Parents tell their children that when someone is threatening to do something that offends their holy nature, they are to tell their parents or a proper authority.

The Talking About Touching program provides Catholic educators an option to refer to “the parts of the body that are covered by a bathing suit,” rather than anatomically correct words. “Bathing suit” areas are clearly and simply defined within the lessons to make this piece of information simple for children, as well as for parents and teachers.

But not all of the members of the Concerned Parents Group are satisfied with the changes.

Domenico Bettinelli Jr., editor of Catholic World Report magazine and coordinator of religious education at Immaculate Conception parish in Salem, Mass., is a member of Concerned Catholic School Parents.

“I don’t think Talking About Touching helps children,” Bettinelli commented. “I think it makes children the frontline in the battle against sex abuse; it takes the onus off adults, and more importantly, it introduces children as young as kindergarten to sexual concepts that it should not, including the names of sexual organs.”

He’s not alone in feeling that way. Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., has refused to implement such programs in his diocese. Last year, in a pastoral letter, he listed a number of questions he wanted answered before he would give the green light. One was: “Do such programs impose an unduly burdensome responsibility on very young children to protect themselves, rather than insisting that parents take such training and take on the primary responsibility for protecting their children?”

Yet the program has met with broad acceptance in Boston, according to an archdiocesan survey of Catholic elementary schools in late 2004. Of the 75% of schools that responded to the survey, 99% have experienced positive reactions from the majority of teachers, children and parents, and 92% said they keep parents regularly informed about the program. Also, 95% believed the children were learning necessary skills.

Duffell added that “some reported that their students have used the skills to articulate and report [now substantiated] abusive situations to school personnel — resulting in contact with and reports to the civil authorities. At the end of the day, this is why we do this work: to keep children safe.”

The Diocese of Joliet, Ill., piloted the Talking About Touching program last spring and has implemented it as one of two programs schools and parishes can choose from. Currently, 50 schools and approximately 75 religious education programs in that diocese are using Talking About Touching.

Franciscan Sister Judith Davies, chancellor and safe environment coordinator of the Diocese of Joliet, explained, “We have modified Talking About Touching to avoid naming private body parts, and lessons are taught within a faith-based context.”

Sister Judith continued, “We believe that parents have the right and responsibility to instruct their children on sexual body part names, so that is not done in class. The video for parents makes it very clear that is what parents are supposed to teach.”

The Joliet Diocese has put the instructional elements into a Catholic context by surrounding the original Talking About Touching instruction/materials with introductions, prayer, Scripture, elements of Catholic identity and Catholic moral values.

Evidently, parents talking with one another, and with those administering Talking About Touching have made progress in the development of this safe environment program.

Mary Ann Sullivan is based in

New Durham, New Hampshire.