Assessing Parish Safety

WASHINGTON — On the surface, a new report sent to the U.S. bishops in April looks like a prelude to controversy.

Put out by a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee, the new report said abuse-prevention programs, which dioceses have set up for children across the nation, are “a major accomplishment and one that must continually be maintained and reinforced.”

Further, the Safe Environment Work Group that produced the report concluded, “there is evidence [that] safe environment programs for children have a positive effect on children, are consistent with the science of child development and are in accord with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

This conclusion directly contradicts a 90-page Catholic Medical Association (CMA) critique of these programs released last fall. Titled To Protect and To Prevent, the critique argued that such programs were ineffective, potentially damaging to children and families, and “inconsistent with the Church’s teaching on the education of children in matters pertaining to formation in sexual morality.”

Noting that parents are the “primary educators and protectors of their children,” the CMA task force called for “current resources [to] be re-directed to programs that educate and support parents on how better to fulfill this vocation.”

In a Church battered and bruised by sex scandal, this latest debate could be divisive news — if this were the whole story.

Fortunately, it’s not. In the bishops’ new report, sociologist David Finkelhor states two points on which both sides agree: 1) The evidence for these programs is “far from conclusive,” and 2) “There is a desperate need for additional research on what works.”

Further, both Finkelhor and the Catholic Medical Association also agree on a third point: No one knows what effects these programs have on children younger than ten.

What the Report Says

Article 12 of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, requires all dioceses to establish ongoing “safe-environment education programs,” including age-appropriate education of children, as part of the Church’s effort to prevent sexual abuse of minors.

The new report to the bishops, “Safe Environment Training of Children in the Catholic Church,” recommended that “children and young people receive safety training annually at each grade level and that this training [be] reinforced with regularity within the program and at home.”

The report was compiled by the Safe Environment Work Group, headed by Stockton, Calif., Bishop Stephen Blaire, a member of the bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The seven-member work group, which consisted of three bishops, two review board members, and two lay experts in education, was chosen by Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, Texas (who heads the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People) and National Review Board chairwoman Patricia Ewers.

The work group indicated that Church-run safety-training programs must conform to Article 364 of the Catechism, which states: “The human body shares in the dignity of the image of God.”

It said other criteria of content appropriate for safety training at all grade levels are:

n Parts of our bodies are considered private and we respect these in ourselves and others.

n I am a person loved by God and deserving of respect.

n There is a difference between safe and unsafe touch.

n It is all right to say No to violation of personal space.

n It is important to report abuse of oneself or others until one is believed.

n There are strategies to help protect oneself.

To gauge what Catholics think about abuse-prevention programs for children, the work group surveyed all 195 dioceses and eparchies nationwide via the Internet. Only 49% responded, and results were mixed. Of those who answered the survey, 67% rated their satisfaction with the programs as “high” or “very high.” Even after training, however, only 33% of catechists felt a comfort level of “high” to “very high” about presenting the programs.

Assessing the Critique

Part of the work group’s report was a response to objections, especially those raised by the Catholic Medical Association task force.

The association argued that programs meant to “empower” children to protect themselves, such as “Talking About Touching” and “Good Touch-Bad Touch,” contain concepts too abstract for young children. Further, the association said these programs may prematurely sexualize young children and violate what Pope John Paul II called a child’s “years of innocence” (between age 5 and puberty).

Accompanying the work group’s report were two assessments of the Catholic Medical Association’s critique: one by moral theologian John Grabowski of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., the other by Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Grabowski said the Church fully supports the “right of parents to be primary educators of their children.” He added, however, that “the 1986 document of the Pontifical Council for Education Educational Guidance in Human Love correctly notes that parents sometimes do not fulfill this responsibility and therefore educators in the Church need to assist the family (governed by the principle of subsidiarity).”

Finkelhor said that although evidence in favor of victimization prevention education for children is weak, the education is “a reasonable policy choice” for the Church in light of the fact that “empirical evidence” offers nothing better.

“I would say that in comparison to anything else that is available, this approach has more [scientific] evidence behind it than anything else,” he said.

Specific programs, such as “Good Touch-Bad Touch” and “Talking About Touching,” which have provoked stiff opposition from a significant number of Catholic parents, catechists and priests, were not mentioned in the new report, nor has Finkelhor personally evaluated them.

Finkelhor, who is not a Catholic, said in an interview that he was not asked by the Safe Environment Work Group to comment on critics’ views that these programs are against Catholic values or teachings.

“I don’t feel capable of doing that,” he said, “but that may ultimately be what’s most important for the bishops.”

Further, Finkelhor said that To Protect and To Prevent did not present an objective summary of the research. “The evidence, while far from conclusive, does suggest that school-based prevention education programs are worth implementing as a component of a more comprehensive strategy to prevent the sexual abuse of child,” he wrote.

Much of this scientific debate appears to spring from how different scientists define the word “effective.

In one 1995 American Journal of Public Health study, Finkelhor and colleagues did a national telephone survey of children ages 10 to 16. Children who had taken more “comprehensive” abuse-prevention classes were no less likely to be abused — or injured during an assault than children who hadn’t taken the classes. Catholic Medical Association doctors interpreted the study to mean prevention programs for children are “ineffective” because they didn’t prevent abuse.

In the Work Group report, however, Finkelhor says his study was “not definitive” and did show some positive effects. For example: Kids who took the classes were more likely to report abuse and less likely to blame themselves if it happened.

One Bishop’s Plans

In the American Journal of Public Health survey, Finkelhor clearly stated that his findings “apply only to older children, age 10 and up. ... They do not resolve some of the most hotly debated controversies about victimization prevention education — namely, those that concern the effects of such education on young preschool and early elementary-age children.”

In the Safe Environment Work Group report, Finkelhor also cited a survey of 825 college students the Catholic Medical Association overlooked. Published in Child Abuse & Neglect in September, 2000, the survey found that 8% of adult women who reported ever having a prevention program such as “Good Touch-Bad Touch” also reported having been subsequently sexually abused as children, compared to 14% who never had a prevention program. But as a careful scientist, Finkelhor notes that this study had “a relatively weak design.”

Although declining to reply point-by-point to Finkelhor’s critique, ethicist John Brehany, the Catholic Medical Association’s executive director, observed that both reports agreed on one important point: The evidence in favor of these programs is “far from conclusive.”

Brehany was also pleased to see that in the work group report, Grabowski called the Catholic Medical Association critique “cogent and well-argued.” Grabowski noted, however, that other scholars “might read the same developmental data” the association read and “arrive at other conclusions.”

Meanwhile, Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., the Catholic Medical Association’s episcopal adviser, is working with the association and others to create an adult-focused program that will strengthen families and give parents the support and understanding they need to teach their children themselves. In the works are plans for a six-hour video series, tentatively titled “Strong Families: Safer Children.”

So what can the Church do to strengthen families so abuse is less likely to happen?

Noting that some children are more vulnerable to being sexually victimized than others, Bishop Vasa would also like to see more scientific research in the future focused on pinpointing those children most at risk so “we can help these kids.”

It appears this important scientific and moral debate which might have collapsed into bitter controversy has, instead, opened a door to more fruitful dialogue.

(Catholic News Service contributed to this report.)

Sue Ellin Browder is based in Willits, California.