Boston Parents Wary of Abuse Lessons

BOSTON—A year after Talking About Touching was introduced into the Archdiocese of Boston, concerns are emerging about the program for students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

Talking About Touching is one of several programs developed to protect children from sexual abuse. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, published by the U.S. bishops last year, requires dioceses to provide education regarding “safe environments” to youngsters, parents, teachers, volunteers and ministers.

But Carol McKinley, a Boston mother and a member of an organization called Faithful Voice, which regards itself as a defender of the faith, says Talking About Touching fragments the family.

“When we should be establishing the truths of the faith and building the family unit, this program says parents are incompetent and incapable of giving sexual information to their children,” she said. “Therefore the Church of the United States has decided we will separate children from the influence of parents and put CCD teachers in charge of distributing sexual information.”

McKinley worries the Talking About Touching program's use of explicit sexual language might not only titillate children but also lead to false accusations.

“Innocent remarks could be jumped upon. … CCD teachers don't have experience or expertise to probe statements from children. That's where false accusations will be coming,” said McKinley, who spent 15 years teaching religious education and working in youth apostolates. “Grandparents and parents as well as priests and teachers are at risk and should be worried that their children are going to be put into a place where they see everyone in their community as predators.”

Father Robert Carr, a parochial vicar at Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston, had similar concerns. He said the program has one scenario in which a boy touches a fellow third-grader in a private area of her body. The girl responds, “Don't touch!”

“Well, guess what,” Father Carr said. “That just taught every third-grade boy in that class how to molest a girl.”

Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the Office for Child and Youth Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic of Bishops, said the program is not mandatory. She insisted that there are a “very small number of individuals who are concerned about it because it does mention some things that are private.”

“Parents can opt out of it,” McChesney said. “We hope that those parents … find ways to talk to their children about these things. Programs like this can help parents with terminology and analogy that are age appropriate. This is just one of many programs available.”

Robert Kelley, who works in the Office of Child Advocacy in the Archdiocese of Boston, said the program has been “well received by the teachers and parents” since the archdiocese started bringing in trainers for it last fall. It's been in about 70% of the schools, he said, which means it's been used with about 20,000 children.

According to Kelley, the program was initiated by a commission appointed by Cardinal Bernard Law and recommended by a subcommittee on education, consisting of educators, psychiatrists, doctors and nurses.

Joan Cole Duffell, director of community education for the Seattle-based Committee for Children, which developed Talking About Touching, said the program is also being used in the Dioceses of Portland, Ore., and Orlando, Fla., and that hundreds of Catholic schools in other dioceses across the country use it.

But Father Carr is concerned that the Committee for Children and the Massachusetts Children's Trust Fund were “involved in deciding how this was going to be used in religious ed programs.” They are secular organizations and “had no business in our religious ed office,” he said.

“We need to replace it with a better program that is rooted in our faith,” Father Carr said.

First developed in 1981 with help from the University of Washington's educational psychology department, the program trains principals and teachers, who in turn train parents and children, to be aware of sexual abuse. It has gone through several revisions, Duffell said, including one done recently in consultation with religious educators.

Michael Bemi is president and chief executive officer of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group Inc., which seeks solutions for financing and managing the liability risks of the Catholic Church. He said his organization first evaluated sexual abuse awareness programs to determine where there were gaps to fill when they were developing Virtus, programs for the prevention of child sexual abuse.

“There were then, and still are, a number of good programs available for educating children about protecting themselves from sexual abuse,” Bemi said. “Although Talking About Touching is highly acclaimed around the world for its effectiveness and the sound research on which it was developed, it is not Catholic in its formation, and, frankly, neither are any of the other programs we evaluated.”

Duffell insists the program has been adapted for the Catholic Church. “The Committee for Children has aligned Talking About Touching lesson content with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which enables Catholic educators to create a faith-based context for teaching the program to children.”

Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Family in the Modern World), wrote that parents have an essential right and duty to give their own children formation in chastity since it is connected with the transmission of human life. That right is “incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others,” the Pope wrote.

Also, the Vatican's 1995 document “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality” cautioned that each child must receive individualized formation in sexual education.

“Each child's process of maturation as a person is different,” the document said. “Therefore, the most intimate aspects, whether biological or emotional, should be communicated in a personalized dialogue. In their dialogue with each child, with love and trust, parents communicate something about their own self-giving that makes them capable of giving witness to aspects of the emotional dimension of sexuality that could not be transmitted in other ways.”

The letter, issued by the Pontifical Council for the Family, recommends that parents keep themselves informed on the content and methodology with which sexual education is imparted by schools.

It also says sexual perversions that are relatively rare should not be dealt with except through individual counseling. Though extraordinary media coverage has made the priestly sexual abuse “crisis” seem like it pervades every corner of the Catholic Church, statistics have shown it is no more prevalent than in other religious denominations or secular institutions, such as public schools.

In the Boston Archdiocese, Kelley is aware of the concern about religious education teachers not being education professionals. He said where TAT is implemented on the parish level, it gives an option of using either religious education teachers or other professionals from the parish.

Kelley believes there is a system of checks and balances in place to avoid false accusations. Child abuse prevention teams that are composed of experienced social workers are made available to the parishes. Teachers and parents who have questions can speak to them to find out if they are overreacting.

Committee for Children's Duffell believes false accusations are extremely rare, particularly given the age group.

“This program is designed to prevent overzealous reporting and false accusations by teaching the difference between healthy touch and inappropriate touch,” she said. “It is more likely that a child who has not gotten the program would make a false accusation.”

The program uses the terms “safe” and “unsafe” touch rather than “good” and “bad” touch.

Kelley admits that some people have concerns about the terminology used. The program gives teachers a choice of using the correct biological terms or other language, such as, “the part of the body that your bathing suit covers up.”

But McKinley is troubled by language in Talking About Touching that is similar to that used in materials published by the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States. She believes the group advocates immorality and has been trying to get its information into Catholic schools for years.

Duffell responded that there are “some amazing wild rumors flying around” saying the Committee for Children is affiliated with all kinds of groups such as Planned Parenthood and Call to Action. “We are a private nonprofit organization whose focus is to prevent child abuse and violence, working with schools and districts all over the world,” she said. “We just want to see children safe. That's our mission.”

Mary Ann Sullivan is based in New Durham,

New Hampshire.