Doctors Recommend Reform of Bishops’ Sex Abuse Prevention Plans

WASHINGTON — It wasn’t on the agenda for the meeting of the U.S. bishops conference, but bishops are being urged to no longer require sex abuse prevention programs for children.

The bishops’ conference’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002 mandated dioceses to have so-called “safe environment” programs. Some parents and advocacy groups have criticized the programs for introducing age-inappropriate sexual concepts to children and for placing the burden of resisting sexual advances on defenseless minors.

Now the Catholic Medical Association is recommending that bishops stop child protection programs that are based on “empowerment” models — those that train the child to protect himself in an abusive situation.

The group released a 55-page study, “To Prevent and to Protect: Report of the Catholic Medical Association Task Force on the Sexual Abuse of Children and Its Prevention,” Oct. 27 during the association’s annual conference in Boston.
Going into their annual fall meeting in Baltimore Nov. 13, bishops had their own copies of the report. Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., episcopal adviser to the group, said copies were sent to bishops in mid-October.

The study states that sex abuse prevention programs that empower children to protect themselves are ineffective, inconsistent with the science of the emotional, cognitive, neurobiological and moral development of the child and contrary to the Church’s teaching on the education of children in matters pertaining to sex.

But Sandy Wurtele, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado and author of Preventing Child Sexual Abuse (1992), which studied prevention programs throughout the 1980s for the National Institute of Mental Health, finds the Catholic Medical Association’s report flawed.

Wurtele notes the association’s report based one of its major conclusions on the fact that sexual abuse and sexual assaults have not declined since safe environment programs started. She pointed to a report from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention by sociology professor David Finkelhor showing sex abuse cases dropped 47%.

Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre, lead author of the Catholic Medical Association’s report, said that drop doesn’t relate to child protection programs. She pointed to research published by Peter Fonagy in 2001 and Rebecca Bolen in 2003 claiming there is no change in abuse rates.

Church Teaching

In the midst of this statistical research volley, John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association, said an undue focus on statistics can distract from the purpose of the report.

“I wouldn’t want to hurl one set of statistics versus another and argue about whether the incidence of sexual abuse has gone down some or not,” he said. “We need to ask: Are (the programs) well designed, effective in practice, consistent with the Church’s teaching on human persons, family and sexual love?”

There is also debate about the “language” used in the Catholic Medical Association’s report. Joan Duffell, of the Seattle-based Committee for Children, which developed the Talking About Touching program used in Boston, says the association’s use of the term “empowerment” is inconsistent with scholarly research. Current abuse prevention training is based on skill development, not cognition and empowerment, she said.

Duffell, who compiled contemporary scholarly research on the effectiveness of safe environment programs with Deacon Anthony Rizzuto, director of child advocacy for the Archdiocese of Boston, said, “We and our colleagues in this field do not expect children to become ‘empowered’ to stop abuse or in any way shoulder the burden for their own protection. Thus, well-developed child abuse prevention programs do not use the ‘child empowerment’ frame but simply teach safety skills in a pedagogically supportable way to children, parents, caregivers and educators, in order to help everyone respond effectively.”

But Brehany insists the term “child empowerment” is a fairly common term to describe a popular strategy for addressing a method of teaching children to recognize abuse, respond to it, and in the absence of others become the front line of defense.

The Catholic Medical Association’s report relies on findings published in 1991 by Jill Duerr Berrick and Neil Gilbert, from a three-year analysis of 15 sexual abuse programs for preschool to third-grade California children.

The Berrick report concluded that empowerment programs were not appropriate for children in pre-kindergarten to Grade 3 for developmental reasons. The empowerment-model programs assume that a child can discern a good touch or secret from a bad one. Children in pre-K to third grade are not able to make intuitive distinctions.

Empowerment programs also assume young children are able to understand abstract concepts such as secrets, rights and safety. Children are taught that “a good secret makes you feel good,” “bad secrets are usually scary.” But a young child understands a secret to be the physical act of whispering in the ear. Only when a child reaches the age of 8 or 9 when abstract thinking begins to develop, does a child begin to understand what a secret is.

But Wurtele, who believes safe environment programs are a key component to a comprehensive prevention program, said that most programs today do not use abstract concepts with children in grades pre-K to third grade.

Bishop Vasa wants to see the association’s study presented in the light of Catholic faith.

“The men and women who worked on the task force,” he said, “relied very heavily on the Pontifical Council for the Family document ‘The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality.’”

He added, “I think it makes an important contribution to a dialogue that has been going on for years and which needs to continue in order to help assure that we not only do something for the children but more importantly that we do something truly good and effective in protecting them.” 

Mary Ann Sullivan is based

in New Durham, New Hampshire.