Good Touch/Bad Touch Draws Mixed Response

What it’s about: To protect children from abuse, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 required all dioceses to implement “safe-environment” programs. Many parents complain that some of the programs are too sexually explicit for children. We’re investigating each program.

This week: This, the third in our series, looks at Good Touch/Bad Touch, a program created for public schools 23 years ago.

What critics say: Some parents said the program expects too much from children and places too much responsibility on them for avoiding abuse.

What defenders say: Pamela Church, who created the program, maintains that most parents would prefer to have someone who is carefully trained by experts instruct children on how to protect themselves.

ARLINGTON, Va. — Is Good Touch/Bad Touch a bad thing?

Some Catholic parents think so, but the “safe-environment” program, intended to prevent sexual abuse of minors, is still in use in many parts of the country.

Not so in the Diocese of Arlington, Va. Early in 2005, at a meeting in Manassas, Va., parents objected so strongly to Good Touch/Bad Touch that Bishop Paul Loverde decided to replace it.

Mary Ann Kreitzer, a concerned grandparent, said “dozens of parents” spoke out against the program “because it was graphic, including a drawing of a man with his hand on a little boy’s crotch. It violated parental authority and it presented sex-ed information that violated Church teaching and did not belong in the classroom being presented by strangers.”

Pamela Church, a Catholic mother of five who created Good Touch/Bad Touch some 23 years ago for public schools, said Bishop Loverde called her at home to tell her he would be canceling the program.

Instead, he brought in a program called Virtus and another created by the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., called Formation in Christian Chastity.

Church said the program continues to be used in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Dioceses of Louisville, Ky., Pueblo, Colo., and Richmond, Va., as well as in some Catholic schools in New York, Salt Lake City and Miami.

For many parents, that’s a problem. The Register, in a series of articles, is taking a look at their concerns. They say Good Touch/Bad Touch, developed for pre-kindergarten through ninth grade, puts the burden on children, making them the first line of defense against abusers. In addition, critics charge, it does not prevent abuse, and it doesn’t incorporate parents as primary teachers.

Church said that the major points covered in the program include: “It’s my body because I’m a child of God and have the right to know how to keep myself safe. If I feel like something is wrong, I’m right, and I might need to ask mom or dad about anything I don’t understand. I have a right to say No and get away and tell. If someone is not listening, I need to find someone and tell. It’s never my fault.”

Proponents of safe environment programs point to statistics reported by David Finkelhor (Sexually Victimized Children) and Ellen Bass and Laura Davis (The Courage to Heal) that one in every four girls and one in every six boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18.
     But Dr. Patrick DiVietri, executive director of the Manassas, Va.-based Family Life Institute, an agency that helps parents educate children in faith and morals, believes the statistics for Catholic children are different. Said DiVietri, “All the statistics on abuse are for the general state of society which is a sampling pool that is radically different than the Catholic school population.”  DiVietri claims data show the safest places for children are in the intact home of the biological parents who practice their faith and in schools that hold high values and religious values and don’t have sexual education programs.

DiVietri has found numerous weaknesses in the Good Touch/Bad Touch program, including the fact that it uses children as bait to catch abusers.

It “could shatter the psyche of the innocent child because it ignores the psychological development of the child and forces premature sexual awakening without the child having the capacity to handle it,” DiVietri said.

Forcing Images

DiVietri, who also teaches at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., believes the program destroys a child’s innocence by forcing images of abuse upon him, thus damaging the psyche and destroying the serenity and security of the age. He insists it is not good to have a child focus on his body, because doing so is not a natural act for children, who are naturally at ease with and not interested in their bodies.

He points to a recent study in the American Journal of Community Psychology by N. Dickon Reppucci, “Prevention and Ecology: Teenage Pregnancy, Child Sexual Abuse and Organized Youth Sports,” that found, “School programs aimed at preventing child sex abuse caused a significant number of children to experience loss of sleep or appetite, nightmares or fears.”
Another weakness of the program is that it gives treatment to an entire school population when it is only a few children who need the extra attention. “It may be less than 5% of the population in the Catholic schools that needs this kind of instruction; however, the programs are designed for all of the students. They all have surgery when only one needed it,” said DiVietri.

Still, some bishops believe in Good Touch/Bad Touch.

“We look forward to an expansion of the Good Touch/Bad Touch program, which will include providing instruction to all volunteers, parents and all youth in religious education programs,” Bishop Arthur Tafoya of Pueblo wrote to the faithful in late 2005. “Preventing future abuse and promoting healing continues to be a high priority for me as well as for all concerned persons of our diocese.”

But Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., is not convinced safe-environment programs for children prevent sexual abuse. “A lot of these programs, unfortunately, are thinly veiled and disguised sex education programs that are promoting a sexual agenda that is totally contrary to what we understand to be the right, the true and the good.”  

Others complain the program does not incorporate the family of the child in the creation and implementation of the program. They suspect that’s because some parents are suspected as abusers.

Tereza Becica, from the Los Angeles Archdiocese, where Good Touch/Bad Touch is implemented, has signed an online petition established by the newly formed Coalition for Concerned Catholic Parents requesting a moratorium on safe-environment programs.

“Parents, at least in some dioceses, weren’t included in the program selection process in the first place, nor were they contacted with specifics about its content,” she said. “The reason: Children’s protection came first, and that parents themselves might be predators. Well, the entire reason this was being implemented was because of the priest predators.”

Legionary Father Thomas Williams said parental involvement is a key to any child-protection program.

“I think that what needs to be emphasized is the active, immediate role of parents and open lines of daily communication,” he said.  “Where that close trust exists, in an atmosphere of a child knowing he can and should tell his parents everything, the problem diminishes greatly.”

Christopher Manion, one of the parents instrumental in ousting Good Touch/Bad Touch from Arlington, insisted that parents should be the primary educators of their children with regard to sexual education. The Vatican document Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality teaches that intimate matters should be taught to children by the family, not in a public setting, he said.
“We know by experience that most families do this and are successful,” said DiVietri.  Yet, the Good Touch/Bad Touch program relies more on the school environment than on the parental home.

Teresa Kettlelkamp, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Child and Youth Protection, responsible for overseeing compliance with the bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, recognizes Good Touch/Bad Touch as an acceptable program and said the development of parental cooperation is encouraged on the diocesan level.

“The Church supports the premise that the parents are the primary educators of their children. That’s why the charter states the diocese will provide safe-environment programs and cooperate with parents to provide this education and training to the children,” she said. “I don’t see it as an either-or. The dioceses are encouraged to work in cooperation with the parents to provide that training. In an ideal situation the parents are involved with these programs.”

Church, who continues to expand Good Touch/Bad Touch, maintains that parents are already encouraged to play a vital role in the program.

The Catholic Medical Association has established a task force to study the impact of such programs on the attitudes, behaviors and development of children. It hopes to offer recommendations to Church leaders, educators and families.

Mary Ann Sullivan is based in

New Durham, New Hampshire.