Sex Ed 'Safety' Program in Dioceses Raises More Concerns

BOSTON — The controversial Talking About Touching curriculum introduced in some U.S. dioceses as one component of a “safe-environment” initiative has raised fresh concerns.

In response to the sex-abuse scandal in the Church in the United States, the bishops adopted “The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” When the Archdiocese of Boston mandated the use of the Talking About Touching curriculum for the 2003-2004 school year as part of its effort to satisfy the charter requirements, some parents objected, citing a link the curriculum's developers had with an organization that supported prostitution.

The developers of the curriculum, Seattle-based Committee for Children, was linked to Coyote, a “prostitutes’ rights” organization.

The shared history of Coyote (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and the Committee for Children of Seattle was posted on the Committee for Children Web site until recently. After Boston-area parents flooded the archdiocese with complaints, protesting the use of Talking About Touching in their schools, the history was deleted from the Web site.

But several parents already had downloaded the original history, which read, “1976: Seattle Coyote changes name to Judicial Advocates for Women … and identifies its mission: to educate the public about the realities of prostitution.”

By 1979, according to its own published history, Judicial Advocates for Women initiated a “curriculum review committee” to research child-abuse prevention, changing its name to the Committee for Children.

Jennifer James has served on the board of directors for the Committee for Children since its inception. She and close friend Margo St. James, founder of Coyote, have tried through the years to decriminalize prostitution.

According to St. James, Coyote organized the 1984 Hooker's Convention and drafted a bill of rights, the basis of the “World Whores Charter, drawn up by the International Committee for Prostitute's Rights in the European Parliament.” She credits James for the inspiration to decriminalize prostitution.

Charges alleging Committee for Children's link with the prostitution-rights group were dismissed by diocesan officials in Boston and in the Diocese of Orlando, Fla., where Talking About Touching also has been mandated.

Father Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, told the Register the archdiocese thinks the program is within the bounds of Church teaching and is an excellent way to promote the protection of children.

Harry Purpur, superintendent for schools in the Orlando Diocese, insisted he'd done “due diligence” during his review of Talking About Touching.

No Moral Context

Talking About Touching is taught in more than 5,000 public schools nationwide and more than 20,000 schools globally, according to Joan Duffell, director of community education for Committee for Children. It costs a diocese anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 for the initial year.

Samples from the controversial Talking About Touching program lessons for 5- to 7-year-old children include scenarios of a babysitter or a mother's boyfriend sexually propositioning children.

The graphic depictions and the lack of any moral context disturbed Father David Mullen enough to share them on Fox News Channel's “O'Reilly Factor” in October. When reached by the Register, Father Mullen, pastor of St. Brendan's parish in Bellingham, Mass., declined to discuss Talking About Touching, since he had agreed with the suggestion of Auxiliary Bishop Walter Edyvean that he not speak further with the media.

Earlier, Father Mullen had tried to persuade the archdiocese to discontinue the Talking About Touching program. He wrote to newly installed Archbishop Sean O'Malley Sept. 29 that he was “distressed” that the archbishop decided to impose the “evil” Talking About Touching program on parishes.

Several parents have insisted Talking About Touching violates the precepts set forth in the Pontifical Council for the Family's document “Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality,” where the latency period of childhood is to be protected.

The 1995 document states: “This period of tranquillity and serenity must never be disturbed by unnecessary information about sex.” The document also prohibits improper forms of inculcation, including dramatized representation, mime or role-playing that depicts genital or erotic matters; making drawings, charts or models, etc., of this nature; and seeking personal information about sexual questions or asking that family information be divulged.

David Vise of Franklin, Mass., a father of five, says sex education is the job of parents, not schools. He attended a weekend parent-training workshop given by Talking About Touching personnel.

“I recall from the video that parents are instructed to tell their children that ‘two people who love each other go into the bedroom and take off all their clothes and rub their private parts against each other,’” he said. “It does not even say a mommy and daddy or a husband and wife or, for that matter, two persons of the opposite sex, just ‘two people who love each other’ in such salacious and unnecessary detail.”

Archbishop's View

Vise approached Archbishop O'Malley with his concerns about Talking About Touching at a pro-life rally in October. The archbishop agreed that parents had legitimate concerns and said he had asked Auxiliary Bishop Richard Malone to review the curriculum.

Bishop Malone told the Register that “the concern of our parents must be honored.” But he noted that the “majority of parents seemed pleased” with Talking About Touching.

But Carol McKinley, who lobbies at the state House on behalf of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference for “opt-in” policies for sex education in public schools, sees irony in the situation.

“For public schools, the conference wants me to testify before the Senate committee in favor of parental rights — instituting opt-in rather than opt-out policies — but in our schools the material parents find most objectionable is mandated,” McKinley said.

Father Coyne noted that Boston parents do have the option to remove their children from Talking About Touching.

A few dioceses have understood the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” to give bishops room to develop their own programs. About half of U.S. dioceses have a working relationship with Virtus, a service provider that assists dioceses to meet the requirements of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, a program designed to limit liability.

Virtus had adult-training programs (to manage sex-abuse risks) in place before the clergy-abuse scandal reached national attention. Because of the perceived need to have a school-based segment in order to meet charter guidelines for “safe environments,” Virtus is considering developing a school-based program for its clients. Such a program would be ready in February.

Mary Jo Anderson is based in Orlando, Florida.

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“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy