When Does Precaution Become Intrusion? Safety Programs in Dioceses

IJAMSVILLE, Md. — For the past six years, Paul Turner has been a lector at the two different parishes he's belonged to in Maryland. But his reading at Mass might stop soon — all because of one sentence on a volunteer form he refuses to sign.

The form, called an “Application for Volunteer Services,” is mandatory for all volunteers within the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

“I waive any right that I may have to inspect any information provided about me in connection with this application,” is the sentence Turner objects to.

“The archdiocese, out of complete and total fear, I believe, is making people say, ‘No, you can’t review what others have said about you,’” Turner said. “It's guilty until proven innocent. All it takes is someone to accuse you, and that's as good as being guilty.”

In contrast, he added, when he was applying for a top security job as an intelligence analyst with the Department of Defense, he had the right to inspect what others had said about him.

“They’re trying to intimidate people who might have the slightest problem not to serve so that in a way it's trying to wash their hands of the problem without really having to look into it,” said Turner, currently a lector at St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Ijamsville, Md. “Meanwhile, it's going to have the effect of deterring perfectly innocent people while those who are guilty will find a way around it.”

In dioceses across the country, the implementation of guidelines to protect children from sexual abuse as required by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has affected thousands of volunteers, staff and clergy. And some parishioners such as Turner are wondering if some steps being taken are an overreaction.

Ryan O’Doherty, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said he hasn’t heard of many people grumbling about the various requirements that are in place, such as employees having to get a fingerprint check with the Maryland State Police and the Criminal Justice Information Services central repository at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Other requirements that are part of the archdiocese's program to protect children, called Stand, include volunteers having to submit an application for service, agree to a code of conduct, review “A Statement of Policy for the Protection of Children and Youth” and watch a Stand video.

“Obviously, there's grumbling whenever there's a change in policy that makes things more difficult for people to do things,” O’Doherty said. “There's going to be some resistance. I haven’t heard of any widespread discontent.”

Turner said he will continue being a lector until someone tells him not to.

In the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., for those clergy, employees and volunteers who have regular, recurring contact with minors — they number more than 10,000 people — criminal background checks will be required, said Marianna Thompson, the diocesan communications director.

The diocese also requires that all clergy, employees and volunteers with regular, consistent contact with children attend “Protecting God's Children” training sponsored by VIRTUS, a training program created by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group that “makes every adult a preventor/protector,” Thompson said.

“Most people see it as a legacy of prevention and protection for children,” she said. “Parents are happy about it. Those who teach and volunteer — while they may have some misgivings about the process — are still willing to do it to protect the children.”

Although everyone agrees protecting children from sexual abuse is a top priority, some disagree on how to accomplish it. In the Diocese of Arlington, Va., some parents are upset about a program for children that is being considered there.

Bad Program?

Designed for preschool through sixth grade, the “Good Touch, Bad Touch” program is a comprehensive child abuse prevention curriculum that teaches children skills they need to prevent or interrupt child abuse/sexual abuse, according to the “Good Touch, Bad Touch” Web site.

“Children are taught what abuse is, are given prevention skills including personal body safety rules (’tools’ they can put into their tool bags to draw on if needed) and are motivated into action if threatened,” the Web site says.

The Web site notes that the program is not sex education, although, beginning in the second grade, it does mention physical abuse and bullying, while in the fifth and sixth grades it addresses sexual harassment, physical and emotional abuse and neglect.

One parent, Maureen Brody, a mother of five who has reviewed the curriculum for preschool, kindergarten and the fifth and sixth grades, said she had several concerns about the program.

She said it was too sexually explicit and it shifted the burden to the children to protect themselves — instead of the burden being on the clergy or parents.

Her “gravest” concern, however, was that it is inconsistent with subsidiarity, a principle according to the Catechism that says “larger communities should take care not to usurp the family's prerogatives or interfere in its life.”

Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Family in the Modern World), declared “sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them.”

Brody — who attended an informational meeting for parents, which was held on Nov. 30 — said the curriculum for kindergarten students discusses sexual abuse, which she thinks is an inappropriate topic for 5-year-olds.

“It's way beyond them,” said Brody, who attends St. Raymond of Penafort Church in Fairfax Station, Va. “They don’t talk about sex itself, but they talk about situations that give you an ‘uh-oh feeling’ about when people are touching you in your private areas. It's very graphic. They tell exactly where people shouldn’t be touching you.”

Talking About Touching, another sex abuse prevention program used in the Archdiocese of Boston and other dioceses, also has been criticized for being too graphic for youngsters.

Soren Johnson, the Arlington diocesan communications director, declined to be interviewed and declined a request to interview Catherine Nolan, the diocesan director of Child Protection and Safety. He referred a reporter to her comments in a question-and-answer interview in the Dec. 11 issue of the Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper.

“What is clear is that whatever program our diocese ultimately settles on,” she said during the interview, “it will involve the parents of our diocese, be evaluated as effective, age-appropriate and faithful to Catholic teaching, and will not place the burden of protection on children.”

Carlos Briceno writes from Seminole, Florida.