During the introductory meetings at which "Talking about Touching" was presented in Norwood, the parents were given examples of lessons that would be presented to students.
In a 3rd grade class, the students would be given the following story:
This is Kerry. She is worried about something that happened to her last week when she spent the night with one of her friends. Her friend's older brother came into the bedroom, put his hand under the covers of the bed Kerry was sleeping in, and touched her vagina (private parts). She said, "Stop that!" in an assertive voice. He stopped, but then he told her to keep it a secret. Kerry is wondering what she should do. Question: How do you think Kerry felt when her friend's brother touched her vagina...
In the 1st grade, children would receive this instruction:
Cole and Mai are playing at the beach. When they go to the beach, they wear bathing suits. Their bathing suits cover up the private parts of their bodies. On boys, the bathing suit covers his penis in front and buttocks or bottom in the back. Those are his private body parts. The girl's bathing suit covers her vulva, vagina, and breasts in front, and buttocks or bottom in the back. These are her private body parts.
A 2nd grade class would be presented with this example:
This is Alex. He was visiting his aunt and uncle. Alex and his uncle were watching television and eating popcorn. His uncle told Alex that he had a special game he could play. He called it the "touching game." He said, "Let's take off our clothes and touch each other's private body parts." Alex knew this game wasn't safe, so in a strong voice he said, No, I don't want to do that." Then he got off the couch and left the room. When he got home he told his mom and dad what had happened. Alex's parents were glad that he said "No" to his uncle. They were also glad that Alex had told them what his uncle said to him.
The objection might be raised that the last scenario itself imparts a false lesson. The situation may or may not be "safe," but it is unquestionably wrong. Most children would feel a natural revulsion toward the uncle's actions, but rather than affirm that revulsion and engage in moral discourse, the children are instead presented with the vague secular idea of "wellness."
The "Talking about Touching" material could also frighten young students, parents suggested, because the case studies could encourage them to see familiar adults as threats to their innocence. In several of the scenarios presented in the curriculum, the perpetrators of attempted abuse are a mother's boyfriend or foster parents. "Their minds don't need that," said Pauline Irwin, mother of three girls at the school. "You start putting these things into kids' heads."
When several parents questioned the program's emphasis on the use of explicit terms for reproductive organs, they were advised that this terminology was necessary so that the children could be "good witnesses" for prosecutors if abuse did occur. That answer provoked two objections.
First, it seemed grossly unrealistic to suggest that a prosecutor could not make use of testimony in which a child referred to his "private parts." Second, and far more important, the children were being trained as witnesses in abuse cases, a seeming admission that such cases are inevitable at the expense of their own innocence. In other words, the "Talking about Touching" campaign was pushing the children into an unwanted position as the first line of defense against abusers, putting children at risk in the name of protecting children!
THE COMMITTEE FOR CHILDREN
The genesis of the "Talking about Touching" curriculum provides a fascinating case study in how secular forces - and highly questionable forces at that come into play within a Catholic-school curriculum.
The curriculum was funded by the State of Washington and produced by the Seattle-based Committee for Children. This committee is a non-profit organization that grew out of 1970s group called Judicial Advocates for Women, which itself originally grew out of Seattle COYOTE, and whose initial mission was to "educate the public about the realities of prostitution." In fact, COYOTE is an acronym for "Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics;" the group was founded in 1973 "to work for the repeal of the prostitution laws and an end to the stigma associated with sexual work." As of 1997, Seattle COYOTE's executive director was Catherine LaCroix, who billed herself as a "Dianic Wiccan priestess" and a "Shameless Sacred Whore."
The curriculum itself consists of lesson plans for children from pre-kindergarten to 5th grade and will cost each parish about $2,500 for the complete set. Sales of this program as well as other child-safety curricula netted the Committee for Children more than $8 million in revenue in 2001, according to its filings with the Internal Revenue Service.
"Talking about Touching," while recommended by numerous groups including SIECUS, an organization known for promoting the breaking down of taboos against adult-child sex, was proposed for use by the Archdiocese of Boston by the blue-ribbon Commission for the Protection of Children. The commission set up by Cardinal Bernard Law in 2002 amid the firestorm of criticism against the cardinal and the archdiocese for the mishandling of sexual abuse allegations against priests over several decades. Its overall mission was to recommend policies for the prevention of child abuse.
The commission's members included a dozen business leaders, mental health professionals, and educators, but no theologians, official representatives of the archdiocese, or even Catholic parents. As one Norwood parent observed, it seemed odd that the cardinal, who had excused the shuffling of predator priests from parish to parish by saying that the Church relied on psychiatrists and doctors, would turn to the same secular "experts" to come up with a program to prevent child abuse.
THE LIABILITY ISSUE
One of the primary reasons for implementing a curriculum that was available immediately, rather than developing an original program that could take Catholic moral principles into account, may have been the requirements of the archdiocese's insurers to decrease legal liability. In fact, "Talking about Touching" was accepted by the commission on the recommendation of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group (NCRRG), an insurance group formed in 1988 by the US bishops, which has also developed a companion program for training of adult parish leaders, called "Protecting God's Children." That group's primary mission is "financing and managing the liability risks of the Catholic Church" through "cost-effective excess liability programs."
In the end the Archdiocese of Boston has made it clear that the "Talking about Touching" curriculum will be implemented in schools and parish religious education with or without parents' support - although Father Coyne, the archdiocesan spokesman, has conceded that the mandatory requirement of the program for all parochial school children will be reconsidered.
Still, many of the concerned parents in the Boston archdiocese are unwilling to wait and see whether their children will have to endure these lessons in their schools during the next academic year. "We will be homeschooling my daughter next year," William Germino said, adding that he knows of at least one other parent who has already pulled his child out of the school. John Bettinelli added, if nothing changes in relation to the program, "We will have to homeschool. We'll have no option at that point." And the controversy shows no sign of abating, as parents with children in other Boston-area Catholic schools are joining the Shared Concerns of School Parents group at an increasing pace, and national media attention is being focused on what could be a model program for other US dioceses.
Even if they do choose to homeschool their children, the parents may be faced with another crisis in a few years, when those children are ready to receive the sacraments. If the parents cannot in good conscience send their children to parish religious-education programs that include the "Talking about Touching" curriculum, will the children be able to receive First Communion, or to be confirmed? At this point none of the parents in Norwood can answer that question. They only know that today, they may have no other options.
Author, Domenico Bettinelli, Jr. is the Managing Editor of CWR (Catholic World Report).
The Shared Concerns of School Parents web site is at (www.germino.biz/scsparents/).