Parents Urge Diocese to Reconsider Proposed Curriculum
By Irene M. Lagan
Catholic Herald [Arlington VA]
January 22, 2004
MANASSAS — "No child is strong enough to resist abuse by an adult" was the last word spoken by a victim of child sexual abuse at the recent diocese-sponsored meeting on the proposed safe environment program, a Catholic adaptation of the Good Touch/Bad Touch (GTBT) program.
The four-hour meeting ended on a note that reminded all present that the burden of protecting children ultimately falls to the adults who care for them.
More than 200 parents from many parishes attended the meeting hosted by Catherine Nolan, director of the Office for Child Protection and Safety, and her assistant, Jennifer Alvaro, at All Saints Church in Manassas. Dr. Timothy McNiff, diocesan superintendent of schools, was also present.
The informational meeting was the second open to parents interested in learning more about the proposed safe environment program.
Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde is considering adopting a Catholic derivative of the secular GTBT program to meet Article 12 of the Charter’s requirements for a safe environment program. Arlington was one of 34 dioceses cited by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for failing to be in full compliance with the Charter’s mandates. With two exceptions, those in attendance were dissatisfied with this program and offered suggestions for alternatives.
Father Paul deLadurantaye, secretary for religious education and sacred liturgy, presented a draft of a Catholic derivative of the GTBT curricula. The sample session for second graders incorporated a "Theology of the Body" for youngsters and Catholic teaching on the virtues of modesty and respect, unity of the body and soul, and stewardship of the body.
Children are also taught "personal safety rules," how to distinguish "good touches" from "bad touches" and what to do when violated.
"A sad problem some children may have is a particular kind of bad touch — sexual abuse. Sometimes people force or trick a child to do something that is not modest and not respectful," Father deLadurantaye said quoting from the curriculum.
Children learn "it’s my body that God gave me" and that "an uh-oh feeling alerts us that something may be wrong and tells us to ask questions of someone we feel safe with."
During two hours of questions and comments, the majority of parents indicated they wanted to be actively involved in the process and encouraged the diocese to explore alternative curricula that trains parents to recognize symptoms of abuse and to teach their children about sexuality and personal safety.
"The heart of the matter is that parents need to be informed about the Church’s teaching on sexuality in order to pass it on to children," said Maggie Ciskanik, a parishioner at St. John the Baptist Parish in Front Royal. "To call GTBT a personal safety program rather than a sexual abuse program is misleading."
Ciskanik quoted the 1995 encyclical "Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality" that states "whether at home or in educational centers … no one is capable of giving moral education in this delicate area better than duly prepared parents."
Among the concerns expressed repeatedly was the lack of information about the actual contents of proposed curriculum, which includes explicit illustrations of "bad touches," and concern that the program usurps the authority and primacy of parents in the educating their children on issues involving sex.
Parents can view the curriculum at the Chancery only with the supervision of Nolan or Alvaro.
Christopher Manion, director of Parents United to Respect Innocence in Teaching the Young (PURITY), a Front Royal-based, non-profit, educational organization, said the program’s emphasis on desensitizing children from shame constitutes an invasion of privacy.
Citing Article 7 of the Charter, which calls for transparency, Manion said, "I spent six and a half hours in the Chancery reviewing the material. Where in Father deLaduratnaye’s presentation are the graphic illustrations of groping that are in the materials?"
First published in 1985, the GTBT program is a "comprehensive child abuse prevention curriculum designed for preschool and kindergarten through sixth-grade students." It was created by Pam Church, a Catholic mother and grandmother, living near Atlanta, Ga. The program uses textual and visual material to teach children about sexual abuse and personal safety rules. A description of the program, currently taught in the Arlington public school system, 44 states and 10 dioceses, is available at www.goodtouchbadtouch.com.
Social worker Mary Beth Styles said that teaching young children about sexual abuse robs them of their innocence and burdens them with "adult problems." Styles, a 24-year veteran of child welfare services, said that children are ill-equipped to distinguish fantasy from reality and teaching about abuse sexualizes children at a young age, robbing them of their innocence and setting the stage for "false memory syndrome.
"We are asking children to do something that they are not developmentally capable of doing and that will result in traumatizing some children in the process," Styles said. "When children are given information too early, it generally causes confusion and therefore unintended and unanticipated consequences."
In addition, she said, teaching children about abuse puts the onus on children to bear responsibility for adult misbehavior.
Nolan assured parents that the diocese would offer training for adults as well as children.
"We believe it is important for parents to be involved. Whatever program our diocese ultimately settles on will involve the parents of our diocese, be evaluated as effective, age-appropriate, faithful to Catholic teaching and will not place the burden of protection on children," Nolan said.
She later clarified the proposed curriculum would be offered as an "opt in" program, so that parents would decide whether their children should attend.
St. Raymond of Penafort parishioner Maureen Brody, an author and mother of eight, reviewed the program at the Chancery offices prior to the meeting.
"Fifty percent was excellent," she said. "I am particularly impressed with the emphasis on the innocence of the victim, the ‘appropriate attire’ section for fifth- and sixth-graders and the repeated call to talk to a trusted adult about the ‘uh-oh’ feeling."
However, Brody maintained the idea that educating children makes them "better equipped to prevent abuse" suggests that children "bear at least some portion of the responsibility for preventing abuse."
In addition, Brody said stories about abuse and visual imagery included in the program could be "terrifying" for young children and that the lack of statistical support on its effectiveness was troubling.
According to Nolan and Alvaro, researcher David Finklehore said GTBT has "all the elements of effective programs" and that a study published in 1988 and unpublished studies show the program is effective. Others present questioned the validity of the studies mentioned on measuring abuse prevention versus recognition and memory retention.
In a telephone interview, Church denied the use of "explicit" imagery.
"The illustrations are cartoon drawings," she said. "This program teaches kids to understand concepts, not examples."
Church also said she is developing a program for parents and has no objection to parents attending GTBT sessions with their children.
Sally Berra, principal of St. Ann School in Arlington, said she received no negative feedback from parents after GTBT was presented to kindergarten, third- and fifth-graders last year.
"It gave some parents an opportunity to discuss things with their children they wanted to discuss but did not know how," Berra said. "I was not unhappy with the program, but would have liked more lead time for teachers and parents."
Nolan assured parents that their concerns would be heard by Bishop Loverde and that the final decision on the program had not been made. Father deLadurantaye’s presentation on the program is available on the Web site at: www.arlingtondiocese.org/protect.
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