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Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXI No. 2
Pentecost 2006

Talking About Talking About Touching — And Unsafe “Safe Environment” Programs in Catholic Schools

New regulations in the US bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, first approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in June 2002, will now permit parents to opt out of the mandatory “safe environment” programs that all dioceses (and Eastern-rite eparchies) are required to provide in Church-run schools -- and that all Catholic school children have been forced to take -- in order that the diocese can be judged “in compliance” with the Charter.

In a revised version of the Charter, issued May 15 by the USCCB Administrative Committee, the “safe environment” programs are still required, even though parents may withdraw their children from these “sex-ed abuse” programs. The document, approved at the Administrative Committee’s March 16 meeting, was posted on the USCCB web site, under Office of Child and Youth Protection: The relevant section says:

The [Administrative Committee’s] discussion acknowledged reluctance from some parents who object to the Church providing such training. The Committee understands this concern and its members have heard these concerns themselves. While we believe that we might not be able, in the end, to provide training to those children, we still have a chance for dialogue with the parents about the importance of this training for the overall protection of children.

* If parents choose not to have their child participate in the safe environment training, the parents are to be offered safe environment training materials as well as be asked to sign a form, perhaps included in the parish or diocesan Religious Education registration forms. The purpose of the form is to notify the diocese/eparchy that they do not wish their child to participate in the training, and that safe environment training materials have been offered to them. If the parents will not sign such a form, a notation of this should be made in a record maintained by the parish.

* The auditors will seek demonstration that parishes are implementing the required safe environment programs. This might include a letter signed by the pastor indicating that the parish has received the programs and has implemented them.

The US bishops’ Administrative Committee consists of the executive officers, committee chairmen and regional representatives of the USCCB. The Committee was likely responding to increasingly sharp criticism of the programs from bishops as well as parents. For example, Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker preferred to be stigmatized as “not in compliance” with the Charter than to inflict such “safe environment” programs on his people. The modified regulations do not entirely resolve such dilemmas for a bishop, however. The new version says only that future compliance audits will not judge a diocese or eparchy as compliant only if every eligible child and adult has participated in the “safe environment” program, and states that “The major focus here is on verifying that a program exists, and that the diocese/eparchy is doing what is humanly possible to educate children and adults in safe environments”.

These mandatory “sex-abuse-safety” programs (“Talking About Touching” is the most widely used) are alarming -- and not only for their inappropriately explicit content. It is alarming that intelligent men, bishops, have been persuaded to believe that in mandating such programs they are doing something positive to protect children from sex abusers. Obviously these programs do not and cannot. In fact, such sexually explicit “safe environment” programs will be far more likely to frighten and/or sexualize innocent little children; and no reasonable person can honestly believe that a child can exercise any effective defense at all against an adult abuser. We have all read enough grim accounts by victims of abuse of how they were seduced and overpowered by pedophiles.

What remains a mystery is that any bishop who even cursorily examines these programs can bear to permit them in his diocese.

With the newly amended compliance charter, parents will be now permitted to withdraw their child from these programs -- under certain conditions. But the dioceses are still ordered to provide them, and the “goal” of the charter is still to make certain that all children in Catholic schools are subjected to Church-sponsored “safe environment” programs. So the default position of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is unchanged. Only the children whose parents are aware of this option — and exercise it — will be protected from programs that are, arguably, abusive in their own way, even if that is not their stated intent. Ironically, teachers in Catholic schools who are responsible for implementing these programs may find themselves in a seriously compromised position, as well.

We hope every diocesan bishop will make it a point to notify every parent of their “option” to keep their children out of these dubious (and worse) programs -- and, moreover, that he will strongly encourage them to exercise it.


Catholic Education in Sexuality: Resources for Study and Instruction

Letters to the Editor -- Pentecost 2006

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