Tuesday, January 13, 2004

The Arlington Catholic diocese’s efforts to prevent sexual abuse of children in Catholic schools and religious programs backfired Monday night when angry parents filled a Manassas church to demand that a proposed “Good Touch, Bad Touch” program be canceled.

In a four-hour hearing ending at 11 p.m., a majority of the 230 people at All Saints Catholic Church hooted, booed and hurled catcalls at a handful of diocesan employees, who defended the program.

Parents complained that “Good Touch, Bad Touch” was inappropriate for young children, that parents had little or no input in selecting the program and that the true problem was abusive clerics, not children.

“If clerical abuse was the problem to be addressed, I don’t understand why children are being made repositories for information that’s beyond their ability to comprehend,” said Virginia state Rep. Bob Marshall, a Catholic representing Loudon and Prince William counties in the 13th District.

“I realize the big problem the diocese has,” said Eleanor Kelly, a Catholic from Front Royal. “The insurance companies won’t insure you unless you show there are [preventive] programs.”

At one point, the crowd began chanting the rosary to drown out Catherine Nolan, the diocesan director of child protection and safety who said the diocese is under pressure from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to come up with a plan to satisfy a 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The bishops devised the charter as a response to revelations of widespread sexual abuse of young Catholics by their priests during a 50-year span.

On Jan. 6, the Arlington diocese was one of 34 singled out by the USCCB as not being in compliance with provisions of the charter, which mandates that each diocese establish a “safe-environment” program for children. The diocese is considering a secular program used in Arlington public schools, in 10 dioceses and in school systems in 44 states, but must rewrite the materials to square with Catholic doctrine.

But many of the 60 parents who lined up at two microphones said they didn’t want kindergartners hearing the words “sexual abuse” in a Catholic school.

“What would my little girls do with a question like: ‘What is good touch and bad touch?’” said Laura Clark, a parent from Front Royal. “I don’t want them even thinking about those things. I don’t want any teacher, no matter how Catholic or well-intentioned, talking to children about these things.”

“To circumvent parents and go to the children is damaging,” said Anthony D’Andrea, also from Front Royal. “What is coming from Rome on this issue? Maybe we should focus on this.”

Mr. D’Andrea was referring to “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality,” a 1995 Vatican document that specifies that parents “are the first and foremost educators of their children” on chastity. “Other educators can assist in this task,” the document says, “but they can only take the place of parents for serious reasons of physical or moral incapacity.”

Speaking in support of the proposed program, the Rev. Paul deLadurantaye, director of catechesis for the diocese, said children are told in “Good Touch, Bad Touch” not to let anyone touch them on parts of their bodies covered by a bathing suit or underwear.

“It says, ‘Some people try to trick you or force you into showing your private parts,’” he said. “That’s as detailed as we get.”

Children also are taught, “It’s my body God gave me” and to watch out for an “uh-oh” feeling that “tells us to ask questions of someone we feel safe with,” Father deLadurantaye said. If children feel threatened, they must “say ‘no’ and get away.”

Children then are instructed to talk with “someone who will believe me” and that “it’s never my fault.”

The program is described at www.goodtouchbadtouch.com and was created by Pam Church, a Catholic mother of six living near Atlanta. Preschoolers would get four 20-minute sessions, with the time allotments increasing each year to three sessions of one hour, 15 minutes each for fifth- and sixth-graders.

Parents will have the right to opt out of their children taking the program with no condemnation or penalty, Mrs. Church added.

“They don’t need to have their children do it, but they should not impose those beliefs on others,” she said. “I think some parents want to be the moral authority for everyone. We have good people who are extremely well-trained who can teach this program.”

Those who teach the material must go through 3 days of training at a cost of $225 per person. Parents of children in the diocese’s 37 parochial schools and church religious education programs in 66 parishes also would be allowed to preview the program material, Father deLadurantaye said.

But parents objected that anyone wanting to read the materials had to come to diocesan offices where they would be supervised by a social worker while scanning the documents. Dawn Krynitsky, a Catholic mother from Manassas, suggested the curriculum was unworkable.

“How can I bathe my child and wash her hair when there’s a teacher saying this is a bad touch because they don’t have their bathing suit on?” she asked.

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