Suffer the Children — The Disaster of Talking about Touching

On September 29, 2003, a frustrated Rev. David Mullen sent a letter to newly installed Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston, pleading for help.

“Talking About Touching” (TAT), a controversial safety education program designed for children in kindergarten to fourth grade, had just been accepted in the Archdiocese of Boston. He wrote:

I am most distressed that you have decided to impose the evil [TAT] program on the parishes of the Archdiocese. We have learned nothing from the clergy abuse crisis: Pastors are still ignored, parents’ rights are ignored, the innocence of children is tossed aside, and arrogant chancery officials are still convinced that by shuffling a few papers and giving a few orders all will be well. And of course, we refuse to think like Catholics. Over three months ago I wrote a letter to Bishop Lennon, with copies to all the other auxiliaries, regarding the various objections I have to this program. It was not even acknowledged. I have included a copy of this letter for your eyes.

But it didn’t end there for Father Mullen. In October, he appeared on the Fox News Channel and again described TAT as “evil.” This was followed by an interview with the Boston- area News Channel 7, where he said the sexually graphic program was unsuitable for his parish and that he refused to implement it.

Father Mullen wasn’t alone in his concern. The adoption of the program ignited a firestorm of parental protest throughout the archdiocese. Criticism was coming from all corners.

In response, Rev. Chris Coyne, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, told Channel 7 that the TAT curriculum was “excellent” and confirmed that the program would be required in all schools as part of the archdiocese’s response to the scandal. Father Coyne later acknowledged to Crisis that he was “not unsympathetic to some of the concerns” and that the situation with parents and some pastors was “a bit intense.” An understatement, to be sure. After numerous meetings, phone calls, and unanswered letters, many Boston-area parents feel estranged from their bishop. Others have removed their children from diocesan schools rather than subject them to “kid-porn education.”

How did it get to this point?

A Nightmare for Parents

The parents who reviewed the introductory TAT video last spring were stunned. In one scene, a kindergartener asks his mother, “Mommy, what is sex?” to which the celluloid mom responds, “Sex is when two people get undressed and rub their private parts together.” One woman who attended the screening later voiced her disgust with chancery officials: “What is Catholic about this program? This is one more sellout to secular values. On second thought, this is exactly what I’ve come to expect from the chancery—they’ve sold us out in favor of dancing with the devil.”

John Bettinelli, a father of three boys at St. Catherine of Sienna school, reported his reaction to the video preview in Catholic World Report: “There was no mention of chastity or love, or that the two people should be married, or even that they should be of the opposite sex.” Despite a summer of protest and efforts to convince chancery officials that TAT was a disastrous choice for an archdiocese attempting to dig itself out from underneath a scandal of historic proportions, the divisive curriculum was nevertheless mandated for Boston’s Catholic schools.

Bishops across the country have instituted various programs to create “safe environments” in an effort to comply with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth adopted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in June 2002. According to the USCCB’s communications office, the guidelines for such programs call for “training programs for children and young people that include ‘age-appropriate materials pertaining to personal safety.’ This includes information about improper touching and relationships.”

The USCCB’s newly established Office of Child and Youth Protection, headed by former FBI agent Kathleen McChesney, monitors compliance with the charter via audits—the first of which has just been completed. While the USCCB doesn’t designate particular programs to be used in Catholic schools, Sheila Horan, McChesney’s assistant, told CRISIS that TAT is among three programs mentioned when a diocese asks the office for suggestions. Horan noted that a bishop is free to choose or design a program that best reflects the needs of his flock, provided that the program meets the charter guidelines. While several programs have been used in public schools, there’s no specifically Catholic option in the marketplace. As a result, each diocese has been under pressure to quickly review, select, and implement a program in order to meet the timeline of the first audit.

This haste, critics contend, may be responsible for the adoption of a child-safety program that ends up doing more harm than good.

The COYOTE Connection

At the heart of the TAT controversy are two central concerns raised by alarmed parents. First, the sexually explicit curriculum violates the Vatican’s own directives on appropriate sex-education material. Second, TAT shifts the burden for “safety” to children rather than charging parents, educators, and clergy with their protection. Several parent groups sent detailed reports to Archbishop O’Malley that outlined their objections, among them the criticism that TAT material was developed by the Committee for Children (CFC), a former Seattle-based prostitution rights advocacy organization. Indeed, the CFC is the sanitized name of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics). Parents’ groups such as Faithful Voice and Concerned Parents point out that those who support prostitutes’ rights simply don’t have an educational philosophy compatible with Church teaching.

Deacon Anthony Rizzuto, appointed by Bernard Cardinal Law to head the Boston archdiocese’s Office of Child Advocacy, Implementation, and Oversight, disagreed. He dismissed the charge that TAT should be removed on the grounds that its creators don’t share the Catholic view of human sexuality, even with the COYOTE link.

Rizzuto isn’t alone. Harry Purpur, director of education for the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, and Sister Lucy Vasquez, chancellor of the diocese, likewise defended their decision to mandate TAT in the diocesan schools, despite the known COYOTE connection. When contacted, Purpur rejected the notion that the CFC was compromised because of the link. “I did due diligence before accepting this program,” he said, “and the only COYOTE I found was an animal.” But one school staffer questioned Purpur’s claim, noting that Purpur came to Orlando from Seattle, home of the CFC. Even after Purpur was given verification of the COYOTE connection, he still declined to consider other safety-education programs.

When parents raised objections to the sexually explicit material in the curriculum and cited a scathing critique of TAT by Dr. James Dobson’s Family News in Focus, Rizzuto and Purpur dismissed the source. This despite the critique quoting Rev. Bob Carr, a Boston priest who told Focus that he “will refuse, if ordered, to teach this curriculum in his parish.”

However, the claimed ignorance of Rizzuto and Purpur to the link between COYOTE and the CFC falls flat on the evidence. Focus on the Family is a highly respected Evangelical resource that reaches millions of parents and ministers. Its May 2003 critique of TAT and its COYOTE connection was available to anyone interested in the facts. The critique listed Planned Parenthood and SIECUS (Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, an organization that promotes abortion and graphic sex education) as supporters of TAT. Lois Matheson, the CFC spokeswoman, refused to discuss the history of the committee. “I think that really distracts from the real issue here,” she said. “I don’t know how that’s relevant.”

But angry Catholic parents found it most relevant. Many were informed about COYOTE’s strong homosexual element—doubly worrisome for Boston in the post-scandal months. The shared history of COYOTE and the CFC was hastily deleted from the CFC’s Web site after irate parents flooded the Boston archdiocesan offices, protesting the introduction of TAT in their schools. However, several parents had already downloaded the history before it was removed: “1976: Seattle COYOTE changes its name to Judicial Advocates for Women, becomes a non-profit and identifies its mission: To educate the public about the realities of prostitution.” By 1979, according to the published history, Judicial Advocates for Women initiated a “curriculum review committee” to research child-abuse prevention and changed its name to the Committee for Children.

Why would the CFC have gone to such lengths to cover its own tracks? COYOTE was the work of Margo St. James, a former prostitute who testified during the 1996 San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution. At one point in her testimony, she noted, “The forerunner of COYOTE was WHO—Whores, Housewives and Others. Others meant lesbians, but it wasn’t being said out loud yet.”

St. James further detailed the birth of COYOTE: “I cornered [San Francisco Sheriff Richard Hongisto] at a party and asked him what it would take to get NOW [National Organization for Women] and gay rights groups to sup port prostitutes’ rights…. He said that we needed someone from the victim class to speak out…. I decided to be that someone.” St. James (and COYOTE) spent more than 25 years defending “prostitutes’ rights,” organizing the Hooker’s Ball (drawing 20,000 in 1978) and taking her research to the United Nations’ Women’s Conferences. According to St. James, COYOTE organized the 1984 Hooker’s Convention and drafted a Bill of Rights, the basis of the “World Whores Charter, drawn up by the International Committee for Prostitute’s Rights in the European Parliament.”

As St. James remembered, “a close friend, Jennifer James, an anthropology professor in Seattle,” helped take COYOTE international. “She [Jennifer James] coined the word `decriminalization,'” St. James noted, “and was responsible for getting NOW to make it a plank in their 1973 convention.” Professor James is the author of several books on New Age spirituality.

She also serves on the board of directors for the CFC.

Sexualizing Children

Catholic parents in Boston complain that one of the reasons they send their children to parish schools is to avoid the graphic sex-education programs used in public schools. But now the very curriculum they find crude and dangerous has been mandated for the archdiocese.

Some samples of the lessons for five- to seven-year-old children include:

Motorcycle riding babysitter offers little Joey a ride if he plays the touching game. “I’ll put my hand down the front of your pants and then you put your hand down the front of my pants.”

And,

This is Ian. He is worried because he has a problem, and he’s trying to decide whether to tell someone about it. Last week his mom’s boyfriend came into Ian’s room when Ian was getting ready for bed. He started to give Ian a hug and then he put his hand down the back of Ian’s pajama bottoms. He warned Ian not to tell his mom about what had happened. He said they should keep it a secret.

Critics have noted that TAT lacks any semblance of Catholic moral teaching. In the second scenario above, for example, it’s taken as given that the child’s mother has a live-in boyfriend. But more fundamentally, there’s no discussion of right and wrong, good or bad—these vital judgments are absent in the TAT curriculum and teacher’s manual. Furthermore, there’s no catechetical component that leads a child to understand his identity as a child of God. The sole criterion of judging “touching” is whether or not the child deems it safe or unwanted. Concerned parents outlined numerous possible scenarios of how a child—thus robbed of her innocence—might “consent” to touching that was accompanied by a promise of holding a puppy or going for ice cream. Equally as disturbing is the possibility that students will practice what they learn in role-playing TAT models on each other.

That worry is not a case of parental paranoia. Educators across the nation report increased sexual assaults on children by other children. Reported incidences of “outercourse,” where oral sex is performed by grade school children on one another, are increasing. Educators have speculated that early graphic sex education is at the root of this loss of innocence in grade school. Tragically, some factions of the education establishment see little danger in this. Indeed, certain quarters of the professional psychological community have published studies that claim “intergenerational sex” is not always harmful to the child, thus adding an academic gloss to child sexual abuse.

What Does the Church Teach?

Parents who have threatened to remove their children from schools in Boston and Orlando were quick to quote the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on the Family’s 1995 document, Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality. It states, “Parents must protect their children, first by teaching them a form of modesty and reserve with regard to strangers as well as giving suitable sexual information but without going into details and particulars that might upset or frighten them.” Many parents are frustrated with the attitude of the diocese that seems to overrule the primacy of parents as the first educators of their children. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the right and duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable” (2221).

The TAT curriculum as noted above also violates another important directive of the Church found in Familiaris Consortio: “The Church is firmly opposed to an often widespread form of imparting sex information disassociated from moral principles.”

Truth and Meaning is even clearer:

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 centres chosen and controlled by them. In this regard, the Church reaffirms the law of subsidiarity, which the school is bound to observe when it cooperates in sex education, by entering into the same spirit that animates the parents. [No. 43]

And,

In some societies today, there are planned and determined attempts to impose premature sex information on children…. They cannot understand and control sexual imagery within the proper context of moral principles and, for this reason, they cannot integrate premature sexual information with moral responsibility. Such information tends to shatter their emotional and educational development and to disturb the natural serenity of this period of life. Parents should politely but firmly exclude any attempts to violate children’s innocence because such attempts compromise their spiritual, moral and emotional development. [No. 83]

Given this clear teaching of the Church, where do parents turn when their local diocese appears to be in violation of it?

Wrong Diagnosis, Wrong Solution

As painful as it is to acknowledge, weary parents are skeptical of the sincerity of their shepherds. Leaders in several parents’ associations have voiced their concern that the driving motivation behind implementing “safety programs” may not be protecting Catholic children but reducing liability. Millions of dollars have been paid to victims of clerical abuse, and millions more will be settled on cases still pending.

The question has been asked, “Do our bishops even read the TAT material before they mandate it?” In most cases, it seems that they do not. In Boston, following the uproar surrounding TAT, Archbishop O’Malley asked Bishop Malone to assemble a committee to study TAT from a Catholic theological perspective and then make a definitive recommendation to the archbishop. “Why do we need a committee of diocrats? To pass the buck and spread out the blame?” asked one parent. “Why aren’t our children and the reputation of the Church important enough for the bishop to read what he imposes on us and then tell us he personally stands by that material?”

In those dioceses where the “safe environment” programs divide an already wounded community, it’s certainly reasonable to investigate alternatives. Other options have been found in dioceses where sensitivity and parental consultation marked the selection process. In Sacramento, California, Bishop William Weigand has implemented the excellent Kid-Wise in lower grades, switching to the Boy Scout safety program for use with junior-high students. In Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput retained attorney Nancy Walla to oversee various safety programs designed to meet the needs of specific communities. Pastor input is the key to Denver’s program. “We use a different program of our own design in inner-city schools,” Walla reports.

In South Carolina a parent group has developed Family Honor, an award-winning program of gentle sensibility for use in families and parishes. Family Honor plans a conference in Atlanta in the fall of 2004 to acquaint Catholic parishes and families with its program.

Not all dioceses have the human or financial resources to design their own programs, but healthy cost-conscious options are available. Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, retained the Center for Adolescent and Family Spirituality at Father Flannigan’s Girls and Boys Town (GBT). Its training includes “Unmasking Sexual Con-Games,” a segment designed to assist administrators in recognizing risky behavior.

Interestingly enough, GBT’s Laura Buddenberg and several of her colleagues received inquiries from parents about TAT. They examined the program and posted a negative review on the GBT Web site, making several critical points:

1. The program violates the latency period of young children—a period of development that the designers of TAT deny exists.

2. The program rejects the primacy of parental involvement.

3. Children are being subjected to an experiment created by the Committee for Children, with the goal of changing the way American children are educated by their parents regarding sexuality.

4. The CFC has its origins and inspiration in COYOTE and is part of a larger movement to give our children a “healthy” outlook on sexuality, free from puritan hang-ups and Catholic guilt. Its position is diametrically opposed to the traditional Judeo-Christian teaching on sexual morality. (It opposes the Catholic Church’s insistence on premarital chastity and fidelity in marriage, for example.)

Soon after posting the review, Buddenberg received an e-mail from Boston’s Deacon Rizzuto, asking if the piece were legitimate and, if so, who had written it. Buddenberg responded that the review was indeed the work of GBT’s Center for Adolescent and Family Spirituality.

Rizzuto never responded. Instead, she was surprised to learn that her private message was reproduced in a vitriolic letter to Rev. Val J. Peter, JCD, STD, executive director of GBT, from Mark W. Crawford, executive director of the CFC. Buddenberg notes that while Crawford accused her and GBT of impugning the “the validity of our program and organization [and] makes broad, unfounded claims about the program’s theoretical underpinnings,” he never actually refuted the points in the review, including the COYOTE connection.

Crawford’s letter insisted that “we have developed strong relationships with these dioceses, as well as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Catholic Education Association.” He further complained that the GBT review carried “gross distortions, completely without merit, and seriously damaging to our reputation.” Crawford asked that Father Peter take “appropriate action and remove this erroneous and damaging article from your Web site.”

The review and Crawford’s letter remain on the GBT site.

Culture of Consent

In Boston and Orlando, priests and parents can’t understand how a program as corrosive and graphic as TAT could be installed in their schools. One Florida priest admitted, “Look, the bishops probably don’t know what is in this curriculum. They’re in a tough spot—their insurance providers or the Catholic Risk Retention pool pressures them to get a program in place, and they have to get something ready for McChesney’s auditors. The bishops appoint a committee and put Sister Wear-the-Pants in charge to review sample material…but the bishop never sees the stuff. More often than laity know, it is the middle management of dioceses that is the problem—there are radicals and ‘diversity’ champions who control the educational and liturgical work of the dioceses, and these folks are ruthless. I’d bet the bishop has not read this material. The inmates are running the place. Just remove your child from class on the days that ‘Talking About Touching’ is presented.”

A more sinister observation was made by an Orlando homeschooling parent. “Here is what we face: Homosexual militants with the goal of changing moral values already have the NEA, and now public schools are a sewer of political correctness. Next, they must corrupt private and church-run schools, especially the Catholic schools.”

Hearing this, another father added, “After all, the Catholic League reported that more than 90 percent of the abuse cases were with boys over the age of puberty. This is not a ‘child abuse’ problem; this is a problem of winking at homosexuality in the priesthood and then trying to keep it cleaned up when it gets messy—that’s all.”

But in the meantime, the CFC and its program continues. In addition to the Catholic dioceses, TAT is taught in more than 5,000 public schools. The average cost to a diocese for the program is $20,000 to $50,000 for the initial year and $2,500 for a parish. And despite loud protests from parents that the CFC’s agenda runs contrary to Catholic morality and builds instead a culture of consent, the organization is growing. Last June, it solicited for a new employee: “Committee for Children has a Web Manager position available. Please see our web site for more information on the position and how to apply. www.cfchildren.org.”

Mary Jo Anderson

By

Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She has been a frequent guest on "Abundant Life," an EWTN television program, and her "Global Watch" radio program is heard on EWTN radio affiliates nationwide. She writes regularly for Crisis Magazine. More articles and commentary can be found at Properly Scared and at Women for Faith and Family. Mary Jo is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote "Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions," published in 2005 by Catholic Answers. In 2003 Mary Jo was invited to the Czech Republic to address parliamentarians on the Impact of Radical Feminism on Emerging Democracies.

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