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Spotlight Report

Parents call anti-abuse program too explicit

By Jonathan Saltzman, Globe Staff, 5/10/2003

A curriculum the Boston Archdiocese introduced this spring to teach children how to avoid being abused by adults or other children has come under fire by parents who say the program is too explicit for children as young as kindergartners.

The ''Talking About Touching'' program, put in place in 174 parochial schools in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal, will be mandatory this fall for all kindergarten through 8th-grade pupils at diocesan schools, the archdiocese said.

Some parents say the program takes away their rights to have ultimate say over their children's education.

''We fully support the intention of protecting children from sexual abuse,'' said Bill Germino of Norwood, a founder of the group Shared Concerns of School Parents. ''What we're objecting to, really, is explicit examples or scenarios of sexual abuse that we feel our children do not need to be exposed to in order to keep themselves safe.''

However, officials with the church and the organization that helped train diocesan instructors and administrators how to teach the program said the concerns are unwarranted.

Suzin Bartley, executive director of the Massachusetts Children's Trust Fund, which trained the staff, said that although the subject matter is sometimes explicit, it has been well received by almost all parents of children at day-care centers in Boston. And, she said, it has been endorsed by Virtus, a group of programs created by National Catholic Risk Retention Inc. that seeks to prevent wrongdoing, such as sexual abuse, in the church.

The curriculum was prepared by the Committee for Children, a Seattle-based nonprofit group dedicated to preventing child abuse and youth violence through education. It is a 15-week regimen during which children are taught a variety of tips on potential hazards ranging from bicycling to fire. Each session lasts 30 minutes, and a spokesman for the archdiocese said the sessions will take time away from other subjects.

A group of approximately 30 parents - most with children in St. Catherine of Siena parish in Norwood - have objected to the part of the curriculum that deals with potential sexual abuse.

Once a week, children are taught what to do in a variety of scenarios. Among the examples, said parents, are cases where male relatives or baby-sitters urge children to undress and touch each other's genitals while watching television or eating popcorn. In kindergarten classes, parents said, instructors play a video in which a motorcycling baby-sitter wants to play a ''touching game.''

''There's a lot of explicit examples that we feel can make the child very anxious in everyday loving situations, so they're going to be fearful about sitting on grandpa's lap and watching a video with their uncles,'' said Pauline Irwin, who has three daughters at St. Catherine.

Bartley said the scenarios underscore that many adults who abuse children are relatives or close family friends who slowly win youngsters' trust. ''What we know about pedophiles is that they don't suddenly abuse a child,'' she said. ''They, over a period of years, seduce a child'' by buying the youngster ice cream and lavishing attention on him or her.

She disputed suggestions that such discussions scare children, saying that the ''Talking About Touching'' program actually does the opposite.

The school began teaching the program in grades K through 4 in April, said Germino, but plans to introduce it to the higher grades next school year.

Irwin and Germino, whose 5-year-old daughter attends kindergarten at St. Catherine's School, were among a number of parents who said they got permission from the school administration to excuse their children from the program this year.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the diocese, said some schoolchildren were excused this spring because the program began after the start of the school year. But the diocese isn't making any exceptions next year because the program is as much a part of the curriculum as academic subjects or religious education, Coyne said.

''It's been looked at, it's been recommended, it's been evaluated, and it's very age-appropriate,'' he said.

Nonetheless, members of the parents' group say they hope to meet with Bishop Richard G. Lennon soon, possibly next week, to discuss changing the curriculum. Coyne did not know whether the bishop intended to hold a meeting, but he said Lennon is ''always willing to talk to any member of the church.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/10/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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