Popular prevention programs adopted by U.S. Catholic bishops in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that embroiled the Catholic Church in the United States should be abandoned as ineffective and possibly injurious, conclude medical experts.

At the 75th annual meeting of the Catholic Medical Association’s Education Conference, held in Boston October 27-28, professionals recommended the U.S. bishops “rescind the safe-environment mandate as it applies to children and adolescents and discontinue all child-empowerment programs for preventing child sexual abuse.”

In response to the abuse scandal, the American bishops adopted the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” in June of 2002. The charter was revised and reaffirmed in 2005.

Each diocese was to implement a “child protection” or “safety education” program. The program was intended reassure parents the bishops’ were taking measures to insure the safety of their children.

However, many parents objected that the “safety” programs were little more than graphic sex education texts that they found to be disturbing and inappropriate for the ages most at risk.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the USCCB, set up a task force to audit dioceses for compliance with the charter. The USCCB hired former FBI agent Kathleen McChesney to direct the compliance office, a bid to project a “get tough” image to the public.

However, some bishops declined to use the suggested programs, citing the invasion of parental rights. These bishops found more “family friendly” programs, but the majority of U.S. Catholic schools and parishes adopted one of the programs suggested by the USCCB. Similar programs are found in public schools also.

Criticism of these “safety” programs continues to mount. Most parents resent the emphasis on the child, noting that no 8-year-old can be made responsible for his or her safety.

‘She is still a child’

A father of a third-grader at an Orlando, Fla., school summed up the qualms of parents: “Just because my daughter has been warned of possible predators, am I to assume she is now safe? However warned she may be, she is still a child and cannot possibly outsmart a predator. But she has now been exposed to vile concepts no child should know at her age.”

Medical experts agree. The Catholic Medical Association, the CMA, had engaged a task force of physicians who specialize in the care of children to examine sexual abuse of children and adolescents, its causes and the effectiveness of popular prevention programs used in schools. The experts were asked to suggest “interventions for the prevention of sexual abuse, based upon scientific principles of child neurobiological and moral development. …”

The task force findings echoed the concerns of thousands of parents, that the programs in use had “the potential … to traumatize the child by introducing false and negative concepts concerning the meaning and dignity of human sexual relatedness and the potential to produce distrust for trustworthy parents.”

These parental cries of protest reached the Vatican, where the Pontifical Council for the Family logged pleas and petitions asking the Council to address the issue of so-called “safety education” programs used in their schools for the prevention of sexual abuse. The Congregations for Bishops, Clergy and the Doctrine of the Faith urged the CMA to continue with the work of their task force.

Empowerment pedagogy

The final report of the task force is a booklet, “To Preserve and Protect.” After a brief review of the social history of child abuse laws and preventative programs, the report takes aim at the “empowerment” model that most safety programs employ. This model purports to give the child “ownership” of his body. It teaches warning signs of predator behavior and is essentially a “just say ‘no!'” approach.

But such programs are devoid of any moral perspective. Rather, the programs assume the criteria of abuse is the willingness of the child – any violation of the child’s will is wrong, but nothing is said of the objective danger of the act, irrespective of a child’s willingness. A predator who promises a victim a new Game Boy in exchange for sexual favors may not have technically violated the child’s will. Thus, parents are ill at ease with “empowerment” programs, since few young children can be empowered against the persuasion of a predator.

Researchers found that developmental studies from the 1980s that used empowerment pedagogy indicated that “pre-school children do not have the cognitive capacities for abstract thinking and complex conceptualization that are necessary prerequisites to comprehend the program materials.” This failure “led to the recommendation for the state of California to shift the focus of prevention of sexual abuse from preschool children into programs for parents, teachers and adult caretakers.”

More worrisome were the conclusions of a University of California at Berkeley study in which
“children were asked to explain what they understood about the concepts of touching, of secrets, and of strangers taught in the programs. The gains in knowledge by 118 preschool children after participation in these programs were very low and there were surprisingly untoward results. The children responded more negatively to pictures of neutral physical interactions between persons. Parents noted increased anxiety, changes in sleeping patterns and an overanxious fear of strangers.”

For primary grade school students, the “empowerment programs’ reliance on intuition is dangerous.” The CMA report quotes from the 1991 published study by J.D. Berrick, Ph.D., Director of the Berkeley Child Welfare Research Center, and N. Gilbert, Ph.D., professor of social welfare at the University of California at Berkeley. Berrick and Gilbert looked at “a systematic analysis of 15 curricula of sexual abuse programs for California preschoolers and grades one to three.

Included in the study were the following prevention programs: “Good Touch Bad Touch,” “Confusing Touch,” “Child Assault Prevention,” “CARE” (Child Abuse Recognize and Eliminate), “Children’s Self-Help” and the “Talking About Touching” programs.

All the programs were found by Berrick and Gilbert to be inadequate in their consideration of normative child development. Among the developmental issues not considered properly were the reliance on the child’s comprehension of abstract concepts and his ability to be intuitive. Intuition is a difficult concept for children, and it is unreliable in evaluating whether something is abuse or not.”

Studies also show that young children have not yet developed abstract thinking skills that are necessary to determine how a “good person can do a bad thing.”

The study notes that children cannot be expected to grasp how “an innocuous situation can change into a threatening situation: ‘You may want a touch at first but then change your mind.’ This abstract concept has temporally separate aspects and is beyond the cognitive ability of young children.

Because children have limited anticipatory concepts and behaviors, they will not act to protect themselves in an unsafe situation that begins as a safe situation, such as with a good person who turns into a bad person. Anticipating danger requires the conceptualization of two temporally different experiences with a person who can be both good and bad and who performs touches that may start as good but turn into bad ones.”

The Berrick and Gilbert study urges adult-responsible models be used rather than putting the burden of protection on the shoulders of the child.

“The [adult] protection model places no burden on young children to perceive, evaluate and act in instances that are unclear, emotionally charged and very confusing. The protection model does not confront children with the possibility of abuse from someone they know, an idea that is difficult for children to comprehend and does little to foster the sense of trust and security necessary to enlist adult assistance when needed.”

‘It is all about CYA’

As for junior and senior high-aged students, studies on “safety” programs currently in use nationwide are disappointing. These analyses “found that the preadolescent and adolescent children who participated in the ‘more comprehensive’ programs were not able to prevent a sexual assault against themselves, nor were they able to reduce the extent of their physical injuries.”

If the programs are so ineffective and even injurious to young children, why do such curricula continue to be used by thousands of schools?

“It is all about CYA,” said one teacher who requested anonymity. “When abuse occurs, then the school board or the bishop of Catholic school can point to the programs to show ‘due diligence’ and wriggle off the hook,” she said. “The whole thing is not about protection of our kids, but protection of the powers that be, public, private, or religious.”

The CMA task force report also examines data on sexual offenders. Many are successful because they engage in deceit and manipulation that a child cannot recognize.

According to the report, “To create a normalization of sexual activity [offenders] subtly increased sexual touching during the grooming period. They desensitized the child by talking about sex or showing sexual materials including explicit videos and magazines.”

This points up the confusion that empowerment modeled programs causes, since these programs typically use graphic sexual materials and discussions that many parents insist are themselves a form of abuse. If such material is used in a classroom setting, how is the child to understand that similar material outside of the classroom is prelude to an assault?

For the American Catholic community there is an additional layer of concern. The use in their schools of the typical “safety” program as mandated by the USCCB is not in concert with a Vatican document, “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality.”

“Truth and Meaning” states sexual education of the child is the trust and task of parents, at the parent’s prerogative since “sexuality is not something purely biological, rather it concerns the intimate nucleus of the person.”

Furthermore, “Truth and Meaning” states, “Each child is a unique and unrepeatable person and must receive individualized formation,” and, “The moral dimension must always be part of the explanation.”

The Catholic Medical Association report notes, “Numerous university research studies have concluded that child-empowerment programs, despite the best of intentions, do not prevent the sexual abuse of children; they are not consistent with the science of child development; and they are not in accord with Church teaching on the education of children in human sexuality and the protection of the innocence of children.”

In summary, “Church and school educational programs that focus on teaching the child how to prevent abuse are not consistent with the current knowledge and research on the sexual abuse of children. Research of the last two decades demonstrates that it is not effective to ask the potential child victim to prevent the abuse. Children cannot control or change the factors that cause sexual abuse.”

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Mary Jo Anderson is a contributing reporter to WorldNetDaily and a long-time reporter for the Catholic magazine Crisis.

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