MANASSAS, Va — Nearly 300 Arlington Catholics packed a meeting at All Saints Parish here January 12 to protest a "sexual-abuse prevention program designed for Catholic children as young as five years of age.
The diocese is developing the program in response to the requirement, contained in article 12 of the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" adopted by the American bishops at their Dallas meeting in June 2002. that each diocese implement a "Safe Environment" program.
Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde has determined that article 12 requires the diocese to establish a program to be taught by trained "facilitators."
He has thus ruled out any possibility of "Safe Environment" programs that involve parents teaching their own children, and has instead directed his staff to adopt a secular program. called "Good Touch, Bad Touch."
Although Bishop Loverde insists that he has not yet made a "final decision on which safe environment this diocese will use," no other program has been under consideration since August 2003. Curiously, all materials from alternative programs that were considered but rejected are no longer available for review at the chancery. Furthermore, diocesan officials told attendees at the All Saints meeting that a program had to be in place by this summer so it could be taught in the new school year.
In the words of one disillusioned mother who attended the meeting, " 'Good Touch, Bad Touch' is a done deal."
And that presents huge, if not insurmountable, problems for Catholic families in the diocese.
Most families, however, know very little about the program. According to Bishop Loverde "the company that distributes this curriculum has a policy to distribute the program materials only to those who have attended and successfully completed a training program [which lasts three and one-half days ]."
When Christopher Manion, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish in Front Royal, Va., asked to see the materials so he could contribute to the deliberations surrounding its adoption; the bishop insisted that Manion come into the chancery to do so, and that he would have to be supervised by a diocesan social worker, who would present the program materials.
"I appealed to article 7 of the Charter, which guarantees 'a commitment to transparency and openness' in every diocese, I even offered to put down a cash deposit of $900 for the materials to review them over the weekend — all to no avail," Manion told The Wanderer.
"I even called the program author, Pam Church, on December 30 to get her permission or to buy them from her. She said, 'You're rational, but there are right-wing crazies and extremists who only look for the negatives. No dice.'
"I finally closed my business for a day and drove into Arlington — that was the only choice they left me."
Manion spent more than six hours in the chancery reviewing the materials, which include facilitator manuals for three grade levels: from pre-K through sixth grade. "They were pretty sickening," he said, "not only in content, but in principle. They begin with the mantra. 'This is my body, and I can do anything I want with it.' They emphasize feelings, especially the 'uh-oh' feeling a child should associate with a 'bad touch.' A five year old that hears this will be easy pickings in eighth grade when she hears, 'If it feels good,. it is good.'
"But I think the worst part was the programs fundamental principle: The manuals explain that youngsters will feel 'embarrassed' when they use the words 'sexual abuse,' but the method insists on using them. allowing 'child abuse' as a substitute term only as a last resort and only for the pre-K.
"The social worker explained that the training emphasizes repetition so the pre-K children will be 'desensitized' from the 'shame' they feel when they discuss such a sensitive topic. Well, in my book. that's the language of the culture of death. Catholic teaching would call it an attempt to destroy the child's holiness, to assault his sense of modesty. and to traumatize him for life."
Manion said his experience reinforces this judgment. "One poster shown to the children during the sessions depicts sexual abuse 'scenarios': One illustration shows a woman fondling a child: another shows a man groping the [crotch] of a young boy."
Manion who has taught Christian social and political theory, as well as Christian ethics, at Boston University and at Catholic University, found. the materials pornographic.
"[Avery] Cardinal Dulles warned the bishops in Dallas about the vague definition of sexual abuse in the Dallas Charter. Now we see what he was driving at. If a priest acting on his own showed a youngster cartoons, pictures, or other 'simulated scenes involving sexual abuse,' he would be indulging in sexual abuse as defined by the Charter and his bishop could suspend him from public ministry for life. But here we have a stranger, a facilitator, showing it to five year olds, to boys and girls together, and getting away with it because it has somebody's imprimatur"
Manion's views were articulated in various ways by more than 60 area Catholics who spoke up at the All Saints meeting, which got off to a shaky start for the diocesan bureaucrats pushing the program.
A host of cameras and reporters from major media outlets, totally unexpected by the diocese, swarmed inside and outside the meeting, which was held in the main church, a decision made by Fr. Robert Cilinksi, pastor. who explained that the Blessed Sacrament was kept in a side chapel to permit occasional meetings in the church proper.
Opponents of the "Bad Touch" program had sent out a press release because, in the words of one participant, "we didn't want this meeting to go down the memory hole. We want our voices heard. and the only thing the diocese cares about is bad press anyway."
Catherine Nolan, the director of the diocese's Office of Child Protection and Safety, chaired the meeting, and announced a one-hour presentation followed by questions, which could be written out and then turned in on index cards to be answered in the second hour of the scheduled two-hour meeting. A troubled murmur coursed through the crowd, but they listened intently as Nolan and her assistant discussed their experience with child sexual abuse, some general statistics, and some of their own experiences.
There was no mention of the thousands of cases of homosexual assaults on Catholic boys by priests and bishops, or the decades-long, criminal cover-ups by some in the hierarchy.
During Nolan's presentation, however, Fr. Cilinski's opening prayer invoking the coming of the Holy Spirit apparently began bearing fruit. Nolan was discussing her consultations in the chancery, and the audience heard her say something along these lines: "and some people think that parents should have the right to teach their children."
At that moment a wave of applause began to surge through the church, with shouts of "yes!" and "all right!" Nolan then made a stab at assuring the attendees that. yes, parents would indeed participate, be involved, be consulted, be advised. And that point was left suspended in midair, to be addressed en masse by dozens of the attendees only an hour later, when they were allowed to voice their questions for the first time.
The next segment featured a presentation by Fr. Paul de Ladurantaye, director of the diocesan Office of Religious Education. Bishop Loverde had written in the November 27, 2003 Catholic Herald that Fr. de Ladurantaye would make sure that the "Bad Touch" program, if adopted, "will be integrated with our Catholic understanding of the human person and of morality." He then showed a sample, interim revision that reflected his reworking of the secular program.
By then it was well beyond the time scheduled for questions, and attendees began asking — shouting — questions. While some participants later described the impatient crowd as "unruly," a seasoned lawyer with decades in the political trenches described the mounting temperature of the irate crowd as "the closest thing to a riot I've ever been a part of."
The discontent was well-founded. Time for questions was quickly evaporating into another overhead-projector slide explaining another "bad touch," and then the organizers gamely tried to conduct a "question-and-answer" period by summarizing by category the stacks of questions.
That attempt mercifully ended, but barely 20 minutes remained for the attendees to voice their own concerns.
They didn't waste any time. Immediately, dozens of people lined up at the two microphones in the aisles. One after another, parents tried to explain to the social workers how holiness, modesty, and purity are nurtured during childhood.
"How could you do this to our children?" asked one mother. A young father warned that, if you tried to opt out of a sex-abuse program that your son's classmates had attended, "he would suddenly have ten thousand mentors" on the playground to tell him what he'd missed. Educators and child development experts stressed how outrageous it was to address such intimate topics to young children outside the "one on one" relationship that is so precious to the home.
"A totally safe environment means leaving children to their childhood," advised one mother.
One parent mentioned that "a lot of priests in the diocese oppose this program." At that point, another wave of spontaneous applause swept through the room, including a standing ovation for several of the priests who were in attendance.
The applause lasted for a full minute before it subsided and the questions continued.
Several participants warned the social workers about the chaos that would ensue, once the program was adopted. One mother asked, "This program offers up the innocence of children on the altar of political correctness. Are you prepared to deal with the wave of false accusations?"
At one point during the questioning, it appeared that Nolan wanted to adjourn with dozens of people still at the microphones. Bob Marshall, a member of the Virginia Delegates. warned her: "It would he a mistake to shut this meeting down." And she did not.
A troubling theme that angered many in the audience was the conviction that the diocese was trying to ram through the "Bad Touch" program without the transparency and openness guaranteed by the very charter that Bishop Loverde was blaming for the perceived need to establish a "bad touch" type program.
Even the format of the meeting was attacked. "You refused to read the question [about damaging a child's innocence during latency]," said one woman. "because you wanted to sugarcoat it" with "'age appropriate' jargon"
The contrast between the intensity of consultation on this program with that of the bishop's recent capital campaign was also a prominent theme.
When the bishop began his capital campaign, attendee Thomas Minarik explained, he wrote every two weeks. "He had my address." Why, then. was there so little notice about this meeting? Others wondered why this was the only meeting, apart from a poorly attended meeting on short notice on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. (One woman who attended that meeting told The Wanderer that the attendees were unanimous in their opposition.) Another speaker, who had led his parish fund-raising team for the bishop's campaign, described the hundreds of hours, the dozens of meetings, and the endless personal phone calls and visits involved in each parish's share of that effort.
"Now you're going to adopt this after one meeting?" he asked incredulously.
Manion also complained about the program's owner, who told him on December 30 that he could "look at the materials all he wanted, once the program is adopted by the diocese," but that he would need to have social-worker supervision at the chancery until then (a view confirmed in writing by Bishop Loverde two days later).
The speakers included many seasoned experts in child psychology. social work, education, and parenthood. One man asked the panel to "plead" with the bishop not to adopt it; another speaker then said, "Don't plead, you tell the bishop not to do this. If you don't, I'll go tell him myself if you want me to."
Many attendees also lamented that the diocese had opted for a very expensive secular program without even trying to consult any of the many individuals and institutions within the diocese that could easily have contributed.
In the face of all this, Nolan soldiered on, insisting that "the rule now is not to have additional meetings," that the deadline for adopting a "safe environment program" loomed, that the Charter required one that did not have parents as teachers, and that she would deliver all the concerns addressed that night to the bishop.
The meeting finally adjourned over two hours after it had been scheduled to end, with poignant testimony of a woman from St. John Bosco Parish: "1 was abused, It really doesn't matter how much you know. No child is strong enough to resist abuse by an adult."
The meeting revealed another troubling cloud on the horizon for Bishop Loverde. As the crowd left the church, one businessman told The Wanderer, "You know, I was one of the leaders of the bishop's campaign in my parish, and we made one of the highest contributions in the entire diocese.
''I think the only thing my wife and I can do in conscience is to redirect the rest of our pledge from the bishop's fund to a real Catholic effort that will not endanger our children's innocence and faith. And I'm going to the other folks who worked on that campaign with the same message."
A New Front
A new organization in the diocese, called PURITY — Parents United to Respect Innocence in the Teaching of the Young — was founded just before Christmas to encourage the development of sound programs for parents, "with the bishop if possible, without him if necessary," according to Manion, one of the founders. In anticipation of the meeting. PURITY inaugurated a web site, www.chaste-errvironnient.org, that features Church documents regarding all aspects of formation of the young.
The site also offers daily updates on the "Arlington Crisis" and correspondence, including letters to and from Bishop Loverde and its members.
"We want to support the bishop," said Manion. "Look, this bishop is the most blessed prelate in the country: He has an amazing Catholic population that boasts thousands of capable, dedicated, orthodox lay men and women who are willing to help him with one of the thorniest problems in the diocese. We're here to help him. He doesn't need to go out of town for a good Catholic program. We can do it right here. And we will."