Abuse program could be harmful, doctors warn

When the U.S. bishops created a program to protect children from sexual abuse in the wake of the scandal that rocked the Church, they included a mandate that children be taught sex-abuse prevention.

Now, as the bishop's landmark response, "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," nears its fifth anniversary, one group of Catholic health care professionals has declared the prevention programs ineffective and potentially harmful and has called on the bishops to rescind the mandate.

In its recently released task-force report, "To Protect and To Prevent," the Catholic Medical Association says that the "child-empowerment" models most common among sex-abuse prevention programs are not only inconsistent with Church teaching but with the science of child development.

"We therefore recommend that U.S. bishops rescind the safe-environment mandate as it applies to children and adolescents and discontinue all child-empowerment programs for preventing child abuse," the CMA states in its conclusions and recommendations.

Service to society

Dr. Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre, a physician-psychiatrist and lead author of the study, told Our Sunday Visitor that the child-empowerment models, which teach children to recognize things like "bad touch" and other potentially dangerous behaviors, rely on children to do the policing and introduce concepts that can be frightening.

"It causes children to be very confused. You could have a child who is 6 years old hearing about sexual abuse. It's a deviant, perverted form of sexuality that has nothing to do with love and marriage and chastity and responsibility for others. It's very frightening for the child and causes them to have confusion as to who is a safe person and who isn't," said Bissonnette-Pitre. "A trusting relationship with parents and with trustworthy adults is a real protective factor for children and they need it to develop. We should not be giving children information earlier than they can handle it."

John Brehany, executive director of the CMA, explained that the organization put together a panel of medical experts to study the prevention programs and make recommendations after hearing from concerned parents, educators, priests and bishops who questioned the moral appropriateness of some of the materials and methodologies in use.

"This book is really a service to the Church, to bishops and priests and to parents, and ultimately I think it's going to be a service to society because the problem of sexual abuse is not confined at all to the Catholic Church," he told OSV.

Brehany said that the CMA is not out to criticize the bishops but to share with them the most up-to-date information on sex-abuse prevention programs. "Hopefully people will think a minute and say if what you are doing is not necessarily well-grounded in the science of child development, if it is not necessarily grounded in the teachings of the Church on how you form children in sexual morality, and if it's not that effective, maybe we need to do something different," he said. "We don't go back to doing nothing, but maybe we do something better."

'Delicate balance'

Teresa Kettlekamp, executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the whole issue of safe environment has been "a sensitive one with parents." There can be the perception, she told OSV, that the Church is "pre-empting" the primary role of parents.

The bishops have established a safe-environment task force to study the prevention programs and to look at if and how they work in conjunction with Catholic moral theology. She said the task force will review the CMA publication and consider its recommendations.

"They will take to heart what the CMA says in its research," she said, noting that it is a "delicate balance" trying to teach children about such a sensitive subject.

Since the charter passed in 2002, 5.7 million children have received sex-abuse prevention training, and every diocese has a safe-environment program.

Bissonnette-Pitre said she is convinced that if the bishops had the current studies in hand at the time of the charter, they would have made different recommendations. "All of this is really new information. What we have learned since 2002 is that there is a need to have much more information about who are the victims and who are the offenders," she said.

CMA recommendations

Some of the CMA recommendations are systemic and would take years put into practice. The CMA recommends single-sex and mixed-age classrooms as a way to reduce symptoms of aggression, narcissism and domination and to increase children's moral strengths and virtues. The group also emphasizes programs that promote "self-mastery," character education and ways to identify overly aggressive and overly vulnerable children who may one day become abusers and victims.

"We recommend that the energy and resources now directed to child- and adolescent-empowerment programs be refocused on the development of programs to assist parents in being the primary educators and protectors of their children," the CMA states.

Bissonnette-Pitre said that programs designed to empower children to recognize and stop abusive behavior have been proven ineffective and that it is inappropriate or unreasonable to expect a vulnerable child to overcome the strategies of the "very crafty individual." Fixing the root of the problem is not as simple as switching program models.

"We don't think that any bishop or the group of bishops is going to do something next week. On the other hand, we hope they read this and think about it and over the next several months begin to ask questions about what they are doing," said Brehany. "It might take a few years to turn things around. We hope we get a dialogue started, more study, more conversation that will help them to ask, 'How are we going to do this right?' "

Mary DeTurris Poust is a contributing editor to OSV. To read the U.S. bishops' document on protecting children from abuse, visit www.usccb.org.