16 parishes balk at abuse prevention classes

Some at churches call curriculum age-inappropriate

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / March 6, 2008

Sixteen of the 295 parishes in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston have declined to offer instruction to young children on how to identify and report inappropriate touching by adults, the archdiocese said yesterday.

The parishes have apparently not implemented the child abuse prevention program, despite direct requests to do so from Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley and his auxiliary bishops, because of concerns about whether it is an appropriate subject to teach children as young as 5, the archdiocese said. In two cases, it said, priests have refused to support the program; in the other 11 cases, either parents or educators are responsible.

Church officials disclosed the gap in the archdiocese's abuse prevention program during an interview with the Globe yesterday about its progress over the last year on abuse-related issues. The officials said the archdiocese has been declared out of compliance with the national abuse prevention measures adopted by the nation's bishops because of the holdouts against the program for young children, as well as because in another 48 parishes, teacher turnover and other issues have caused problems with maintaining the prevention program.

"Cardinal Sean has stated that we need to do everything possible to make sure that our children are protected and the tragedy of sexual abuse never happens again, and we've made significant strides," said the Rev. John J. Connolly, who oversees abuse-related issues for O'Malley. "But it won't be a satisfactory situation until the remaining kids in our care have been trained. We're turning our attention, in a very focused way, to these parishes who have been struggling for a variety of reasons, and we're just going to be persistent and stay after them."

Connolly said that last week the archdiocese offered two alternative abuse prevention programs to the parishes that do not like the Talking About Touching curriculum that is used throughout the rest of the church and in many church and secular settings around the country. He said 13 of the 16 holdouts have shown interest in trying the alternatives.

This is the second year in a row that the national audit has pointed out that Boston has not succeeded in fully implementing the abuse prevention program. The archdiocese said yesterday that it is hoping that all parishes will implement an abuse prevention program by the end of June, which would bring the archdiocese into compliance for the next annual audit.

O'Malley's top aides said the archdiocese has made dramatic progress in its efforts to prevent abuse since the abuse scandal. They said all Catholic schools are teaching children to identify and report abuse, and that all parishes are training those in grades 4 and above; the only problems, they said, are in the religious education program for those in prekindergarten through third grade. The archdiocese declined to name the 16 holdout parishes.

Critics locally and nationally have suggested that the Talking About Touching program uses language that is too explicit for young children and that it veers too close to sex education.

"We reviewed these materials personally, and they are just age-inappropriate," said William Germino of Norwood, who opted out of the program for his three children, ages 6, 8, and 9. He said the material is too sexually explicit for young children.

"We're not opposed to the idea of educating children," he said. "It is very much the method that they go about doing it that we object to."

But Connolly said that archdiocesan officials are confident the program is age-appropriate and that no problems have arisen as the archdiocese has trained tens of thousands of children over the last several years.

In parishes offering the program, fewer than 1 percent of parents have opted to keep their children out of the training, said Deacon Anthony Rizzuto, who oversees the implementation of the program.

In addition, he said, there is a clear measure of success for the program: Over the last five years archdiocesan employees and volunteers have reported 400 cases of suspected abuse to the state. In most cases, Connolly said, the allegations did not involve a priest or church employee, but rather concerned an allegation of abuse in the home that was brought by a child to a church worker.

Connolly said the archdiocese has trained nearly 1,300 priests, 2,800 educators, and 43,000 volunteers in child abuse prevention and has provided abuse prevention material to some 100,000 parents. The archdiocese is also conducting 60,000 criminal background checks annually on clergy, staff, and volunteers.

The archdiocese has been continuing to pay for psychological therapy for those who have been abused, 300 last year, said Barbara Thorp, who oversees outreach to victims for the archdiocese. O'Malley has continued to meet with victims upon request, she said.

Connolly said the archdiocese has settled about 60 abuse claims over the last year, leaving about 70 outstanding. And, he said, it has begun staging canonical trials to attempt to resolve several outstanding cases in which priests were accused of abuse, but not prosecuted in the courts because the cases were too old.

Shelley Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Paulson can be reached at

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