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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops’ charter

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Transmitted 04/12/2004 4:26 PM ET

One lesson doesn't fit all in child sex abuse education

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In teaching minors how to keep from falling prey to child sex abusers, one lesson plan doesn't fit all.

Minors range from pre-schoolers unaware of the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions of sex to streetwise 17-year-olds.

So, organizations helping dioceses and other church organizations set up child sex abuse prevention programs have age-appropriate instruction for use in Catholic schools and parishes.

Another important aspect is not isolating child sex abuse instruction from other issues of child safety, said Marist Brother John Cummings, superintendent of the 53 Catholic schools and pre-school centers in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla.

Brother Cummings said sex abuse prevention for the 16,000 students in his system is integrated into the larger program of stopping all types of abuse and harassment.

In telephone interviews with Catholic News Service, experts involved in sex abuse education, known as safe environment programs, said they prefer an integrated approach.

Such an approach, they said, makes sex abuse prevention part of overall safety programs needed for child welfare and teaches children about it in simple terms, much like how they are taught to look both ways before crossing the street.

The aim is not to overly frighten minors, especially young children, said Laura Buddenberg, who set up the safe environment program for the St. Petersburg Diocese.

"You don't want to alarm kids," she said. "You don't want to have children afraid of every adult who crosses their path."

Buddenberg is outreach director of the Center for Adolescent and Family Spirituality of Girls and Boys Town of Omaha, Neb., originally known as Father Flanagan's Boys Town. She has set up safe environment programs in several dioceses.

Safe environment programs for clergy, employees, parents, volunteers and children are mandated by the 2002 U.S. bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

A delicate aspect of programs is instruction for very young children, such as how to make them aware of body parts and their sexual use and abuse.

Buddenberg said one way to start teaching young children is to refer to the body parts covered by bathing suits.

Jesuit Father Gerard McGlone, a clinical psychologist who has set up programs for a network of Jesuit junior high schools, said at the introductory stages teachers should use common terms for private body parts such as "breast area" or "back area."

As children grow older, proper names for the body parts and their functions should be introduced, said Father McGlone, co-author of a child sex abuse prevention manual called "Creating Safe and Sacred Places."

Another important point, he said, is to first teach children about the positive aspects of sexuality.

"Sometimes people start with the abuse issue. This is a bad place to begin," he said.

"If you start with the abnormal, the child thinks its normal," he said.

"Start with normal, healthy sexuality as a gift of God," he added.

Father McGlone said the teaching approach for youngsters also has to be different than that given to adolescents and teenagers.

"Five- and six-year olds speak to you in stories, drawings and with their dolls," he said.

Teachers must use these as tools "to enter and speak on their terms," he said.

Father McGlone added that children also have to be taught how to get out of uncomfortable situations, such as by avoiding being left alone with adults who make them feel uncomfortable.

Teaching children "to just say 'no' could increase the violence against the child," he said.

Children should be taught that once they have removed themselves from a bad situation, they should tell an adult they trust about the incident.

Virtus, a branch of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, which has established safe environment programs in about 80 dioceses, provides teachers with a resource sheet outlining the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics for age-appropriate education.

The recommendations are:

-- From 18 months to 3 years teach children the proper names for all body parts.

-- From ages 3 to 5 teach children about private body parts and how to say "no" to anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable by touching.

-- From ages 5 to 8 teach about good touches and bad touches and safety away from home.

-- From ages 8 to 12 teach about personal safety issues.

-- From ages 13 to 18 teach about rape, date rape, sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy.

END

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