Tips for Integrating Child Safety Programs into Catechetical Programming

by Susan Kay

In January 2002, those of us in the Archdiocese of Boston started down a road we never expected to travel. Church ministers became companions on a journey fraught with detours, difficult decisions, and twists and turns that we had to navigate so that we might arrive at a destination with the most vulnerable among us safe and able to go forward, equipped for whatever lay ahead.

This metaphor, tortured as it may be, is of course alluding to the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis. Boston became the epicenter and the United States Catholic Church felt the aftershocks. Repairing trust and building new infrastructures for educating for safety has been difficult. Often many of us entrusted with choosing and implementing safety programs have been working from ignorance, with little understanding and guidance about how best to meet safety obligations for our children and vulnerable adults.

Before the Dallas Charter, the Archdiocese of Boston mandated safety education for the protection of children. Religious Education Programs and Catholic Schools were deemed sensible venues for accessing young people and offering them the education they need to become or remain safe. A Child Advocacy, Education, and Safety Board made up of community, political, and church leaders, evaluated Safety Programs and made the decision on which program would be best used for young children in the Archdiocese of Boston. There were few programs from which to choose in 2002, but there were several good programs. Once chosen, the program needed to be implemented, DREs and Principals needed to be trained so that they might train catechists and/or those who would teach the program if they were not catechists. It has been a long and rocky road to 100% implementation— and that in itself is another painful, yet successful story.

Questions from Church ministers, especially religious educators, were, What is a Child Safety Program? Is this about sexuality? What makes one program good? What makes one program better than another? Isn't this already done in public schools, so why should we do it over again? Are there any Catholic programs? And of course, the basic question that seemed to come up over and over again: Why must this be done in Religious Education Programs? Our time is limited and precious, how can we catechize and teach safety without compromising catechesis? Answering myriad queries has not been easy. Those of us who were so good at assessing catechetical programs were thrust into new territory with little if any prior education, preparation, and /or experience.

In Boston, after much angst, sincere questioning, years of discussion, research and program assessment, we have determined that whatever program used to teach children about safety, the program must meet certain criteria. The program MUST

  • be in conformity with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church
  • recognize that parents as first teachers of their children are to be partnered, included, trained and invited to participate
  • be based on the most current research in prevention education
  • provide knowledge and skills to protect against sexual abuse, e.g. The instructional approach must include multiple modalities: small and large group discussion, problem solving, and modeling and rehearsal of safety skills; personal safety information, and skill practice must be repeated in each year, K-8.

None of this journey has been easy. Helping people understand that safety programs are not morality programs or sexuality programs, has been a challenge. To learn to know how to keep oneself safe from sexual abuse is a safety program in the vein of learning to keep oneself safe from fire.

There have been many and unexpected blessings, strange as that might sound, from this crisis, but the most graced has been the numbers of reports of unsafe personal conditions from youngsters in our religious education and school settings. We know, difficult (and that is a mild assessment) as this has been, we are offering the very best tools available for empowering children, giving them a language for safety, while building a new and safer infrastructure so that the tragedy of the Sexual Abuse Crisis will not repeat itself in our Church or in the wider society.

Recommended Resources The Committee for Children website has excellent information about child safety programs. VIRTUS website offers a wealth of information about warning signs of abuse

The following article discusses some objections raised about sexual abuse prevention programs. Dr. Finklehor is a noted researcher on child sexual abuse and he discusses the results of research and what it indicates about the health and well being of children through the use of sexual abuse safety programs.

"Prevention of Sexual Abuse Through Educational Programs Directed Toward Children" written by David Finkelhor, PhD. Crimes Against Children Research Center, Family Research Laboratory, Department of Sociology, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire.

Can be accessed through: Published online August 31, 2007. PEDIATRICS Vol. 120 No. 3 September 2007, pp. 640-645 (doi:10.1542/peds.2007-0754)