Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, is almost certainly going to get himself in hot water with the U.S. Bishops Conference Office of Child and Youth Protection. That’s entirely to his credit.
In the midst of the Long Lent of 2002, the conference passed a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” (which was revised and reissued this last June). Article 12 of the charter requires dioceses to “maintain ‘safe environment’ programs…to be conducted cooperatively with parents, civil authorities, educators, and community organizations.” The charter also specifies that these programs “be in accord with Catholic moral principles.” More than a few parents in more than a few dioceses have raised serious questions about whether many of these programs meet that standard. Bishop Vasa evidently agrees. In a recent pastoral letter, he listed the questions he thought needed to be answered before he was prepared to implement Article 12 of the Charter:
“Are such programs effective? Do such programs impose an unduly burdensome responsibility on very young children to protect themselves, rather than insisting that parents take such training and take on the primary responsibility for protecting their children? Where do these programs come from? Is it true that Planned Parenthood has a hand [in] or at least a huge influence on many of them? Is it true that other groups, actively promoting early sexual activity for children, promote these programs in association with their own perverse agendas? Do such programs involve, even tangentially, the sexualization of children, which is precisely a part of the societal evil we are striving to combat? Does such a program invade the Church-guaranteed-right of parents over the education of their children in sexual matters?… Do such programs introduce children to sex-related issues at age-inappropriate times? Would such programs generate a fruitful spiritual harvest? Would unsatisfactory answers to any of the questions above give sufficient reason to resist such programs?
“There are many concerned parents who have indicated to me that the answers to all of these questions are unsatisfactory. If this is true, do these multiple problematic answers provide sufficient reason to resist [implementing Article 12 of the Charter as currently interpreted]? At the very least, even the possible unsatisfactory answers to any of the questions above leaves me unwilling and possibly even unable to expose the children of the diocese to harm under the guise of trying to protect them from harm. I pray that, in this, I am neither wrong-headed nor wrong.
“For holding to this conviction, I and the diocese may be declared negligent – weighed and found wanting.”
Which is likely true. It may get worse than that. No one should be surprised if unsavory rumors about Bishop Vasa and the Diocese of Baker start worming their way around Catholic cyberspace. Nor should it be surprising, were that to happen, if the smear campaign turns out to have originated in the very quarters most determined to impose “safe environment” training of a morally, spiritually, and educationally questionable sort across the board in Catholic life.
Rather than being “declared negligent,” Bishop Vasa deserves credit for having had the courage to force the right questions about “safe environment training” onto the table. The original Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (with its “safe environment” provisions) was quickly cobbled together in 2002, in part to get the Church, and specifically the bishops, out of the cross-hairs of a national media that was trying to discredit Catholicism because of the scandalous behavior of some and the malfeasance of others – even though, I would still argue, the media originally did the Church a service by forcing the bishops to face issues that had long been swept under the ecclesiastical rug.
Be that as it may, there is no reason for the Catholic Church to give even tacit support to “safe environment” programs that may win plaudits from the sex-ed industry, but which in truth are by-products of the very culture of hyper-sexualization that the Church rightly opposes. Bishop Vasa has got that precisely right. And for that he deserves credit, not opprobrium.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.