Archbishop of Ottawa: Sex ed standards can’t trump Catholic educational freedom

Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa.
Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa.


Catholic leaders have spoken out in a dispute in Ottawa over whether an explicit sex education curriculum for the Province of Ontario is required of Catholic and public schools. Defending the rights of Catholic schools to teach their faith, the local archbishop has called for the restoration of “moral character” to the education system.

Premier Dalton McGuinty has claimed that the program applied to “all students in publicly funded schools, including Catholic schools,” the Ottawa Citizen says.

The sex education curriculum has come under criticism for its subject matter. It schedules lessons on body parts in Grade 1, discusses homosexuality in Grade 3, and explicitly mentions “vaginal and anal intercourse” in Grade 7.

Under the curriculum, seventh-grade teachers note that those who do not have sexual relations do not need to worry about getting a sexually transmitted infection. They also coach students to seek health advice and to acquire condoms.

The curriculum also teaches that homosexuality and transgenderism are normal and that masturbation is “one way of learning about your body.”

Jan Bentham, co-coordinator of religious and family life education for the Ottawa Catholic School Board, said McGuinty “seems to be misinformed.”

"The ministry consulted with ICE (the Institute for Catholic Education) and they were very aware there would be some content we would not be delivering in Catholic schools."

The Catholic curriculum will not have the third-grade discussion on homosexuality. The topic will not be raised until Grade 8 when it will be covered “from a faith perspective,” Bentham said according to the Ottawa Citizen.

The Catholic version of the curriculum will be released by the ICE in early fall, Bentham reported. It will have been vetted and approved by the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario.

However, McGuinty and Education Minister Leona Dombrowski did not indicate Catholic boards would be allowed their own version of the document.

Dombrowsky said the Ontario curriculum is “the curriculum for all schools and all students.”

A former Catholic school board trustee, she said the ministry had worked with the Catholic Church on the document. In her understanding, “they do support the document we have presented.”

Jane Almeida, a spokeswoman for Premier McGuinty, said that Catholic boards will receive a supplemental guide to help them teach the curriculum “in a way that respects their faith.”

"The curriculum will not change or be expunged," she told the Ottawa Citizen in an e-mail.

In response, Archbishop of Ottawa Terrence Prendergast stressed that parents are children’s “first teachers of faith and moral issues,” and he urged parents to voice their thoughts on the curriculum to officials, saying the government would have to react to “a firestorm of response.”

The archbishop spoke with CNA in a Thursday phone interview, during which he explained the two separate public school systems in Ottawa, Catholic and non-confessional. While the government establishes curriculum for all the schools, “Catholic schools are permitted, constitutionally we believe, to interpret any government mandates in light of our faith requirement.”

“What’s the point of Catholic schools otherwise?” the archbishop asked.

At the bishops’ March meeting, he reported, their education commission assured them that their family life and sexuality program, in effect for over 20 years, is going to be the bishops’ method of meeting the curriculum standards.

“There’s quite a bit of controversy in public, by ordinary parents, who don’t want people, teachers, the state, the province, imposing a particular view of sexuality on their children,” the Ottawa archbishop explained.

Asked how the disagreement can be resolved, the archbishop said:

“We need to get our trustees and our teachers and bishops working together with the government to resolve this issue in a way that somehow meets the requirements of the government in teaching about sexuality but without denying the principles of our Catholic faith.”

CNA asked Archbishop Prendergast if actual government coercion was a possibility.

“I don’t know,” he replied, saying differences would best be resolved by face-to-face discussion rather than in a debate mediated by news outlets. Repeating his position that Catholic education is constitutionally protected, he suggested that stand might need to be tested in court.

“I would hope not,” he added, hoping “cool heads” can resolve the dispute.

Archbishop Prendergast advised parents to “speak up” to their MPs and representatives. They need to take seriously their responsibilities, while the government should cooperate with parents to ensure children are raised in a “healthy and wholesome” way.

“Rushing growth and precocious sexual development is not going to help. I think that is what is happening here.”

He warned that children become “experimenters” if they are taught no moral qualms about sexual behavior. Adults have to help them avoid “something for which they are psychologically, spiritually and emotionally unprepared.”

The archbishop explained that some non-Catholic parents send their children to Catholic public schools because of a “moral quality to their teaching.”

One non-Catholic mother he knows feels that “she and her husband should have authority in delicate matters, not things presented by Planned Parenthood.”

Parents going to non-Catholic public schools need to say this is not suitable instruction for their children either, he noted.

Rather than promote greater sexual expression, he suggested, Canadians “need to think about restoring a certain moral character to the educational system.”

“It’s not easy, but I think we need to say that.”

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