(WOMENSENEWS)--The Catholic Church-approved organization Priests for Life says it will mobilize citizens nationwide to confront public school officials about the risk of legal liability regarding child sex abuse. Priests for Life, best known for its anti-choice activism, is seeking to build public pressure against sexuality education in the public schools, school-based health services and referrals to outside health agencies such as Planned Parenthood.
The group recently announced and described the plan on its Web site. To accomplish its goals, the agency says it has joined forces with a controversial Texas-based anti-choice group, Life Dynamics Incorporated, in its ongoing "child predator" campaign. The political partners are seeking to use public concerns about child sex abuse to further their long-term goals of ending access to abortion.
Officials at Planned Parenthood Federation of America contend that the initiative is an elaborate series of hoaxes intended to intimidate school officials and smear the reputation of Planned Parenthood. Law enforcement officials have found little to no merit in the anti-choice groups' accusations that the clinics are covering up child sex abuse, and authorities may in fact begin to probe their methods.
First Letter Requests Detailed Information
The first stage of the campaign over the past year took the form of two letters to "the superintendents of every one of America's 16,000 school districts" from Life Dynamics general counsel Edmund Zielinski.
The first letter, mailed last fall and available on the groups' Web sites, requested detailed information about what kinds of reproductive health information, referrals, or services the school system provides. The first query on the questionnaire was "Has any representative of Planned Parenthood ever been allowed to give a presentation to (or provide information to) students within your school district regarding sex education, birth control, or abortion?"
Planned Parenthood's 126 not-for-profit affiliates operate 875 health clinics around the country and maintain a staff of health educators that are sometimes invited to make presentations in public schools and conduct sex-ed programs for schools that do not have them. The organization's only current contract for teaching an extended sex education program is for 15 schools in Chicago, according to Michael McGee, the federation's vice president for education. Statistics compiled by Planned Parenthood also show that presentations by the organization's health educators on a range of topics reach about 1.5 million people a year, about half of them public school children.
In his group's literature, Zielinski says that school officials who responded to his letter exhibited "a nervousness that often bordered on panic." If that was the reaction in some places, it was apparently not universal. Peggy Romberg, executive director of the Women's Health and Family Planning Association of Texas, where Life Dynamics is based, was initially concerned about the impact of the letters. "But when my members called and made inquires to local school boards to reassure them, and to explain what their policies and procedures were," she said, "the perception was that there was very little paid attention to it."
Roger Evans, senior director of public policy litigation and law at Planned Parenthood, says, "We are aware of no reaction anywhere, with the exception of one school district in California, which decided to ignore the whole thing."
Life Dynamics did not respond to a request for comment.
Second Letter Warns of Potential Liability
Zielinski's second letter warned school districts in June of "potential liability" should they "be in violation of state mandated child abuse reporting statutes; provide referrals to family planning service providers; allow family planning service providers to have access to your students; or operate a school-based health clinic." He hoped that the letter would "send shock waves through the nation's entire school system, not to mention Planned Parenthood," again in a document available on the Priests for Life Web site.
Zielinski's claim of potential liability is based on the argument that when clinics that "know or suspect that a minor is having sexual activity," they do not necessarily call the authorities. Bebe Anderson, a staff attorney at the New York-based Center for Reproductive Health and Policy, says that Zielinski's claim is "an oversimplification and a distortion." State laws vary greatly, Anderson says, in terms of what kinds of sexual activity must be reported, when it must be reported and by whom. In many cases, she says, state law recognizes "that harm can come from required reporting and that there is a balance to be struck."
"All of the major medical groups have come out in favor of confidentiality for minors," she says, and recent studies show that confidentiality is the key to getting young people to seek necessary medical care. An editorial and related article in the Aug. 14 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association states that limiting adolescent access to confidential care risks "that adolescents who need health care will not receive it and will experience preventable negative outcomes, endangering their own health and often the public health as well."
"This is why," Anderson says, in most states, "considerable discretion is given to physicians to judge what is in the best interest in the child."
But child health advocates are concerned that Life Dynamics' and Priests for Life's campaign may lead to legislation that will further restrict medical confidentiality, or may generate enough publicity to make teen-agers disbelieve promises of confidentiality. "I think there is a very great risk that minors will not seek medical care they need," Anderson warned, "because if they do, the fact that they are sexually active may have to be reported to law enforcement or social services."
Asked if there has ever been a successful lawsuit anytime, anywhere against a clinic or school district on the issue of failure to comply with state mandatory reporting laws on child sex abuse, Evans said, "To my knowledge, none."
Campaign Based on Tapes of Hoax Telephone Calls
The current campaign is largely premised on 800 covert tape recordings made by a Life Dynamics employee early this year. The employee posed as a 13-year-old girl concerned she might be pregnant by a 22-year-old boyfriend, and followed a script designed to elicit promises of confidentiality from the receptionist. Life Dynamics then declared that Planned Parenthood and other family-planning clinics were covering up for child molesters--hence the "child predators" campaign. But Life Dynamics' charges have proved insubstantial to government officials, since, the tapes not withstanding, there was no victim, no perpetrator or actual sex abuse to report. Clinics have since retrained their staff across the country to ensure conformity with state laws.
Evans says that Zielinski's "letters to the school boards are no different in kind than the so-called 800 tapes. They are in large part hoaxes, the purpose of which is to engender fear, and in so doing, damage Planned Parenthood. They misrepresent the law on [mandatory] reporting, and they also make up this concept of liability. There is no precedent of any case before a court or jury, that a school district has any liability when it makes a legitimate referral to any provider of services."
Planned Parenthood's McGee said that referrals by schools to clinics "are not unusual, because we do the job as well as we do, we offer confidentiality, and we provide free or low-cost services to teens. It makes the most sense."
"All of the attempts to demonize us get some visibility in the press," he observed, "but the reality is that we are pretty much embraced by mainstream America, and that includes the schools."
Meanwhile, the Staten Island, N.Y.-based Priests for Life is preparing to take charge of the "school board oversight" phase of the campaign. The national group has developed an extensive national network of contacts over the past decade.
Their plan calls for mobilizing citizens to show up at school board meetings and "demand answers" to a long list of questions provided by Life Dynamics. The questions are premised on "evidence" of a massive problem of child sex abuse fostered by sex education and family planning. A campaign strategy memo states that citizens "need to be showing up at--and dominating--every board meeting and flooding every superintendent's office with written demands. These school districts have to be shown in no uncertain terms that our people and this issue are not going away."
Priests for Life states on its Web site that its goal is to "to block Planned Parenthood's access to schools, and therefore to a large portion of their funding." The way to accomplish this, they assert, "is to persuade them [public schools] that associating with Planned Parenthood is more trouble than it is worth."
Frederick Clarkson is the author of "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy," and of the forthcoming Profiles in Terrorism: Twenty Years of Antiabortion Violence.