Two prominent Ottawa Catholic leaders — including Archbishop Terrence Prendergast — spoke out Wednesday on the province’s new sex-ed curriculum, pointing to what appears to be an emerging rift between the government and its publicly funded Catholic schools.
A senior Ottawa Catholic board official says her schools will not adhere to the new curriculum, contrary to Premier Dalton McGuinty’s contention earlier in the day that the program applied to “all students in publicly funded schools, including Catholic schools.”
“Mr. McGuinty seems to be misinformed here,” said Jan Bentham, co-ordinator of religious and family life education for the Ottawa Catholic School Board. “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 most obvious element rejected by Catholic schools will be a third-grade lesson on “visible and invisible differences” that features discussion of homosexuality.
Homosexuality won’t be raised in Catholic schools until grade 8, according to Bentham, when it will be covered “from a faith perspective,” she said. Catholic teaching considers homosexual acts to be “disordered.”
The new, Catholic version of the controversial sexual education curriculum will be released by the ICE in early fall, says Bentham. That version will have been vetted and approved by the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario.
Neither McGuinty nor Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky gave any indication Catholic boards would be entitled to their own version of the document.
“This is the Ontario curriculum, and it’s the curriculum for all schools and all students,” Dombrowsky said Wednesday.
Dombrowsky, a former Catholic school board trustee in the Belleville-Kingston area , went on to say the ministry had worked with the Catholic church on the document. “We have listened to their input and it is my understanding that they do support the document we have presented.”
Religious groups have raised concerns over the treatment of homosexuality in the document, as well as questioned the timing of its introduction into the curriculum. It is currently set to be discussed with eight-year-olds.
In an interview, Prendergast told the Citizen he didn’t believe in the need for a revised, 21st-century curriculum that begins with lessons on body parts in Grade 1 and explicitly mentions “vaginal and anal intercourse” in Grade 7.
Provincial officials say the new, more direct language in younger grades is a tacit acknowledgment that adolescents are sexually active at a younger age than in the past.
“I’m not totally in favour of that (approach),” Prendergast said. “I believe one of the most important things for children in learning about family life and sexuality issues is to have it in the context of a warm family that explains things to them and helps them to deal with that.
“I think parents are the first teachers of faith and moral issues to children,” he added.
Prendergast urged parents to assert their own thoughts on the new course design and then relay them to officials. Government would have to act if they were met with “a firestorm of response,” he said.
“Governments are there not to dictate to us, but to be responsive to our needs and to co-ordinate matters in our society for the wellbeing of all. They’re not there to govern every aspect of our lives.”
The government quietly released the new curriculum in January, but the release was so low-key it escaped all attention until a socially conservative group called on parents Tuesday to protest the changes.
For McGuinty, the controversy could revive a 2007 election debate on faith-based schools. At the time, McGuinty, who is a product of Catholic schools and an observant churchgoer, credited the public system for what he called Ontario’s remarkable social cohesion.
He complained that an extension of religious school funding beyond Catholic schools, such as that proposed by his vanquished Conservative opponent, John Tory, would lead to a more segregated, sequestered province.
It is unclear what McGuinty thinks of the two separate curricula for the secular and Catholic boards as well as the Catholic plan to postpone discussion of homosexuality until later grades. But a McGuinty spokeswoman denied any inconsistency in the premier’s comments that the same curriculum would apply to all students.
“Catholic boards will receive an additional supplemental resource guide to help them deliver the curriculum in a way that respects their faith,” Jane Almeida said in an email. “The curriculum will not change or be expunged.”
Prendergast, who heads McGuinty’s own Ottawa archdiocese, was more clear about the power he and other senior church leaders have over their school curriculum.
Prendergast called that freedom a “very complex reality.”
“When we discussed these matters at the Bishop’s meeting in March in Toronto, one of the things that is clear is that whatever is prescribed by the government on issues of sexuality, life and faith — these are to be understood in the rights that Catholics have by the denominational school system to apply them and to interpret them in their own way.”
To see the new curriculum: