Edmonton

Erin's Law won't be adopted by Edmonton Catholic schools

Marilyn Bergstra asked fellow trustees Tuesday to support new curriculum that would educate staff and students from kindergarten to Grade 12 about ways to prevent child sexual abuse.

'If child sexual abuse were a disease, it would be one of the largest epidemics in our country,' trustee says

“One in three girls in Edmonton will experience unwanted sexual acts performed on them," Marilyn Bergstra told fellow trustees Tuesday at an Edmonton Catholic School Board meeting. (CBC)

Marilyn Bergstra asked fellow trustees Tuesday to support new curriculum that would educate staff and students from kindergarten to Grade 12 about ways to prevent child sexual abuse.

"If child sexual abuse were a disease, it would be one of the largest epidemics in our country," Bergstra told fellow trustees on the Edmonton Catholic School Board. "And resources would be allocated to it."

In her presentation to the board, Bergstra offered statistics from Edmonton's Zebra Child Protection Centre, which works with children who have suffered abuse.

According to Zebra statistics, she said, "One in three girls in Edmonton will experience unwanted sexual acts performed on them. One in six boys in Edmonton."

In 2010, Bergstra said, the Zebra centre supported 554 such cases. In 2013, that caseload had risen to 1,337.

She said those numbers don't capture the true scope of the problem, because most victims don't report their abuse.

Motion inspired by Erin's Law

Bergstra's motion was inspired by Erin's Law, U.S. legislation intended to educate children and teachers about sexual abuse. Under the legislation, now passed in numerous states, students and staff are trained to identify and report incidents of abuse.

The law was named for Erin Merryn, who was six years old when she was first sexually abused by two people she knew and trusted. The abuse continued for five years.

Merryn, now 30, later pushed the Illinois state legislature to enact Erin's Law, which mandates that schools train both students and staff about the prevention of sexual abuse.

The motion also asked the board to call for a provincewide prevention strategy, and resources for students and educators to identify and report abuse.

During debate, Bergstra's motion was opposed by several trustees. Some said schools already have programs in place to deal with the problem.

Trustee Larry Kowalczyk asked why Edmonton schools would consider adopting an American program when there are Alberta resources already in place.

"This program is not taught within the Catholic faith," he said. "I think if we recommended this to Alberta School Boards Association, and then our bishop said, "Guess what? You can't teach that program, because we just don't take sex by itself.'"

Kowalczyk then quoted Cardinal Thomas Collins, former Archbishop of Edmonton and now Archbishop of Toronto.

"Catholic schools," he said, quoting Collins, "will not implement any new teachings that aren't consistent with the Catholic faith. Anything that undermines the catechism of the Catholic church will not be taught."

After a lengthy debate, trustees voted down Bergstra's motion.

Debbie Engel, who chairs the school board, said more research must be done to look at what resources are already offered before any decisions are made.

"I think that it is a very emotional issue," Engel said. "It's a terrible tragedy when it happens to children."

Engel said the board must first determine if schools are properly using the resources available "before we try to recreate the wheel."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.