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The InterVIEW

Chastity education activist acknowledged

Kathleen Sullivan

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

Kathleen Sullivan’s interest in and focus on education issues commenced back in the 1960s. She was, in fact, one of the first to note changes in health education curricula, particularly as it related to sex-education issues.

She watched the development of Title X funded clinics and the implementation of school-based clinics during the 1970s. These clinics provided sex education concentrating on birth control information and services.

By the 1980s, Planned Parenthood and its ilk were firmly entrenched in America’s schools and communities with little community input or knowledge of their agenda and resulting havoc on the lives of teens and society as a whole. Out of wedlock pregnancies, abortions, sexually transmitted diseases and emotional trauma were on the rise.

Sullivan, along with others in the pro-life, pro-family community, realized that it was time to act. In recognition of her interest and work in the field, in 1980 she was appointed to President Reagan’s Family Policy Board. In 1985, Sullivan founded Project Reality and it soon became a National Movement.

For the next 28 years she worked to bring the abstinence message to America through abstinence curricula in the schools (public and private), assemblies, rallies and related activities and materials. During that time she and Project Reality mentored dozens of abstinence educators and helped them establish abstinence education organizations nationwide.

Sullivan, who has six children, 33 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, now resides with her husband in Florida. She was in Chicago to receive the Thomas More Award from Catholic Citizens of Illinois on Oct. 7.

Catholic New World: What elements should a good chastity education program include?

Kathleen Sullivan: A program can be successful by emphasizing the emotional as well as the physical, medical, psychological, sociological and even spiritual consequences of premature sexual involvement. Abstinence programs have captured the attention of young men as well as young women.

For as long as the concern was centered on “pregnancy prevention,” it was thought to be mainly a female problem. Centering on the emotional health has changed the entire debate.

Our experience has shown among teens, particularly the early 13 to 15-year-olds, that a physical relationship hardly ever lasts, usually a few months or weeks, and it is usually broken off by the girl, who is more mature at that age. In many cases, the girl then moves on to older guys.

This can be very devastating to the young male. It raises many questions: Does this have an effect on the attitude and treatment of men towards women later in life? Does this affect treatment in domestic situations? Is it a precursor to domestic violence? Does it play a role in sexual harassment in the workplace later in life?

CNW: Explain the terms “chastity education” and “abstinence education.” Is there a distinction?

Sullivan: Abstinence education, introduced into our American culture 25 years ago, brought the broad view of the health benefits of what the church has taught for years as chastity.

Abstinence/chastity education is teaching good health, spiritually and physically. Just because it parallels a religious tenet is no reason not to teach it. After all, cultures teach us not to steal, not to lie, not to covet our neighbors’ possessions or spouses. They are all religious tenets and they are also good civil laws. Good sexual morality is good civil law.

CNW: Do you think Catholics remain as committed to abstinence education as they were 10 or 15 years ago?

Sullivan: Catholic parents today are products of the culture of the 1960s to 1980s. Many were caught up in the permissive cultures of the time, but they are, to a great degree, realizing the severe consequences that they are suffering. They don’t want their children to repeat their mistakes.

What parents today are seeking, whether they are Catholic or not, is how to discuss with our young people the realities of consequences of premature sexual involvement. They are seeking guidance and truth from our church leaders, public schools, health authorities so that the devastating consequences are avoided.

CNW: What do you say to people who say that abstinence education does not work?

Sullivan: To those who say abstinence education does not work, there are numerous evaluations of abstinence programs, including Project Reality, that show stunning responses by the students. However, the taxpayers in Illinois will be astonished to know that it is because of our success that the state of Illinois cut out Project Reality’s funding after 21 years.

Our cost was $10 per student for materials to teach abstinence and chastity. The other 12 state funded programs were designed to pick up the pieces after the problem, i.e. Parents Too Soon, etc., and were showing a reduction in clients. So their solution was to cut the funding for abstinence education and to tell the public that it was ineffective, in spite of the statistics. But the parents and teenagers know otherwise.