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CULTURE DIGEST: Notre Dame president steps outside Catholic bounds; surge of child predators being caught online

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Catholic leaders are upset over an against-the-grain decision from one of their own after the president of the University of Notre Dame changed course and gave his approval for the institution to sponsor two controversial cultural events on campus.

Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins delivered a speech in January objecting to the “graphic descriptions” of sexual experiences in “The Vagina Monologues” and then invited students, faculty, alumni and others to provide their opinions regarding whether the school should prohibit the play on campus.

Ten weeks of feedback led Jenkins to alter his stance, and last week he announced he saw “no reason to prohibit performances” of the feminist play, and he also ruled that a homosexual event formerly called “Queer Film Festival” could be held on campus if the name is changed to “Gay & Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives, Spectatorships.”

“How our ancient but evolving Catholic tradition expresses itself in the future depends to a large extent on the work of this and other Catholic universities,” Jenkins said in a statement April 5. “After all, a Catholic university is where the Church does its thinking, and that thinking, to be beneficial, must come from an intellectually rigorous engagement with the world.”

Jenkins, in his first year as Notre Dame’s 17th president, added that a Catholic university “provides a place for the Catholic tradition to share the wisdom it possesses with all academic disciplines, while providing that tradition an opportunity to be enriched through the encounter with new perspectives and discoveries.”

Consultations with the university community regarding academic freedom also led Jenkins to create an ad hoc committee of students, faculty and administrators to cultivate “a wide-ranging discussion of gender relations, sexuality, and ways to prevent violence against women.” The president said he will chair the committee with the goal of enriching the school’s discussion of issues crucial to the lives of women at Notre Dame and beyond.

Numerous Catholic leaders have expressed disappointment with Jenkins’ decision regarding the play, and the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic organization based in Manassas, Va., said he should have stuck with his first impression.

“We believe that his original instincts about ‘The Vagina Monologues’ were correct and sincere, but he fell into the trap that has paralyzed so many other Catholic colleges and universities in the United States — he has insisted on defining ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and arguably everything else that occurs at Notre Dame within the context of ‘academic freedom,’” the group said April 5.

SURGE IN CHILD PREDATORS BEING CAUGHT ONLINE — A 19-year-old testified recently at a congressional hearing that he was molested as a teenager by people he met online and then ran a pornographic website for five years.

“There are hundreds of kids in the United States alone who are right now wrapped up in this horror,” Justin Berry told the House’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee April 4. “Within each of your congressional districts, I guarantee there are children who have used their webcams to appear naked online, and I guarantee you there are also children in your district on the Internet right now being contacted and seduced by online sexual predators.”

“This whole problem has exploded with the advent of the Internet, and law enforcement is more aggressive with these crimes than they’ve ever been before,” Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children told USA Today.

Vastly popular Internet social sites such as MySpace.com have started a trend among teenagers toward posting personal information and provocative photos of themselves, which easily becomes fodder for child predators.

To help fight the potential for abuse, the Justice Department has increased funding for the Internet Crimes Against Children program from $2.4 million in 1998 to $14.5 million this year, USA Today reported, and ICAC-related arrests have tripled from 564 in 2003 to 1,597 in 2005.

Allen said one in five children ages 10 to 17 will be sexually solicited online, and one in 33 will be aggressively solicited by someone who tries to arrange a meeting.

“The people who are doing these things don’t match society’s stereotypes,” he said. “They are doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, public officials, police and schoolteachers.”

His point was underscored April 4 when Brian Doyle, the No. 4 spokesman at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was arrested on 23 felony accounts of trying to seduce what he thought was a 14-year-old girl on the Internet.

Doyle, 55, faces up to 115 years in prison after an undercover detective caught him sending sexually explicit messages and pornographic images to someone he thought was a minor. The government official was stripped of his security clearance, suspended without pay and held without bail, USA Today said.

MORE FAMILIES ARE MAKING TIME FOR DINNER — Parenting experts have advocated it for years, and more families now may be catching on to the importance of sitting down for a regular meal together.

A nationwide survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that the number of children ages 12 to 17 who ate dinner with their families at least five times a week rose from 47 percent in 1998 to 58 percent last year.

“There’s definitely an awareness that was not there a few years ago,” Miriam Weinstein, author of a book on the power of family meals, told The New York Times. “All the factors that have been working against family dinners are still in full force, but it’s very much a subject on people’s minds.”

Those factors mostly include the packed daily schedules of both children and parents, but more families appear to be finding ways to overcome them. Even cable networks Nick at Nite and TV Land have run public service announcements encouraging families to have meals together, The Times said.

“People are really starting to understand that this is an important thing,” Richard D. Mulieri, a spokesman for CASA, said. “Families that do have dinner together often are families whose parents are fully engaged with their kids.”

Children who eat dinner with their families regularly are less likely to get involved with drugs and alcohol than those who do not, studies have shown, and they tend to get better grades, exhibit less stress and eat better, The Times noted.

DISNEY LAUNCHES CELL PHONE WITH PARENTAL CONTROLS — Now parents who want to give their children the independence associated with carrying a cell phone can also monitor how long the kids talk on them and even who they exchange calls with, thanks to a new wireless service introduced by Walt Disney Co. April 5.

The phones, designed for 10- to 15-year-olds, allow parents to set spending limits on phone bills by restricting the number of minutes they can use and the number of text messages and photos transmitted. Parents can set the hours the phone can be used, which means they can block out school time, and they can determine what numbers the children can dial.

Disney Mobile even comes with Global Positioning System technology, which allows parents to track the location of their children’s phones. For additional safety, parents can program the home number always to be available in case of an emergency, according to a report by The New York Times.

Other companies have produced phones with parental controls, but Disney is the first to offer full handsets with conventional keypads, USA Today said. The phones, which cost about $60 with a two-year service agreement powered by Sprint, should be available in June.

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  • Erin Roach