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Portland Press Herald (US), October 22, 2007

Bishop urges birth-control ruling fight

His address Sunday embodies one of many varied reactions to a Portland School Committee decision last week.

DATELINE: Portland -- The Portland School Committee's decision to offer birth control to King Middle School students was a ''tragic'' choice that Catholics have an obligation to fight, Bishop Richard Malone said Sunday.

Malone, spiritual leader of the estimated 193,000 Roman Catholics in Maine, spoke during morning Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. ''We have a mission, you and I, to deal with things like that,'' he said.

The bishop's call came on World Mission Sunday, when Catholics celebrate missionaries abroad and recognize their own religious duties at home. His message was among a wide range of opinions from clergy members that emerged in the wake of last week's controversy.

Some religious leaders have asked their followers to speak out against the decision. Others said the change was a regrettably necessary move in a society in which youngsters too often are bombarded with more sexual images than good advice.

The School Committee made national news Wednesday, when, in a 7-2 vote, it made King the first middle school in the state to offer a full range of prescription contraceptives to girls who obtain parental permission to be treated at the school health center.

The school has 510 students who range from 11 to 15 years in age. Although students will need consent to visit the health center, state law allows them to receive confidential care for reproductive health issues without the parents being notified.

Malone issued a strong rebuke after last week's vote. In a statement Thursday, he expressed ''outrage and disbelief,'' calling the move ''flawed on many levels.'' He urged the School Committee to rescind its decision.

''It communicates to young people that adults have given up on forming young people in virtues like chastity,'' he said.

Not all religious leaders in Portland oppose the decision. Two said Sunday that they see the change as an unfortunate, but necessary, result of a sex-saturated popular culture's influence on children. They take no exception to schools acting to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and said they doubt claims that the availability of contraception will lead to more sex among middle school students.

''I know from the experience of 25 years of ministry how devastating an unwanted pregnancy can be for a kid who really didn't think that was a possibility,'' said the Rev. Mark Rustin, pastor at North Deering Congregational Church in Portland.

Rustin and Rabbi Carolyn Braun said it falls on parents and faith communities to offset societal pressures - instilling the morals and self-esteem that will prevent youngsters from having sex in the first place.

''Just because birth control is available does not mean every person in the world is going to be chasing after it,'' said Braun, of Temple Beth El in Portland.

Some Catholic parents, however, said they view the committee's decision to allow contraceptives as a tacit endorsement of premarital sex that undermined their authority.

''I think that responsibility lies with the parents,'' Charlie Tarling of Cape Elizabeth said after Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Tarling, who has a daughter in middle school, said the school board vote was a symptom of a society in need of more positive messages - not only at home or church, but school, too.

''Not every kid has that type of home,'' he said.

The Christian Civic League of Maine announced Friday that it also will organize opposition on the contraception issue.

League Executive Director Michael Heath said he will ask the state Attorney General's Office to investigate for possible criminal charges reports that a handful of girls at King told a school nurse they had sex last year.

The legal age of consent in Maine is 14, as long as one partner is not more than five years older. School officials said a total of five girls reported having sex last year. In the last four years, they said, middle schools in Portland have recorded 17 pregnancies.

Staff Writer Elbert Aull can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: eaull@pressherald.com

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