Vatican Investigating Girl Scouts for Links to Safe-Sex Education Groups

The Vatican is investigating the Girl Scouts for their ties to nonprofits, writes Barbie Latza Nadeau.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo

Should there be any doubt left about how the Vatican views women after clamping down on American nuns late last month, the leaders of the billion-strong Catholic Church have now set their sights on the devilish Girl Scouts. No, it’s not about the sinful cookies, but a claim that the Girl Scouts are associating with “questionable” groups that the church believes do not strictly adhere to their tenets. In particular, the Vatican believes that several groups the Girl Scouts endorse, including Médecins Sans Frontières and Oxfam, both of which cater to the poor but also advocate safe sex and condom use to stop the spread of AIDS, might be a bad influence on the impressionable young women.

In late March the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a stern letter to the Girl Scout leadership advising them of the official Vatican inquiry, which is being conducted by the Bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, under the direction of Kevin Rhoades, a bishop from Fort Wayne, Ind. The Bishops’ letter follows a complaint lodged by Indiana state Rep. Bob Morris last February, in which he complained to the Republican Caucus that the Girl Scouts and their sister-group World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, known as WAGGGS had forged a secret bond with Planned Parenthood and should be stopped. “You will not find evidence of this on the GSA/WAGGGS website—in fact, the websites of these two organizations explicitly deny funding Planned Parenthood,” he wrote in a letter dated Feb. 18, 2012. “Nonetheless, abundant evidence proves that the agenda of Planned Parenthood includes sexualizing young girls through the Girl Scouts, which is quickly becoming a tactical arm of Planned Parenthood.”

Morris was particularly troubled by some Girl Scout troops’ use of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s pamphlet “Happy, Healthy, Hot” for young women afflicted with HIV. Morris wrote, “The pamphlet instructs young girls not to think of sex as ‘just about vaginal or anal intercourse. There is no right or wrong way to have sex. Just have fun, explore and be yourself!’”

There is no official link between the Girl Scouts and the Catholic Church, but since many troops hold their meetings in church facilities, the Vatican can easily justify its inquiry. They are looking at "possible problematic relationships with other organizations." If they determine that membership in the Girl Scouts does not jibe with Catholic teachings, they could either demand that the Girl Scouts change their practices or, in lieu of that, recommend that young Catholic girls drop out of the Girl Scouts. About one quarter of the Girl Scouts’ 2.3 million membership is Roman Catholic.

The National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry has pledged to liaise between the church and Girl Scouts in an effort not to break ties and damage membership. "I don't think any of this material was intentionally mean-spirited,” NFCYM executive director Bob McCarty told the Associated Press about the Vatican accusations. “It's easier to step back and throw verbal bombs. It takes a lot more energy to work for change."

The Girl Scouts, which celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, has been under intense scrutiny during this election campaign. As first lady, Michelle Obama is the national honorary president of the Girl Scouts, and her husband’s support of reproductive rights and his recent endorsement of gay marriage has caused some Girl Scout heavies to worry that Mrs. Obama will somehow influence the young women. At her inauguration, she commended the Girl Scouts for their work. "With their innovative new programming, ground-breaking research, and emphasis on service and leadership, Girl Scouts is preparing the women of tomorrow to be a positive force for change,” she said, “in their own lives, their communities, and across the globe.”

The Girl Scout leadership is waiting to learn more about the U.S. bishops’ inquiry, but they maintain that they do not have an official relationship with Planned Parenthood, and that each individual chapter is free to choose resource materials that are suitable to their members’ base communities, meaning the Catholic troops don’t have to use the “Healthy, Happy and Hot” booklet or any materials that contradict the local leadership bylaws. "We have had a very strong relationship with the Catholic Church for 98 years, and we don't expect that to change," said Girl Scout spokesperson Michelle Tompkins in a statement. "We are working very closely with the Council of Bishops to address the issues they have raised and that work continues. We share a common belief that working together, we can have a very positive impact on the lives of millions of girls and women."

That’s certainly more than the Vatican can say of its own agenda on women’s rights.