US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Crisis Management: Working to make the church safe from sexual abuse

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A religion educator explains the progams aimed at preventing and detecting sexual abuse in this article from 2006.

Five years ago I was asked to teach a religion class at a local Catholic high school. The department head and assistant principal who hired me was a respected, personable priest. When I would stop by his office, I noticed there was always a female student there. She appeared to be some kind of assistant, although I didn't observe her doing any work. I thought it was odd but didn't share my concern with anyone. I rationalized that I was there only a few hours a week; surely the fulltime people would have noticed if something was wrong. Surely the principal must know about it. I quieted that little voice inside of me and asked no questions.

Months later this priest disappeared from the faculty. No explanation was given to any of us. I innocently asked my students, whatever happened to Father? One of them blurted that he had been caught with-and clamped her hand over her mouth. Other students told me he used to take this girl out for coffee, to amusement parks and such.

I heard nothing more until a few months later when I bumped into him, ironically, at the initial "Protecting God's Children" sex abuse prevention classes for the diocese. These mandated sessions educate those who volunteer or work with or around children how to recognize sexual abuse and what to do about it. The priest had been assigned to be administrator of a parish. I assumed that meant the diocese had found no wrongdoing on his part.

A few months later he was arrested for child sexual abuse of a different, younger girl prior to my having known him. I waited for the next shoe to drop, and it did. The second girl came forward. He eventually pled guilty and is now in jail.

I have been a facilitator of these classes, through the organization Virtus, for the last two years. I tell this story at the training sessions because it shows how we-the community-can allow abuse to happen right in front of us. When all of this finally came out, others who worked at the school knew immediately which girl it was. Others told me they had observed affection between them and, like me, said nothing. Today I make impassioned pleas to participants not to be silent, to do more than I did. I use this as an example of how we can all be fooled and how we can all weasel out of what we know in our hearts to be our common responsibility.

Why me?

If you hang around the refreshment table at a Virtus session, you might hear:

"Why do we have to attend this? We weren't the ones who molested children and cost the diocese millions."

"This problem is because of the priests and the bishops. Do they attend these sessions?"

"I just volunteer to help with lunch duty. Now I have to spend an evening on this?"

Obviously not everyone is initially thrilled to be attending the classes. Others, including police officers, social workers, and Scout leaders, feel they know everything there is to know about the issue already. Nevertheless, as volunteers and employees of more than 85 participating Catholic dioceses throughout the United States, they are required to attend. More than a half million people have already done so.

But guess what? Almost all become believers after the session. Some are so enthusiastic they want to know how they can get their friends and relatives to attend. One attendee wrote:

"I was initially angry about having to come to this program. I am a prosecutor and have worked on sex cases. However, I was very impressed with the material. Based on my experience, it hit the nail on the head. It was honest and presented in a clear, straightforward manner. These videos should be required viewing for all parents."

As an employee of the church, I was asked to take the two-day facilitator training. I participate because I believe in it. Facilitators receive no compensation, and often we are called upon frequently. Carrie Rauch of Elgin, Illinois says she sticks with it because "if it helps to heal my church, then I want to be a part of that healing."

An epidemic of abuse

The statistics are staggering: One in 10 males and one in four females will be a victim of child sexual abuse. Other researchers report even higher numbers. Approximately 87 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone known to the child: a coach, teacher, religious leader, family member, neighbor. A small minority are "stranger danger" cases, which in the past have caused the most parental vigilance. But most of us did not think about abusers being those we knew and trusted. This is changing as people become aware.

Awareness is the first step in the training. The Virtus Protecting God's Children for Adults program is one session consisting of two videos, each about a half hour. The first, "A Time to Protect God's Children," sets the stage for the problem. We meet two perpetrators who describe how they operate. Many find this information difficult to hear but extremely valuable.

We also meet four young people who have been victims; these are true stories but might be portrayed by actors. We are not told who the actual victims are. Each story puts forth a scenario-a young man at camp, a middle school student after school, a boy molested by his friend's dad, and a little girl by the pastor in a rectory where her mother works. The unnamed abusers include both men and women.

Interspersed throughout the stories are bits of information provided by experts. The first video ends by listing and refuting myths about the topic-that strangers are mostly to blame, that homosexuality or celibacy is the cause, and that children usually lie about sexual abuse.

The video also introduces two bishops who have been involved in the project and who seek to assure the audience that this issue is being taken seriously by the hierarchy. Occasionally people comment that they wish one of these bishops had looked into the camera and simply apologized. One participant who was very favorable about the program ended the evaluation this way: "This program does not address the issue that most people have with the church... the fact that those in authority did know about abuse and did not respond."

The second video, "A Plan to Protect God's Children," presents a plan for parishes, schools, and individuals to prevent child sexual abuse, to create within the community a safe area for children. This video continues with the same people from the first, only this time their anecdotes relate directly to the steps in the plan.

Facilitators refer to this as the "hopeful video." We never allow people to view the two videos on separate occasions because the disturbing material in the first needs to be immediately followed by the positive actions one can take to help the situation.

Varied reactions

Those attending the sessions usually display fairly consistent reactions to the videos. Several admissions by the perpetrators cause a collective groan from the audience, such as when we learn that one of them was a skating instructor, coach, and even played Santa Claus. He estimates he molested over 200 little girls-his "dream dolls," he calls them. Chills run down the spines of parents of boys as the other man describes the type of pre-adolescent male he prefers.

Every so often a debater will attend the session-a person who wants to refute every bit of data. Sometimes these are people who are terribly angry with the church and need to express that publicly. Others would like to derail the discussion to a side issue, such as the lack of prosecution of offenders or the media that they perceive has unfairly targeted our church. Facilitators are trained to accept all the comments but to steer the discussion back to the main points. The focus is on what we can do.

Many facilitators draw on the expertise of participants, inviting social workers, physicians, psychologists, or attorneys to add information that would be helpful to the group. Jennifer King, a licensed counselor who works with children who are victims of abuse, had to attend the session as a volunteer in her parish in Austin, Texas. "The program was excellent. Every time I wished they would say something else it would be said in the next few minutes. I found it to be sensitive to victims."

Some men at the sessions have expressed concern that they will be viewed as potential abusers simply because of their gender. They are often the type who play and rough-house with kids or who are affectionate by nature. They wonder if they must become someone different now.

Preschool teachers want to know if it's OK to help their students with their clothing or in the bathroom. Youth workers worry that they will not be able to comfort kids on a retreat who are upset or grieving. Facilitators cannot give pat answers or solutions to all these situations. Sometimes they will ask the group to share helpful ways to deal with potentially difficult scenarios.

During training volunteers and staff learn how to protect themselves as well. They learn always to meet with kids in a room any adult could enter at any time. They realize it is ideal to have a partner in their ministry as a witness should anything be misinterpreted. As a priest said to his fellow Dominicans after one session, "Our lives should be transparent." This is true for everyone in ministry, and this attitude will help in creating a safe environment for all children.

The nitty-gritty

Most people find the final step in the plan to be the hardest. "Communicating Concerns" deals with the attendees' responsibilities to report suspected abuse. Many facilitators feel they need to allow people to ask questions, especially because local situations may vary. Many participants come with negative feelings toward their local child protection or family services agencies, believing a case will be bungled or that nothing will come of their concerns. We remind them that their responsibility as citizens is to report, while the outcome of the investigation is beyond their reach. We encourage them, if they are nervous, to go to someone who has made hotline calls before, such as the school principal or director of education.

Volunteers ask, "Will I ruin someone's life because of my allegation?" All we can say is that protecting children must be our main concern. Most dioceses provide local information with phone numbers of both civil and religious authorities to help in this step. The emphasis is on sharing concerns appropriately. If someone shows some of the warning signs and you think they could be behaving improperly, for example, this means going to the person's supervisor rather than telling everyone you know. If a child tells you he or she has been abused, you are required by law to immediately contact the proper authority in your area.

Many participants want to speak privately to the facilitator after the program. Sometimes it is to share their own painful experiences. Frequently it is to ask advice about a situation they know of. Often it is to extend their appreciation for the program and the facilitator.

The National Catholic Risk Retention Group, an organization formed by member dioceses of the United States, established Virtus programs in the late 1990s to meet the expectations of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which the Catholic bishops in the U.S. signed in 2002. Some dioceses use their own or different programs to achieve compliance.

Each diocese determines who must attend, and some local pastors are more zealous than others in requiring it. Generally anyone who works directly with children or works in a setting where children are present must attend. This would include, for example, coaches, teachers, janitors, and secretaries.

The organization has developed additional educational programs, including one specifically for parents, one for children on safe touching, and others to help dioceses develop good policies and practices to safeguard children.

What do the participants do with their new knowledge? As in most educational programs, follow-up is always the stumbling block.

Many facilitators suggest people take time at the end of the session to think of one or two changes that could be made in their school or program to make it safer. Both Virtus itself and the dioceses encourage participants to go to for further training.

Have any kids been saved from abuse because of this program? I don't know, but I know that many people leave resolved to follow up on situations they realize are potentially dangerous. Parents reflect on the dance school where no parent is allowed to observe, or the local computer guru who draws kids to his home. People often recall a past incident when they were mildly concerned but did nothing. We talk it through and see what could have been done. After attending this session, some people may become hypersensitive to everything they see, so we caution them not to overreact. Every person who talks to kids is not a perpetrator, and not every touch is sinister.

Most parents don't have to be told to protect their own children. They want desperately to do that and are often eager to learn better ways of doing it. The real challenge for our Catholic community of faith is to extend that concern and care to all children, for they are God's greatest gift to us.

This article appeared in the May 2006 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 71, No. 5, pages 24-28).