Today when Catholics hear the term sexual abuse, most of us consider our church’s situationthe news reports about members of the clergy accused or convicted of abusing minors and the people at work who ask us, So are you still Catholic? Abusive does not describe the way we think of our faith or our church as a whole, or even the way we think of the wholesome priests whom we loved as children or befriend as adults.
I have worked in the field of organizational sexual abuse for more than 15 years, and I am still Catholic. Our church’s experiences over the past few years have not discouraged me. It is not that I am naïve; I understand the mistakes we have made. Having conducted hundreds of interviews with those who have perpetrated and experienced sexual abuse, including clergymen and their victims, I know the realities of sexual abuse. But my work has allowed me to know the problem in a much wider context than one can glean from the standard press reports.Early Preventive Efforts
During the 1950’s, the F.B.I. funded a public-awareness program to prevent sexual abuse of children. Preventing sexual abuse was simple: kids should not talk to strangers and should not take candy from strangers. The program focused on Stranger Danger and featured images of a shadowed man, hiding behind a tree with his hat pulled down, waiting for an innocent child to walk by. The campaign appealed to the American public. It was simple: there are good guys and bad guys.
Our first child-abuse reporting laws, passed in the 1960’s, required human service professionals and ordinary citizens to report abuse if they knew about it. Before then, it was considered meddling in family business to report known or suspected abuse to the police. Now, for the first time, law enforcement established protective services divisions to manage the cases of alleged abuse and to protect children by supervising families and, at times, removing children from homes.
Protective services did not, however, manage cases of acquaintance abuse, that is, abuse perpetrated by known and trusted adults who are not members of the child’s family. To date, no agency has been established to investigate and respond to cases of acquaintance abuse. Extremely complicated and difficult to understand, acquaintance abuse cases, until recently, did not fit within the public’s understanding of sexual abuse.Big Brothers
In 1974, Big Brothers of America, an organization with a mission to mentor at-risk youth, discovered that they had become a magnet for adults who were seeking sexual contact with children. Cases of adult sexual offenders who sought positions as big brothers began to emerge across the country.
Faced with this situation, Big Brothers had a decision to make: it could either shut down its program because it had become risky, or it could develop safe methods for fulfilling its mission. The organization chose to continue its work. It required in-depth screening, created new ways of supervising staff and volunteers and developed a system for questioning children and their parents about where a big brother took them on outings and what activities they selected. Today Big Brothers continues its high-risk work, while screening, selecting, monitoring and supervising individuals in one-on-one relationships with young people.
Why did the organization opt to continue, rather than to quit or change the program to disallow individual relationships?
When you talk with the leaders of Big Brothers about the choice, you find that they decided the risk was worth it. They realized that there is no substitute for the difference a relationship can make in the life of a child. So they continue, despite the challenges.
Big Brothers went a step further by asking other major volunteer organizations that served children to join with them to create abuse-prevention programs. They were met with polite refusals and denial (Sorry to hear about your situation, but we don’t really have a problem with that). While Big Brothers embraced the complexity of its work and emerged as an organizational leader in preventing sexual abuse, it could only change itself.The 1980’s: Lawsuits and the Internet
During the 1980’s, some youth-serving organizations were sued in civil courts for failing to prevent and properly respond to allegations of sexual abuse. When the claims increased in volume and intensity, youth camps, Y.M.C.A.’s, and Boys and Girls Clubs implemented abuse-prevention programs, which typically required staff to sign agreements to report abuse and to complete training, in which they learned the profile of a child molester and the indicators of abuse in children.
In the public sector, preventing sexual abuse meant teaching assertiveness skills to children. If someone touched them in a way that made them uncomfortable, children were taught to yell, Stop! and run away. By 1985 most public schools had programs to teach elementary school children how to protect themselves from sexual abuse.
During that same decade, a community of adults with a primary sexual attraction to minors started using the newly developed Internet to organize themselves. Today there are hundreds of Web sites and chat rooms where adults who are attracted to minors meet and discuss how to cultivate relationships with kids. The pervasive philosophy of these Internet communities is that children are sexual beings from the day they are born and that children, like adults, have a right to express their sexuality. If society did not disapprove, they believe, then children would not be harmed.
Every day on these sites adults who are attracted to minors talk about love and relationships, tell funny stories about the interesting, intelligent things their young friends say and reflect on how beautiful and special they are. They talk about helping children with their homework and teaching them to pitch a baseball. They believe they are helping kids who do not get enough attention at home or do not have enough food or new clothes. These adults seem to have an unending supply of time and attention. They are not strangers to the children they discuss, nor are they unimportant in the children’s lives. As appealing as it may be, the idea of teaching children to yell No! when sexual contact is introduced by someone they love is perhaps more complicated than we would like to admit.The Current Era
In March 2000, a small independent school district in Texas was struggling with a difficult situation. A male schoolteacher was caught with his hands inside the pants of a 9-year-old student, a little boy. The school district’s response was first to transfer him to a school filled with minority students whose parents did not speak English. Then, after a similar incident, he was caught again and sent by the school district to a school for children with mental retardation. When he was caught a final time, the superintendent told him that if he would just go away quietly and leave the area, no further action would be taken against him. He was never arrested. When the superintendent was asked why he did not call the police, he said he feared that if he reported the incidents, a newspaper reporter could find out, and he did not want the name of the school reported in the paper.
That year newspapers around the country told of 244 reported cases of sexual abuse of children (alleged and convicted) perpetrated by schoolteachers over a six-month period. In large-scale studies of sexual abuse in schools, we find that about 10 percent of children in public schools have experienced an incident or an attempted abuse by the time they are 18 years old. About 40 percent of the cases in school involved female schoolteachers who initiate sexual contact with students.
In 2002 in New Jersey, a 43-year-old female schoolteacher was sentenced to probation instead of time in prison after confessing to having sexual contact with a 13-year-old boy. The judge’s reported rationale for the probationary sentence was that something had just clicked between the teacher and the student. Yet studies on the effects of abuse by female perpetrators show that while victims often feel they were not abused, both the short-term and the long-term effects are virtually the same and in some cases more dramatic than when the perpetrator is a male. Women commit sexual abuse too.
So do children and young people. About 45 percent of sexual abuse of children 6 years old and under is perpetrated by juvenile offenders, many of them female.
These facts are difficult for us to fathom. Sexual abuse perpetrated by a person we know to be loving and kind is almost impossible to consider. Both current and retrospective studies show, however, that abuse by trusted adults who are not related to the child accounts for approximately 60 percent of the sexual abuse of children in our nation. Despite these findings, the problem of acquaintance abuse has been widely neglected by the criminal justice system and social services. Public service announcements and sexual-abuse-awareness programs rarely have the resources or time with participants to communicate the more complicated aspects of sexual abuse. As a result, funding to prevent acquaintance abuse has come almost exclusively from private, nonprofit, youth-serving organizations that are responding to their own need to manage risk.The Catholic Church Crisis
In this environment, reports about sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston emerged in 2001. The first accounts concerned a particularly notorious priest perpetrator and the way his case was handled in the archdiocese. Readers were horrified as they learned about Catholic leaders putting the rights of an adult above the need to protect children from harm. For most, these were the first stories they had ever heard about decisions of this nature. Sadly, in the world of child-serving organizations, they were not unique.
In June 2002 in Dallas, Tex., at their semi-annual meeting, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops introduced the first truly comprehensive plan for preventing acquaintance abuse within a large-scale child-serving organization. It was not just a set of suggested policies. They and other organizations had made suggestions in the past. No, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was a mandated blueprint for large-scale organizational abuse prevention, which included education for multiple audiences, policy development, internal feedback systems, quality control, ongoing research and public accountability for following through with the plan. The implications of this plan, adopted by the largest child-serving organization in the United States, have proved more far-reaching than most Catholics realize.
With the issuing of the charter, the industry standards for child protection changed. Formerly unwritten rules, like not allowing a sexual offender to work with children and defining specific boundaries for ministry relationships, were now clearly articulatednot just for the Catholic Church, but for everyone. In August 2003 the Episcopal bishops in the United States issued their own national policy, requiring Episcopal child- and youth-serving organizations to have screening, monitoring, education, guidelines for interactions and plans for responding if someone reported concerns about abuse. Numerous churches, schools, camps and other child-serving organizations have implemented sexual-abuse prevention programs since 2002, both in response to the publicity of the Catholic sexual abuse cases and in response to the solutions that were defined as a result.
Sometimes people wonder when all this will be over. The truth is, coping with sexual abuse is part of all child-serving organizations. As long as we serve children and youth, we have no choice but to address sexual abuse and its prevention. We are growing in our understanding of sexual abuse and our appreciation of its complexity. Over time, perhaps we can begin to recognize the role we have played in bringing attention and concrete solutions to a problem that affects the lives of children throughout the world.
Am I still Catholic? Yes. I feel exceedingly proud of the work being done by so many to create and maintain parishes and schools where children do not have to be afraid. And while I pray we never forget our past, I am filled with hope for the future of our church and for the difference we can make in the lives of our children.