Child Abuse in the Church: A Parent’s Response, Part 1

Rhodes - What light through yonder window .....

Rhodes – What light through yonder window ….. (Photo credit: BR0WSER)

When I was twelve years old, a teenage kid working the ticket booth at the movie theater told me I could pass for seventeen. I developed early and I had the curves to attract attention. But although I may have looked older than some of my peers, emotionally I was far behind them. I was sheltered and dreamy and utterly naive. I was in a dangerous place, but I didn’t know it. I could have become a target for anyone with a twisted sense of morality, or just a raging case of hormones.

Fortunately for me, I had protective parents. The distance between their farm and the town didn’t hurt, either.

Not all kids are so lucky. During the thick of the sex abuse scandal in the Church, I was working as a liturgy director. As one who worked closely with schoolchildren, I went through the training that was put into place in our diocese. Volunteers, staff–everyone has to take it. We use Protecting God’s Children, or Virtus. I went to a two-hour training session, and every week thereafter I was expected to read a lesson that came via email, along with a test question at the end. They tracked compliance.

Most of the time (I’ll be honest) I was impatient with it, because the lesson imparted was common sense. But now I think maybe that’s the point. If we take time to think about issues related to the safety of our children, most of it is common sense. The trouble comes when we get distracted or complacent and aren’t aware. The point of the training is awareness.

In the long run, the most important thing the Virtus training did for me was to sensitize me to the issue. The fact is that if there is a pedophile around, he (or she) will find a way to subvert the procedures put into place to protect our children. That means the impetus is on me as a parent to teach my children about their inherent dignity as a human being, especially where matters of sexuality are concerned, in such a way that they recognize threats to that dignity, and have the confidence and courage to respond.

The lessons of sex I learned as a child dealt with the danger of premarital sex and the value of chastity, but I don’t remember really learning why. Maybe this is because I was a rule follower, so if you told me to do something, that was all I needed; any other information given might well have gone in the “useless information” file.

In adulthood, though, outing the damage and dysfunction caused by obsession with unrestricted, no-strings-attached sex has become my passion. When even Catholics resist making the connections between the dysfunction in the culture and the birth control they depend on, I’m very aware that my kids are besieged. They’re not going to get a holistic vision of the human person unless I give it to them. And they’ve got to have the whole picture; they’ve got to know why, or there’s no chance that they’re going to resist a cultural paradigm that pushes so hard in the opposite direction.

Until recently I always thought of this in terms of peer relationships–hookup culture, pre-marital sex, etc.–but recently I realized that the lesson is just as important in helping prevent abuse by authority. Because when you know the incredible dignity of this body you inhabit, you are much less likely to allow someone else to do something to damage that dignity.

I planned to write a single post on this topic. I woke up at 2 a.m. this morning and, unable to sleep, pounded out almost 1200 words on it. In the light of day, fleshing it out, I’m about halfway through it. So I’m going to hit “pause” for today and beg you to come back tomorrow, when I’ll talk about what we are doing with our kids.

In the meantime I’d like to know what your dioceses and/or parishes are doing to guard their young from predators. If you can, please leave comments here rather than on Facebook (even if you do so anonymously), so that everyone can see.

Part 2 is here.

11 thoughts on “Child Abuse in the Church: A Parent’s Response, Part 1

  1. I’m SO sick of sitting through those “child protection” seminars, and I’m due again next year, oh joy. They strike me as litigation protection seminars as much as anything. The reality is that if someone really wants to sexually abuse a child or teen s/he will find a way. We can put in policies that make it somewhat less likely (requiring two adults present, putting glass in doors) but do you really need to tell people it is unacceptable to touch a child’s genitals?

      • Those who have substantial contact with kids have to do it every three years. Our principal used to give a shortened version to all parents at the first Parent’s Club meeting so we’d be “qualified” to work school events or go on field trips, but they’ve dropped that requirement. Now you only have to go if you are a teacher, catechist, Scout leader or in other positions where you have substantial ongoing contact with the kids. I suspect I’ll end up as a GS leader again next year, just when my last training expires.

      • It can be frustrating to those of us for whom this is all theoretical, having never experienced it directly, but Colleen’s right, we have to start somewhere, and there’s no way to be sure who is a threat and who isn’t. Plus, it keeps us paying attention. And there’s value to that even if it does feel like repetition of the same material.

  2. Anonymous

    “Because when you know the incredible dignity of this body you inhabit you are much less likely to allow someone to else to do something to damage that dignity.”

    This sentence and the one before it really disturb me. It sounds like you are saying you think installing certain moral values can protect your child from abuse – which implies that the child has some responsibility for the victimization. This is painfully wrong. Child abuse has NOTHING to do with the morals of the victim, and to imply otherwise is incredibly naive (or worse).

    • I think what K may be trying to say isn’t that the child with a chastity mindset will be able to stop the abuse being perpetrated by someone bigger, older, stronger and… well, I can’t say wiser, so let’s say “more cunning.” No, the child with a chastity mindset will (hopefully) be able to recognize the wrongness of the abuse and tell someone who *can* put a stop to it. I say this as a survivor myself who was told that what was happening was normal and my fault. I put a lot of energy into showing my kids what good boundaries are, even at home with family, so that if someone tries to violate those boundaries, they’ll have warning bells going off in their heads, and if they can’t escape, they *can* tell.

      Since I haven’t said it yet, THANK YOU, Kate, for this post. I’m so looking forward to the next installment.

    • Of course it’s not the victim’s fault. I neither said nor believe that.

      What I am saying is that instilling values, such as Mrs. Mackerelsnapper outlined above–appropriate boundaries, etc.–gives children one more line of defense, because at least when the boundaries are crossed, they know it was a boundary and they can do something about it. We prepare our kids for myriad situations from which the framework of society is supposed to protect them. Why should this be different? What I’m expressing is a belief that if we give our kids a proper vision of themselves in relation to the world, that maybe they will be more prepared and empowered. But that’s the topic for part 2:

  3. We only have to go through the class once – Safe Environment, it is called. Originally we did Protecting God’s Children. In fact that was the one I took. We have to get fingerprinted and keep it up to date. It is now done electronically. And the children in CCD are taught also, appropriate to their age. They are taught by people trained to do so. I really applaud that.
    As an incest survivor, I often wonder what I would have done if I had know what was being done to me. I never heard anything about it and so I thought I was all alone in the whole world. If I had known it was wrong for my father to do. If I had known, I may have – maybe – told someone. And then perhaps have prevented the abuse of my little sister.
    I had prayed for years that the Church would take front seat in teaching and protecting children. Then the sexual abuse crisis almost did me in. But Jesus helped me. And then I wrote my book which helped me. And now i have read that Pope Francis wants the Church to take the lead in teaching and preventing child sexual abuse everywhere and to be the safe place for all children. Amen. Amen. Amen.
    As for knowing the dignity of our bodies, absolutely. We need to teach that. Not sure it would prevent child sexual abuse. Children are too vulnerable. They trust so easily. When the trust is stolen, it takes years to get it back, and some never do.
    BUT maybe what you are talking about would help children tell someone earlier. And maybe it would help them heal earlier. I am not sure. We should try though. We should try anything we can to fight this evil.
    Sorry for this long long comment.

  4. Anyone who participates in the homeschool co-op I belong to has to go through the Virtus program every two years. We also have to be finger printed.

    Going through the program doesn’t bother me because, like you said Kathleen, it makes parents aware. And I agree with instilling in chidren a sense of their inherent dignity is one more line of defense to protect them.

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