WILSONVILLE — Catholic ministers in western Oregon are getting a newlook at how to recognize and prevent sexual abuse of children. Clergy,religious and a large corps of lay workers in parishes and schools willbring the knowledge to volunteers, parents and youngsters in the comingmonths.
“Other denominations and faiths are looking to Catholics as amodel,” sex abuse expert Christy Schiller told 170 church workersgathered for a workshop here Monday.
Renewed, mandated training of ministers and volunteers marks adefinitive next step in the Archdiocese of Portland’s effort to blocksex abuse, which harmed scores of Catholic children in past decades.
In 2004, lawsuits brought by accusers prompted the archdiocese tofile for bankruptcy, a process that ended just last April aftersettlements amounted to about $75 million.
The new prevention program will include age-appropriate videos,suppplemental courses online and a database to make sure churchemployees have background checks and training.
“In meeting with victims and hearing their grievances, the one thingthey want is that we know what happened to them as children and thepain they felt,” Archbishop John Vlazny told the ministers Monday. “Wewant very much to make sure that our children never get abused byanyone who serves in the church or anyone in society.”
The archbishop, who in the course of six years has apologizedrepeatedly for sex abuse by clergy between the 1940s and 1980s, sat inthe crowd along with youth ministers, directors of religious education,principals, deacons and pastors.
Monday’s session was one of six meant to reach every professionalparish minister in the archdiocese, which covers western Oregon fromthe Cascades to the Pacific.
“People are watching the priests pretty close now,” Schiller toldthe group. “It’s the ninety percent we aren’t watching in churches thatwe need to start watching.”
Schiller, an anthropologist and mother of a first grader, is part ofTexas-based Praesidium, which began helping organizations work toprevent sex abuse in the late 1980s. Twenty Catholic dioceses havehired Praesidium, whose Latin name connotes protection andfortification.
Through talks and video presentations, parish and school leaders arelearning how sexual predators work — complimenting children lavishly,offering money and gifts, winning over the confidence of parents.Abusers may ridicule beliefs of parents and encourage activitiesparents prohibit. Some seek to make youths feel guilty about wanting tospend time with other people.
Risky moments include counseling, retreats, transportation and sports.
One young abuser in the video, whose father was a deacon, explainedthat he would cheerfully volunteer to lead children’s activities atchurch. He would take young girls onto his lap and molest them in waysno one could see, until one girl started calling him “the big bad wolf”and his actions were discovered.
Only 10 percent of abuse is carried out by strangers. About thirtypercent happens within families. That leaves 60 percent of abuse comingfrom someone known to the child and family.
Children who need more attention tend to be vulnerable to abuse, as do those with behavior problems or disabilities.
Parish workers are to see to it that children are never alone withone adult. If abuse is suspected, archdiocesan policy calls forreporting to legal and church authorities immediately.
Schiller praised the idea of specific policies naming inappropriatebehavior. Such policy, she explained, can be liberating because allministers will know what is beyond the pale. It also will make it clearwhen someone is going outside the bounds, perhaps before serious abuseoccurs.
“It’s a call to empower people to know what to look for,” Schiller said. “Respond to the boundary violations, not just abuse.”
The program calls for rigorous screening and intensive training inrecognizing the signs of abuse in children, which include a change inbehavior, and a distaste for people and activities once cherished.There can be potty training problems in younger children, depression,falling grades, moodiness and inappropriate sexual behavior towardother youths.
To counter possible abuse, said Schiller, parents can create anatmosphere in which children can tell all. From the time they areyoung, youngsters should know names for the private parts of theirbodies and know that they are indeed private.
Parents should ask a lot of questions when their children are to bealone with adults. One abuser in the video said he stayed away from achild whose mother started inquiring whether he had a girlfriend andwhy he had sleeping bags on the floor when the children were visitinghis house for the day.
An anguished parent portrayed in the program looks at his daughterwho had been abused and says, “If I had asked more questions, thiswould never have happened.”
In the next year in western Oregon parishes, plans call for trainingand videos designed for parents. Employees and volunteers, includingcoaches, get specific training in addition. Parish elementary schoolchildren will see their own video as will middle- and high-schoolers.
The hip video for teens employs youth actors to discuss abuse infrank terms. There is practical advice about ways to thwart an adultwho is making advances — leave the room, mention that you tell yourparents everything or simply pull away. Some scenes get importantpoints across with humor; one boy suggests parrying an offer of sexualactivity by saying, “Oh, hey, my dad’s a cop and he loves to bustpeople like you.”
Schiller told the story of a high school teacher in another statewho would spray perfume on her neck in class and ask the boys to comeup and smell. The teacher also told the students about her maritalproblems and inability to conceive. Students, said Schiller, would dowell to respond to that kind of talk with one of their favoriteacronyms — TMI, for “Too Much Information.”
When screening job applicants, church employers should ask if therehave been any complaints regarding interaction with children.
Schiller explained that often, new teachers or youth ministerstrying to connect with kids will make “rookie mistakes,” crossingboundaries of propriety. Even if they are not abusers, they need to beconfronted on acts like excessive touch.
Children do need positive interaction with adults but there shouldbe standards set for showing affection, says the video. Experts suggestverbal recognition, high fives and brief embraces.
One of the voices in the Praesidium material is Bishop GregoryAymond of Austin, Texas, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee forthe Protection of Children and Young People. He repeatedly says thatone of the duties of ministers is to let children know how importantthey are in the eyes of God and in the church. The bishop also urgesparishes to have a system of checks and balances in their ministry forthe young.
Each parish and Catholic school will have a facilitator to keep an eye on sex abuse policy and training.
Ministers on hand Monday shared various concerns. A now-retiredCatholic school teacher complained that her fears were disregarded whenshe told the principal that a colleague seemed to be touching studentstoo much. The teacher under suspicion had charisma, a degree from arespected school and a large group of admirers.
Another lay minister thinks volunteers may balk at background checkrequirements. But a colleague piped up, saying that after all thearchdiocese has gone through with abuse cases, most Catholic volunteerswill gladly meet stringent requirements.
“We’re here to serve God, but we need to make sure we are keepingour kids safe and keeping our organization safe,” Schiller responded.“People who are fighting this, you might not want them in yourministry.”
Joy Ruplinger, youth ministry coordinator at St. Andrew Parish inPortland, was at first not enthused about attending the day. A busywoman, it seemed to her that the abuse in the past had been carried outby clergy, not laity. But soon, she was glad she had come. “This isreally good information,” Ruplinger said. “You can use it anywhere, notjust at church — in your neighborhood or your job.” The program isprompting her to add safeguards to her ministry.
In the mid-1990s, when organizations like the YMCA had set upambitious programs to prevent sex abuse, pedophiles began to targetchurches, which accepted volunteers and workers with no or fewquestions asked.
“If you were a carbon-based life form and you volunteered, you would do,” Schiller told ministers.
She reminded the audience that a study found that sex abuse is lessprevalent among Catholic priests than among men in society at large.She added that Catholics are not alone in suffering from abuse. But shewarned against ever letting down the guard. That is precisely whenabusers step in.
“Never tolerate drift,” she said. “What we want for you is to weavethis piece of what we do into the tapestry of who you are. It needs tobe integrated.”
Schiller praised the U.S. bishops for their 2002 charter on the protection of children and young people.
“That was the first time an organzation on a national level said,‘We are not going to put up with this any more,’” she explained. “Onthat day, the Catholic Church set the bar high, very high.”