Sixty-five thousand, nine hundred and sixty four. That is the number of children sexually abused in the United States in one year (2009), according to reports from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. These young people were abused by family, neighbors, teachers, coaches, even strangers. It is a sobering number, and 65,964 children too many.
This tragedy has to end, but how? The answer may come from the Catholic Church clergy abuse scandal and a landmark study of the causes and context just released by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Their findings are relevant not only to the church, but to every parent and every organization working with children: the best way to prevent child sexual abuse is to remove opportunity.
That sounds easy enough, yet our experience shows that many parents are not aware that their children are at risk even in their own neighborhoods. Too often, parents do not know what questions to ask a school, church or youth organization and too often these groups have uneven child safety policies. That provides opportunities for predators skilled at seeking access to children. Who would suspect a favorite teacher, youth leader, coach, neighbor or faith leader? Abusers look for opportunity and target children in wealthy suburbs, middle class neighborhoods and areas steeped in poverty. Increasingly, predators are finding young people online.
The Archdiocese of Washington has had stringent child protection policies for 25 years. We have learned from our experience and offer our top five recommendations to keep children safe:
-Be committed to child safety. Have a sustained cultural commitment to putting children first. The archdiocese has an entire office focused on child protection, but every office working with children is expected to be actively involved. Because accountability is important, a Child Protection Advisory Board of experts with backgrounds in abuse investigations, sexual abuse counseling or related fields monitors compliance, reviews and updates policies and advises on fitness for ministry should an allegation be placed against a clergy member. This works when an organization is committed to making it work.
-Conduct thorough background checks. All clergy, employees and volunteers who have substantial contact with young people should be vetted, as we do. This includes reference checks and, most importantly, criminal background checks. Parents have a right to expect this so they can be assured that no one known to have harmed a child has access to theirs.
-Create an environment of knowledge through education. The archdiocese requires all clergy, and all employees and volunteers who have substantial contact with children, to attend child safety training. Children receive age-appropriate education in schools and parish programs. Adults are taught about the motivation of predators, warning signs, appropriate boundaries and how to report suspected abuse. Children learn what is not acceptable, and what to do if someone tries to harm them or another child.
-Create an environment of trust for children. Too often, a child may be afraid to come forward or think that the abuse somehow was his or her fault. A perpetrator may threaten a child into secrecy. Children need to know they can and should talk to a trusted adult and that this adult will listen, will not blame the child and will help.
-Report suspected abuse immediately and remove anyone credibly accused. Early reporting to civil authorities is one of the most effective ways to prevent future abuse and to hold a perpetrator accountable. It allows the experts to act while information is new and before additional children can be harmed.
The Catholic Church knows all too painfully the tragedy of child sexual abuse. While we cannot erase what happened in the past, we can seek to heal those who have been harmed, commit to ensuring a safe future and help others learn from our experience. We all owe it to our children.