Okay. Let's Talk About Child Sexual Abuse.
If the above title has made you uncomfortable, I'm glad. Child sexual abuse should make everyone uncomfortable, especially when it happens within our church by our clergy. What I dearly hope, though, is that this discomfort doesn't make you stop reading beyond this point. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that those of us in the Ukrainian Catholic Church aren't great at talking about tough issues. With all the talk going on in the news the last couple weeks about the child sex abuse scandals in Pennsylvania, however, I figured that this is something we need to talk about right now, no matter how uncomfortable. The longer we stay silent and pretend that issues such as these do not affect us or aren't our problem or could never happen within our community, the more dangerous and widespread they become.
If you've been listening to the news at all (or been on Twitter or Facebook), you'd have heard of the Grand Jury Report that came out of Pennsylvania earlier this month concerning child sex abuse in six dioceses in that state. In summary, the grand jury has confirmed that over 1000 children were abused by over 300 clergy over a period of 70+ years. The report itself is extensive – nearly 1400 pages – and contains background information on each diocese investigated, a history of past and present child abuse within the church, recommendations from the grand jury concerning reconciliation and prevention (including law changes), and, the largest section of all, a detailed list of offenders and the crimes they committed (many of which are quite graphic in description and should be read with care and discretion).
The media attention on the report has elicited a response from every corner of the world, it seems, from churchgoers and nonbelievers alike: anger at the offenders and those who shielded them for so long; grief, that unsuspecting children were so taken advantage of and robbed of their innocence and faith, in many cases driving them to depression, alcoholism, and other mental health issues; and disbelief and wonder in how something like this could happen... yet again. Nonbelievers take the opportunity to attack the church and cite her dysfunction, reasoning this is why they are not members, while churchgoers face a struggle between loving the church and recognizing that the trusted leaders who committed/aided these crimes also need to be held accountable for their wrongs. Pope Francis has issued his statement to the People of God, as have the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and The Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, all expressing their sorrow for what the victims of child sex abuse have suffered and a renewed vigour to address situations that may arise in a more timely and effective manner.
WHY I'M BRINGING THIS UP NOW
Though this report mostly focuses on these specific dioceses in Pennsylvania, it does stress that child sex abuse within the Catholic Church can and has happened all over the world, including in other parts of the States (Fall River, Boston), Ireland, Australia, Argentina, and here in Canada (see the BBC's article on child sex abuse in the church for more info). Yes, this is not the first time such a "scandal" has rocked the Catholic Church, though it is probably the largest to date – let's be honest – that we know of. True, most of the cases uncovered happened prior to 2000, like the cases in Fall River and Boston, but others have been more recent. In fact, there are two priests who are actively being prosecuted, thanks to information given to those on the Grand Jury. This means child sex abuse is still happening in the Catholic Church. Strides have been made by the church in implementing strict policies against child sex abuse, which the report acknowledges, but more has to be done to ensure that child sex abuse by clergy ceases to exist. According to the Grand Jury, "It's all about the bishops," since in many of these cases the bishops were the ones who covered up the priests' offences and either put them "on leave" or shuttled them off to another parish. The report adds, "If diocesan bishops respond to [...] external pressures [from the media and Grand Jury reports], then real change is possible."
WHAT WE CAN DO Now, I'm all for our bishops taking their due responsibility in ensuring the safety of children within their jurisdictions, but to say that this responsibility lies solely with them is unreasonable. We all have a responsibility to make sure our children are cared for and kept safe within the church because we are the church, a community of people who must work together for the good of all. Here are some things we should consider when aiming to prevent child sex abuse:
1. Educate yourself on the signs of child sex abuse
When someone is suffering from abuse there are telltale signs that begin to show, such as drastic changes in personality, changes in eating habits, increased sexual interest/knowledge, fear of specific places or people. We should all be aware of the signs so we can recognize them, regardless of whether the child is ours or not. The Edmonton Eparchy currently provides Safer Environment Training to those who volunteer or work in ministry positions in the church that serve children and other vulnerable persons. I suggest that everyone who is part of the church community should take this training; we are all ministers of faith to each other, are we not?
2. Educate your children about their bodies
Children need to know what different parts of their bodies are called, including their "private parts." Teaching your children the names of their body parts gives them a sense of ownership of their bodies and an accurate vocabulary with which to communicate any situation that may come up. They also need to be taught about their private parts and who is or is not allowed to touch them. Finally, they need to be taught that if anyone should touch their private parts, or if they are asked to touch someone else' private parts, to tell their parents or a trusted adult immediately so that action can be taken to stop the abuse.
3. Be wary of falling into clericalism
In many of the cases described by the Grand Jury report, victims felt they couldn't speak out against the abuse they suffered because the priest was so esteemed and held so much power in the community, indeed, was even seen as God Himself. We must remember that, though priests are ordained shepherds of their communities and are to be respected and followed, they are still human like the rest of us and, therefore, have the ability to do wrong. If we assume that a priest can do no wrong we are liable to tune out anyone who comes forward about a priest committing child sex abuse. Remember: the only man who is God and should be worshipped is Jesus Christ.
4. Check in with your children
I mentioned above signs of child sex abuse and that we should all be educated in what they look like. However, many times it takes a long time for symptoms to come to the fore, as David Read Johnson, licensed psychologist and founder/director of the ALIVE program for treating trauma, states in this blog post. As a result, we need to check in with our children, all of them, from time to time, to see how they're doing, if anything has happened to them, etc. By cultivating an atmosphere of trust and love, and talking openly with them about everyday little things, we encourage our children to be open and honest with us when it comes to serious issues as well.
5. Dedicate more time to prayer and fasting
In his recent "Letter to the People of God," Pope Francis has called on the faithful to prayer and fasting: "May fasting and prayer open our ears to the hushed pain felt by children, young people and the disabled." These might seem like passive rather than practical things to do to combat child sex abuse in the church, but sometimes these are the only tools available to us, especially with regards to those who suffer who are not part of our local church community. As Pope Francis quotes St. Paul in the same letter, "'If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.'" The more we turn our hearts to Jesus in prayer and fasting, the more we change internally and find renewed strength to act if we are called.
6. Know what to do if you do suspect/witness abuse
It's all well and good to educate ourselves on the signs, teach our children about their bodies, and pray and fast. If we don't know whom to contact when something does happen, though, the problem remains. Generally if someone suspected abuse was happening within the church community between two persons, they'd first go to the priest and he would then guide them through the process of filing a complaint. Since we're specifically talking about child sex abuse by clergy members, one would instead go directly to the Edmonton Eparchy's Chancellor, Very Rev. Stephen Wojcichowsky. He, along with a committee dedicated to issues of this nature, would guide one through the process of filing a complaint, as well as any other necessary processes such as involving civil authorities, and booking appointments with psychologists and lawyers, all of whom are external third parties to the Edmonton Eparchy.
SO... THIS WAS FUN...
No, it wasn't. It so wasn't fun to write this article. But I do think it was necessary. The only way to stop something like this from happening again and again is by speaking out against abuse we suspect and/or witness. Remember: we are all part of the "Royal Priesthood." We are all the Church and have a responsibility to keep our children safe, whether biologically ours or not. Hopefully this post has given you some more insight into what you can do to prevent child sexual abuse from happening and, God-forbid, what actions to take if it does. God bless, take heart, and stay safe!