Every year around this time as we approach the deadline for Safe Environment compliance, the same question arises: Why do we need to do this? Or, more pointedly, Shouldn’t this have to be done by the priests?
Have you read any recent articles about church sexual abuse? My guess is no. Most of us have a bit of PTSD and react with an “Oh, no, not again” whenever we hear about another story about sexual abuse. The sexual abuse crisis has had a serious morale and financial impact on the Church (which therefore has impacted enrollment and financial support of Catholic schools). Whenever we talk about trends in Catholic school enrollment the elephant in the room is the sexual abuse crisis. The Catholic brand has been damaged and its effects are far-reaching.
But I believe we should not turn away but should read these stories in order to educate ourselves about how this abuse occurred and how it could have been prevented. Here’s a few samples:
· The recently recently-released grand jury report from the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
· A story which ran last month in the Seattle Times about the shifting of a pedophile priest (Michael Cody) as recently as a few years ago.
· The devastating story of a predatory Irish Christian Brother in Seattle.
When I read these articles, I am struck by the lack of imagination and capacity. A lack of imagination because people never could have imagined that a member of the clergy would perpetrate those crimes. Yes, it was a different era when authority was respected (the “good old days”?) but even bishops and provincials failed to expect the worst.
The lack of capacity means that parents seemed to be powerless to see the signs of abuse, seemed to lack the skills to take any action, and all involved seemed to fail to grasp the impact that this abuse would have on the future.
If we don’t read to remind ourselves of what happened, we are turning the same blind eye to the abuse that happened when bishops and provincials transferred pedophile priests from parish to parish, hoping that a new setting would bring out new strategy. But hope is not a strategy. And though we didn’t cause this problem, it is ours to solve. So we ask teachers to educate their students on safety—how to protect themselves, protect their friends, and what to do when you suspect something is awry.
We educate parents and volunteers to recognize the telltale symptoms of abusers, to recognize the signs of abuse, and we teach the policies which will protect our youth. We work to increase the (unfortunate) imagination and work to increase the capacity of our young people, parents, and volunteers to take action and prevent abuse. This is all carried out in the Safe Environment program which we need to promote diligently and with purpose.