WASHINGTON (CNS) — Child sexual abuse can be prevented, although it requires vigilance by adults to make sure it is, according to the head of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection.
To mark Child Abuse Prevention Month, observed each April, Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the secretariat, offered 10 tips to prevent abuse and to prevent dismissing the gravity of the abuse if it does occur.
Among the tips are: “No one has the right to have access to children” and “Feeling heard leads toward healing.”
In an announcement listing the tips, Kettelkamp said she developed them after reviewing what the church has learned in facing the clergy sexual abuse problem.
In 2002, the U.S. bishops adopted the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” in response to reports of clergy sexual abuse of children. Since then, each April, child protection staff in dioceses nationwide re-examine and publicize efforts for child protection.
The charter mandates safe environment programs be set up in dioceses and parishes and requires an annual audit on how dioceses and religious orders are complying with provisions in the charter.
Kettelkamp’s 10 tips follow:
— Sexual molestation is about the victim. Many people are affected when a priest abuses a minor, but the individual affected the most is the victim who has suffered a violation of trust that can affect his or her entire life.
— No one has the right to have access to children. If people wish to volunteer for the church, for example, in a parish or school, they must follow diocesan guidelines on background checks, safe environment training, policies and procedures, and codes of conduct. No one, no matter who they are, has an automatic right to be around children or young people who are in the care of the church without proper screening and without following the rules.
— Common sense is not all that common. It is naive to presume that people automatically know boundaries, so organizations and families have to spell them out. For example, no youth minister, cleric or other adult leader should be in a child’s bedroom alone with the child.
— Child sexual abuse can be prevented. Awareness that child sexual abuse exists and can exist anywhere is a start. It is then critical to build safety barriers around children and young people to keep them from harm. Such barriers include protective guardians, codes of conduct, background evaluations, policies and procedures, and safety training programs.
— The residual effects of having been abused can last a lifetime. Those who have been abused seldom “just get over it,” Kettelkamp said. The sense of violation goes deep into a person’s psyche and feelings of anger, shame, hurt and betrayal can build long after the abuse has taken place.
— Feeling heard leads toward healing. Relief from hurt and anger often comes when one feels heard, when one’s pain and concerns are taken seriously, and a victim/survivor’s appropriate sense of rage and indignation is acknowledged. Not being acknowledged contributes to a victim’s sense of being invisible, unimportant and unworthy; when this happens, victims are in some way “revictimized,” Kettelkamp said.
— You cannot always predict who will be an abuser. Experience shows that most abuse is at the hands of someone who has gained the trust of a victim/survivor and his/her family. Most abuse also occurs in the family setting. Sometimes a person who seems to be the nicest person in the world is an abuser, and this “niceness” creates a false sense of trust between the abuser and the abused.
— There are behavioral warning signs of child abusers. Training and education help adults recognize what Kettelkamp called “grooming” techniques that are precursors to abuse. Some abusers isolate a potential victim by giving him or her undue attention or lavish gifts. Another common grooming technique is to allow young people to participate in activities which their parents or guardians would not approve, such as watching pornography, drinking alcohol, using drugs and excessive touching, which includes wrestling and tickling.
— People can be taught to identify grooming behavior. Abusers take actions to project the image that they are kind, generous, caring people, while their intent is to lure a minor into an inappropriate relationship. An abuser may develop a relationship with the family to increase his credibility. Offenders can be patient and may groom their victim, his or her family, or community for years.
— Background checks work. Background checks in churches, schools and other organizations keep predators away from children both because they scare off some predators and because they uncover past actions which should ban an adult from working or volunteering with children. “Never forget that offenders lie,” said Kettelkamp.
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Editor’s Note: More information about the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection can be found at www.usccb.org/ocyp.
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