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Remembering the victims this Lent

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The testimony that led to the conviction of defrocked priest Paul Shanley on four counts of sexual abuse of a minor again serves to remind us of the horror experienced by victims of abuse.

The Catholic Church’s response to this problem has radically evolved since the first highly publicized case of clergy sexual abuse in 1985. In particular, after defrocked priest James Porter was convicted of child sexual abuse in 1993, many dioceses, including Boston, responded by creating lay review boards that advised the bishop on how to deal with alleged abusers and placing accused priests in ministries where they were unlikely to pose a threat to children.

Still, it was not until 2002 that, following a Boston Globe investigative report on defrocked priest John Geoghan, the scope of the crisis and the magnitude of suffering provoked by these despicable actions became widely understood.

Recently, a symposium was held in Los Angeles for diocesan officials from across the country who work with victims of sexual abuse by clergy. Sixty-five victim-assistance coordinators attended the Jan. 25-26 symposium, sponsored by the U.S. bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection.

Speakers at the symposium addressed two very important aspects of this crisis: the wide-ranging and long-term devastating effects that abuse can have on victims and the realization that the issue of sexual abuse of minors is a societal problem, not merely a “Catholic” or even a “religious” problem.

The Catholic News Service carried the following accounts of the speakers’ remarks:

Experiencing abuse can adversely affect psychological, physical, social and sexual behavior, said Jesuit Father Gerard McGlone, visiting psychology professor at Jesuit-run St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

It also can erode a victim’s educational and job performances, he said.

According to Father McGlone, the abuse has a ripple effect like “a pebble in a pond,” extending beyond the victim.

Secondary victims include the victim’s family, the faith communities of the offender and the victim, and the clergy who are innocent of any wrongdoing, said Father McGlone.

Working with victims involves being a good listener as victims tell their story of abuse, trauma and pain, he said.

"It is the survivor's experience. This is our focus, our lens of understanding," Father McGlone said.

Child sex abuse is not limited to the Church nor is it less prevalent elsewhere, he said.

"It happens in every aspect of society and takes many forms," he said.

In another talk, an educator who prepared a federally mandated study for Congress on child sex abuse in public schools said that states need to do more to protect students.

Abuse in public schools is underreported and when reported is often ignored, said Charol Shakeshaft, professor of educational policies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

States need to develop and enforce standardized policies and laws to prevent child sex abuse in the more than 14,000 public school districts across the country, she said.

Her study for Congress, released in 2004 and based on published research done by others, said that about 4.5 million public school students are subject to some form of “sexual misconduct” by a school employee sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade. She defined sexual misconduct as anything ranging from words or gestures to physically forcing a sexual act. She said the list includes activities which go against legal, civil or professional standards.

Teachers are the most common offenders, followed by coaches, she said.

Offenders are “often popular and well-regarded,” making it difficult for people to believe a child’s accusation, she said.

Most of the abuse in public schools is done by an adult male against a female student, said Shakeshaft.

Most of the victims are white — they account for 51.5 percent of the people targeted, she said, noting that the overall white school population is 58.6 percent.

By contrast, given their percentage of the school population, African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians and the mentally and physically handicapped who are abuse victims are overrepresented in the total number of victims, she said.

Public school officials need to develop district- and school-level prevention policies, adopt screening programs for employees, centralize information about offenders and report allegations to child protection and law enforcement agencies, said Shakeshaft.

School districts need outside investigators who can quickly look into allegations and districts must develop programs to educate employees, students and parents in prevention, she said.

Lent is a time particularly suitable to reflect on our faults and sins and to appeal for forgiveness. It is an opportune moment to pray for the many victims whose innocence was taken by those who had the duty to respect and love them the most. We should also pray that society at large will come to understand the true scope of this problem, one that still seems to be “under the radar screen” for many.

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