Thursday, September 26, 2002

Anti-abuse class put in schools

Archdiocese hires group for training

By Dan Horn,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Archdiocese of Cincinnati will launch a child abuse prevention program this year, part of its effort to update church policies in the wake of sexual abuse scandals nationwide.

        The archdiocese will pay the Council on Child Abuse $50,000 over three years to provide educational programs for students, parents and teachers at all of its schools.

        The goal, church officials say, is to teach children to report abuse and teachers to recognize the warning signs.

        They say the lessons are especially important now because so much attention has been focused on priests who have been accused of sexual abuse in Cincinnati and around the country.

        “We think we can take a bad situation and do something positive with it,” said Eve Pearl, executive director of the Council on Child Abuse. “We can use this as an opportunity to teach children how they can be safe.”

        Although Catholic schools have for years offered some educational programs related to child abuse, the national uproar over abusive priests this year prompted Ms. Pearl to propose a larger program that would reach every school. Church officials thought it was a good idea.

        Critics of the church say the key to the success of such programs is the use of experts and counselors from outside the church, rather than priests or teachers who typically have limited experience in dealing with child abuse.

        “These programs are the cheapest, quickest, simplest step a diocese can take,” said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “It's sad that it takes a crisis of this magnitude in order to prod church officials to do such a simple, non-controversial program.”

        But church officials in Cincinnati say the program is not specifically designed to target abuse by clergy. And they insist a program of some kind eventually would have been created even if there had been no national outcry about abuse scandals.

        The archdiocese has offered some educational programs since at least 1993, when church officials approved their first Child Protection Decree.

        “Prevention and education is part of the decree,” said Patricia Armstrong, assistant superintendent for the archdiocese. “We were looking for ways to improve that.”

        The program includes a workshop for parents, three hours of training for teachers, a half-hour discussion with elementary students, and a longer program for junior and senior high school students.

        At the end of every session, students are invited to speak confidentially to counselors about their own experiences. About 3 percent disclose information about abuse or potential abuse that requires further investigation.

        Ms. Pearl said the number of disclosures at archdiocese schools is about the same as the number at public schools. Most of the abuse allegations involve parents or a family member.

        In 10 years of working with Catholic school students, Ms. Pearl said, no student has ever disclosed abuse by a priest.

        “Clergy abuse is a problem, but we can't lose sight of the fact that 84 percent of abuse is done by parents,” Ms. Pearl said. “We have to protect children from all forms of sexual abuse.”

        She said the program teaches children what kind of behavior is appropriate and what they can do when someone touches or speaks to them in an inappropriate way. Parents and teachers will get lessons in recognizing the physical and emotional signs of abuse.

        “If we can get kids to tell, I think we're going to intervene a lot earlier on,” Ms. Pearl said. “So kids aren't walking around with these deep, dark secrets for years and years.”


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