The growing outcry over the abuse of children by Catholic priests has become an international embarrassment to the church.
For several reasons, the Catholic Church is particularly susceptible to these problems. While people are generally trusting of clergy members, the unique nature of Catholic rituals which brings priests into contact with alter boys, choirs, etc. perhaps makes it especially difficult to police.
In addition, the formal hierarchy of the Catholic Church limits the oversight by local parish members. Problems get dealt with “upstairs,” which for many priests accused of wrongdoing seems to have garnered only a slap on the wrist and a move to another location.
The tendency of all large institutions is to circle the wagons and keep problems “in-house” and out of the public limelight as much as possible. But that is often counterproductive in the long run.
Other institutions have also faced this problem, so it is not limited to just the Catholic Church. The organization I volunteer with, Boy Scouts of America, has become very sensitive to the issue of child abuse and sexual victimization of boys by adults. Extensive training is now mandated for new leaders and a detailed background check is required for all leaders. People with suspicious backgrounds or a criminal record don’t get accepted. In addition, the interaction between adults and boys at BSA functions are subject to some strict regulations.
While a large institution, BSA has to rely a lot on local leaders to help police this issue. The eyes and ears of parents and other leaders is the best way to filter problems before they begin.
Research indicates that in the Catholic Church, around four percent of priests have been accused of having a sexual experience with a minor, a number said to be consistent with other male clergy and lower than the overall male population rate.
Still, that translates to a huge number of people being abused by people in positions of trust. While the focus today is on the Catholic Church, the abuse issue is much larger than just that one institution. Any organized youth program is susceptible to this problem.
So what can be done to stem this tide of abuse?
First, parents should get to know the adults they entrust their children with. Parents or other leaders who work with youth groups should turn on their “radar” when new leaders show up to work with the youth. What are their ties to the group? How do they interact with the youth (boundaries)? Is what they say and how they act appropriate for the situation? In some circumstances, a background check may be needed to verify a person’s “story” if it sounds too good to be true.
Second, what is the environment of adult interactions with youth? Are other adults around, or does one adult have unlimited access one-on-one with children? By making sure multiple adults are around and creating a healthy environment, a lot of problems can be avoided.
Third, talk with the youth. Ask them about the adults they interact with and what they think of those individuals. Try to notice if certain youth avoid certain adults, or act strangely around those adults.
It’s sad that in today’s world, we have to worry about who the caretakers of our children are. Dealing with peer pressures is difficult enough; now as parents we have to also worry about pressures from adults in whom we entrust our youth.
But as the problems in the Catholic Church point out, no institution is free from this problem. Youth leaders — at church, coaching, scouting, teaching — all have to be diligent not only in how they interact with young people, but also in being aware of how other adults interact.
There are a lot of good people who volunteer thousands of hours to various kinds of youth organizations; it’s a shame that they have to come under a cloud because of a few.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.