Penn State sex abuse case another call to protect kids
You served for six years, including three years as chairman, of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, so you undoubtedly are more aware than most about how pedophiles stalk children. In light of the sex abuse scandal at Penn State University, can you tell us how pedophiles operate?
It’s called a “grooming” process, and we explain this very well in our safe environment training for children and adults in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. People who are truly pedophiles are obviously not mentally stable. Pedophilia is a disease, and, in most cases, it is untreatable or at the very least not easily treatable. Pedophiles are interested in pursuing children. They will groom the child, which can involve drinking, excessive eating, giving them gifts, taking them on vacations and getting close to them as well as to their families. All of this is done to see how far they can go. Usually, the behavior ends up in sharing pornography and sharing sexual-oriented thoughts. Very often, it begins with very little physical contact but then advances to a back rub, a massage, holding hands and then possibly to overt sexual behavior. What we do in our safe environment training is to help people recognize what the grooming process might look like.
Can an adult’s actions toward a child sometimes be misinterpreted?
Sometimes, people are not trying to groom a child but simply don’t know the proper boundaries. In other cases, if it’s done consistently, it is a type of grooming. It’s a lot better to recognize the behavior – whether it’s inappropriate boundaries or grooming. In a way, it makes no difference because both behaviors are inappropriate because they violate a person’s privacy. Both adults and children need to learn what grooming is so that they can recognize a pedophile’s mode of operation. We need kids to know about this in an age-appropriate way, not in a spirit of fear but in a spirit of taking care of yourself.
Did you have any of these warnings when you were growing up?
I remember when I was kid my parents would tell me, “Don’t go with strangers. Don’t take any candy. Don’t take a ride home.” We say those things today, but we are even more aware. We need to tell kids, “Be careful of strangers. If someone touches you and you feel uncomfortable, let us know. If they wrestle with you and you feel uncomfortable, let us know. If someone is around you and they ask you questions about your private life, you need to let us know.”
Have you interviewed pedophiles?
I’ve actually talked to some who have been incarcerated dergone treatment. They will admit that there is a process by which they groom children. They will admit that they are attracted to the child and they feel compelled to see how far they can go.
If the charges are true in the Penn State case, the perpetrator isn’t the stereotypical “man in a trench coat.” He was married, seemingly well respected, a next-door neighbor type.
That’s why it’s so important to have awareness. We need to do our utmost to protect children. When a child has been sexually abused, some can go through a healing process and, through counseling, come out with few scars. But for others, it affects their whole life and they tend to have flashbacks and to get into situations that cause them a great deal of fear. Their whole life is affected. We as a society and we as Christians must protect our young. We must see in them the gift and preciousness that God has given to them.
You have said that as painful as the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has been, several blessings have been greater awareness of the problem, greater protective steps for children and purification of the church.
Children are not able to protect themselves. As a church, we have learned a lot. Thank God we now have, through the Catholic Church, a very strict child protection charter. What happened inside the church was horrifying because of the evil people perpetrated on children and the devastating effects it has had on their lives. We also must remember that, unfortunately, this is one of the many sins we do not understand. Sexual abuse has occurred since the beginning of time, so it’s not new. What’s new is that we’re talking about it. What’s new is that we’re doing something about it and we’re protecting children. Along with so many other people, I have been embarrassed by the way in which the church has handled certain situations. At the same time, because we made our mistakes, we have helped to educate and purify society. We have raised awareness about the evil of sexual abuse in the U.S. to a level that did not exist before this sad episode. My prayer goes out to the victims in the Penn State case, and I pray for their healing. God can use this evil to galvanize society into taking every possible step to protect those who cannot protect themselves.