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March 4, 2004 Edition

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Abuse study:
Church leading way to prevent abuse in future

Via the Internet on Feb. 27, I was able to watch - live on my office computer - the press conference dealing with the sexual abuse study commissioned by the U.S. Catholic Bishops' National Review Board.

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This report says the "grievously sinful" acts of priests and inaction by bishops let "the smoke of Satan" enter the Catholic Church. Priests committed grave sins against children and bishops sinned, too, by failing to protect their people from predators.

Although I grieve for the suffering of victims, families, and even perpetrators, I am also proud of what the Catholic Church is doing now to deal with sexual abuse and I see hope for the future.

National problem. I agree with Robert S. Bennett, a Washington attorney who headed the National Review Board's Research Committee. At the press conference, Bennett emphasized that "abuse of minors is a national problem."

He said that the children of America are in deep pain. "No one wants to talk about this problem. This is a national health problem," he asserted.

Although not excusing what has happened in the Catholic Church, Bennett insists that most abuse occurs in the home. In 2001 alone, more than 90,000 children were abused. "As a nation we must be ashamed," he said.

A special report by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued in February (see pages 14 and 15 [online here]) confirms Bennett's views. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that family, friends, and acquaintances accounted for the largest group of perpetrators. Only four percent of abusers were strangers.

"It is obvious that children are much more likely to be sexually abused by family members and friends than by anyone else," says the Catholic League report. "This suggests that if preventative measures are to work, they must begin in the home, and not someplace else."

Church seeks to protect children. The Catholic Church in the United States has put protection of children at the top of its priorities. In their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People issued in the summer of 2002, the Catholic bishops said:

"As bishops, we acknowledge our mistakes and our role in that suffering, and we apologize and take responsibility for too often failing victims and our people in the past. We also take responsibility for dealing with this problem strongly, consistently, and effectively in the future."

As part of the Charter, bishops have required all dioceses to establish "safe environment" programs. Dioceses must provide education and training for children, youth, parents, ministers, educators, and others about ways to make and maintain a safe environment for children.

The Diocese of Madison - along with about 80 other dioceses in the country - has contracted with the VIRTUS Protecting God's Children Program. This program teaches diocesan and parish staff, volunteers, and parents to better understand and to recognize the warning signs of child sexual abuse and how to respond appropriately.

Education important. The Catholic Church has apologized for its past sins. It has removed perpetrators from active ministry and is dealing with victims and their families. It has begun a safe environment program to help prevent abuse in the future.

Since so much sexual abuse happens in the home, it is also critical for families to become educated about this issue: to learn about the warning signs, to be vigilant for possible abuse, and to know how to respond.

The Catholic Church is now leading the way. We must all work to provide a safe environment in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and churches. Hopefully, with our help the number of children sexually abused will be much lower in the years ahead as awareness increases.

Mary C. Uhler

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