Twenty years after the U.S. bishops issued a landmark document on child sexual abuse, the church has made real progress in not only reporting but preventing child endangerment, said a longtime victim advocate.
“I’ve been doing this work for 20 years, and I have seen the evolution of the way in which we as a society, not just a church, are … getting together to prevent child abuse,” said Leslie Davila, director of the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s Office for Child and Youth Protection.
“Even 25, 30 years ago we didn’t talk about child abuse; there was no education in schools to help kids understand their personal safety. Adults (working with children) weren’t required to get training.”
That all changed when a series of clerical abuse scandals, beginning in 2002, rocked the Catholic Church in the U.S., prompting the U.S. bishops to implement the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
The document – more commonly known as the Dallas Charter owing to its adoption during the June 2002 U.S. bishops’ meeting in that city – lays out a comprehensive set of procedures for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.
In addition, the charter includes guidelines for reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of abuse.
A year after its most recent revision in 2018, Pope Francis issued the motu proprio Vox Estis Lux Mundi (“You Are the Light of the World”) to specify norms on sexual abuse allegations regarding bishops.
Davila said such documents have had demonstrated impact over the past two decades.
“What we’ve seen especially since the charter – and I’ve been able to see this in my own position – is a strengthening of these policies,” she said. “Now, we look at what issues exist in society today, and how we can be responsive.”
At the heart of preventing child abuse is “recognizing the importance of families and communities,” a focus that is also central to the annual April observance of National Child Abuse Awareness Month, said Davila.
“By strengthening families and communities, we … prevent child abuse and neglect,” she said. “And we continue to move forward in creating safe environments in our society, not just in our parishes and schools.”
That broader approach is evident at the various family service centers operated by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS), which key in on five protective factors that can prevent child abuse: social and emotional competence; knowledge of parenting and child development; social connections; concrete support and resilience.
The elements are part of the Strengthening Families program, an internationally recognized social services model originally developed in the 1980s by psychologist Karol L. Kumpfer and now implemented widely throughout the nation.
“The reach is much broader than the Catholic Church or our own parish,” said Davila. “We are contributing to society as a whole.”
Ongoing education for those who work with children is also essential, she said, noting her office hosted an April 6 child abuse prevention conference for archdiocesan personnel.
Speaking at the virtual gathering was Conner Ferrara, education and outreach specialist for the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, who surveyed how social media platforms can increase the risk of child sexual abuse.
“We continue to see increases in technologically facilitated victimization,” said Davila, with perpetrators “using social media to reach out (and) connect on some level” while sending and requesting sexually explicit images with which to threaten children.
Abusers, who hail from “all walks of life, socioeconomic classes and races,” are “really good at manipulating children,” said Davila.
In the last several years, “the number-one child abuse image method — and it’s not ‘child pornography;’ these are child abuse images — has become the selfie,” said Davila. “The predators … using technology don’t even have to get near the child.”
According to UNICEF, some 80% of children in 25 countries report feeling in danger of sexual abuse or exploitation online.
Yet the risk can be reduced when parents monitor and discuss their kids’ social media use, Davila said.
“It’s so important for parents … to have conversations about how to best utilize technology, which in itself can be powerful and helpful,” she said.
Prayer is crucial to preventing and healing the wounds of child abuse, Davila said.
Following the April 6 conference, her office livestreamed a rosary for victims and survivors led by members of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People.
On April 24, Blue Sunday — a national day of prayer for abused children — will be observed, with resources available here. The following day, Blue Monday, faithful are encouraged to wear blue to signify the importance of families and communities working together to prevent child abuse.
“It’s a team effort when it comes to protecting children,” said Davila.
Persons wishing to report an allegation of sexual abuse should contact immediately their local law enforcement agency and/or the archdiocesan Office of Investigations at 1-888-930-9010. Mandated reporters are required to call ChildLine, which is staffed by the Department of Public Welfare at 1-800-932-0313.
To report a violation of The Standards of Ministerial Behavior and Boundaries, contact the archdiocesan Office of Investigations.
If you need support or assistance, victim services and referrals are available through the Victim Assistance Office of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at 1-888-800-8780 or www.ChildYouthProtection.org.
The Catholic Bishop Abuse Reporting Service (CBAR) has been established as a result of the ongoing commitment of the Catholic bishops of the United States to carry out “Vos Estis Lux Mundi.” The hotline will accept reports of abuse by Catholic bishops or their interference in the civil or church investigations via phone or the internet to a third-party entity. Individuals may go to ReportBishopAbuse.org to file a report or call (800) 276-1562.
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