In the Diocese of Buffalo, all adults who work with youth or vulnerable persons are required to attend a Protecting God's Children® Workshop. In this workshop, attendees watch videos and participate in active discussion about identifying warning signs that sexual predators use, identifiers that a person may be at risk from a predator, and how to communicate concerns.
After attending the Protecting God's Children® Workshop, attendees are asked to continue their training through monthly online training bulletins and periodic re-certifications. Below is an example of the monthly online training offered to the attendees. This bulletin was featured in December 2004.
"Is Child Sex Abuse Just a 'Current' Problem and an 'American' Problem?"
Several times in recent Protecting God's Children awareness sessions an interesting phenomenon has occurred. Recent immigrants or visitors from other countries have come forward to let us know how good this program is and how important it is for the people in the United States to participate. They go on to qualify their statements by adding, "because Americans have such a problem with abusing children." Although they are from different parts of the world - Western and Eastern Europe, Southwest Asia, and the Far East, among other locations - they assure us that child sexual abuse is not a problem in their country or for their people. In fact, every such individual who has talked to me was bold in his or her assertion that their people do not sexually abuse children.
This is not the first time for us to hear this perspective - and it is not just a national or cultural question. Some of the same sort of feedback comes from American participants in our programs - participants who see child sexual abuse as a "current social" problem. Some ponder aloud their amazement that society has degenerated to this point, because, they say, "It wasn't like this in my day."
Whether the questions come from an international or cultural response to the program or from a belief that this is somehow a "new" problem, those raising the question are genuinely convinced that child sexual abuse is a uniquely American problem - and one that only recently appeared.
In a sense, I guess you could say that all of them are correct. It is a problem for Americans today because we - as the current generation of Americans - have decided that the sexual abuse of children is a problem. We have declared this kind of behavior to be both reprehensible and criminal. Hence, we have clearly defined the parameters of this problem and have resolved to find ways to solve this problem. Does that mean, however, that the only sex abusers in the world are a small percentage of current-day Americans? Absolutely not. The issue is not whether child sexual abuse (as we define it) was or is happening in other parts of the world. The issue is whether previous generations and other cultures have defined sex between an adult and a child as a public problem.
Historically, highly charged social issues in America have been hidden away in the back of the proverbial closet. Some issues, such as those of a sexual nature, were not considered "polite conversation." Other conditions, such as poverty and its social implications, were considered a normal part of everyday culture. Issues such as sexually transmitted diseases and spousal abuse were not as openly discussed in previous American generations - but the behaviors and effects were there, lurking in the shadows. For example, a 1950s family dealing with these types of behaviors simply kept them secret and kept them out of sight of friends and neighbors. They pretended it was not happening and covered it up when it threatened to rise to the surface. It was a very predictable and very human behavior - "out of sight, out of mind."
In the "good old days," nobody acknowledged it when a husband was beating his wife. Police, judges and society considered domestic abuse to be a private family matter. This lack of acknowledgment that physical assault on a spouse was abuse left the victim feeling alone and afraid. Hiding the problem did nothing to mend the broken bones, bloody lips, black eyes, and bruised body, and it certainly did nothing to protect small children from their "father's" wrath when something set him off. Keeping domestic violence in the closet did nothing for our society except to hide the secret and protect those who beat their spouses.
The way families dealt with pregnant teenage girls as recently as 30 to 40 years ago is well documented. During a pregnancy and immediately following childbirth, we locked pregnant girls away and pretended that they were "visiting relatives" for several months. Meanwhile, the young men who participated in the pregnancy went on with their lives, experiencing very few repercussions. She lost all her privileges in school. She could no longer be a cheerleader or be named as an honor student. However, he remained captain of the sports team and still was courted by all the best schools.
No, we needn't look far to see how the resolution of a number of important social issues evolved as we moved these closet issues out of the closet, identified them as problems, and addressed them head-on.
The fact is that child abuse was not always viewed as a problem for us in the United States. It was the mid-1960s before there was any organized movement to develop child protection legislation. In a 1961 conference sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics, C. Henry Kempe coined the phrase "Battered Child Syndrome" and brought the problem of child abuse to the attention of the medical community. Kempe recommended, for the first time, that doctors be mandated to report suspected child abuse to the authorities.
However, reporting was just a start. There was no system in place to investigate or provide services to families experiencing abuse. There was no national effort toward awareness, prevention, education and treatment. Though there were pockets of professionals and concerned citizens who acknowledged and addressed the problem of child abuse within their respective communities, child abuse was not yet a public problem.
The willingness of the medical community to champion the cause of child abuse was the catalyst for a change in public perception within the United States.
Child abuse is now a public problem. In the last 30 years, the majority of the American public has come to regard the behavior as abnormal - the bright lights of public scrutiny and justice are now shining fully on child abuse and child sexual abuse. American society now sees abuse as a problem and is actively pursuing solutions.
The fact that previous generations did not recognize abusive behaviors as unacceptable doesn't mean that it didn't happen. Many people around the world still suggest that children are not being abused within their cultures.
That belief - sincere as it may be - does not mean that children are safe within those borders. People sometimes see the news accounts of sexual abuse of children and think that this must be that "younger generation" of Americans. It's an attitude that makes the United States the focus of much criticism from other global neighbors who somehow believe that they are above it all.
As Americans and as a faith community, there are a couple of ways to respond to this situation. We can focus our attention on dealing with the secondary issues such as proving that it is not just an American problem or proving that the problem has been around forever. Both have value and an appropriate place among global priorities.
Yet, while some of the information is needed to convince others of the problem's scope and to encourage their awareness and participation, this type of research and debate will do little to protect the children we'll interact with today, tomorrow, next week, and next year.
If we want to be a part of the solution, we must take a stand for children - as individuals, and as communities. Taking a stand:
The choice is simple. Will you spend your time debating the origin and reasons for the problem? Or, will you focus on taking the necessary steps to prevent abuse within your sphere of influence and be a part of the solution?
The choice is yours.
For more information, contact the Safe Environment Office of the Diocese of Buffalo at 716-847-5532 or SafeKids@buffalodiocese.org