For Victims of Sexual Abuse, Much Healing Remains

Sept. 23 issue op-ed

Stories in the news over the past year have shown the horrific reality of something Catholics learned when the clergy sexual-abuse crisis rocked the Church in the United States — the sexual abuse of children is a much larger problem than most people realize, one that has destroyed countless innocent lives and, sadly, does not receive the attention it deserves until a "big name" is involved.

One out of four females and one out of six males are abused before they reach the age of 18.

Society still has not come fully to terms with the sweeping scope of this problem and the reality that so many people are living with the pain it has caused.

Victims of abuse — from within their churches, their schools and even their families — carry heavy burdens of crippling shame. This sometimes results in "self-treatment" to deaden the pain with drugs and alcohol. There can be difficulties with relationships, trusting others or managing anger.

Sadly, many lose their faith in God and even end their own lives.

The destructive impact abuse has on the lives of victims is particularly tragic because the shame is not the victim’s; the real burden of shame belongs to the adult offender.

Adults are responsible for their own behavior, and adults are responsible as well for protecting children.

As the Catholic Church seeks to do a better job of protecting children, it has studied its own painful chapter and learned about predators and the behavior of those who would abuse.

Child sexual-abuse perpetrators go to great lengths to gain the confidence and trust of children, families and communities. They know that parents and others will resist allowing their children to be with adults they perceive as "creepy."

Offenders depend on a grooming process that gives them access to children, lulls responsible adults into compliancy, and attempts to make the victim feel complicit in the abuse. This keeps victims confused and silent and the perpetrators’ reputations intact.

Most victims are abused by someone they thought they could trust. Child sexual abuse is a violation of that trust, made all the more heinous when a member of the clergy perpetrates it.

The "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002, calls on the Church to reach out to victims with compassion and address the psychological and spiritual problems they may have.

Today, all dioceses have victim-assistance coordinators. In 2011, the U.S. Church spent $6,142,810 on therapy for victims of abuse. We know that victims are not responsible for the abuse.

Making sure that the child-protection policies of an organization are followed is critical. Policies sitting on a shelf protect no one.

The Church continues to learn a painful lesson, and all society can benefit. The sexual exploitation of minors is not only a problem of Catholic clergy. It touches every organization that provides services to children.

It is up to all of these institutions to teach caring adults how to recognize the signs of a grooming process, so the abuse can be stopped before it happens.

So many innocent lives have been destroyed. With vigilance and proper understanding, all of society can work together to eradicate this evil.

Bishop R. Daniel Conlon is the bishop of Joliet, Ill., and

chairman of the Committee on Child and Youth Protection

of the U.S. Conference of

Catholic Bishops.