Words of Caution
Training Sessions Teach Catholics to Recognize Signs of Possible Child Sexual Abuse

By Elliott Jones [Vero Beach FL]
August 17, 2003

Christina De Falco teaches catechism to youths at Holy Cross Catholic Church, Vero Beach.

"It's just for the love of children," said the mother of three. "I feel very proud of my faith."

Yet she and hundreds of others like her -- Catholics who deal with children -- have found themselves in the uncomfortable situation of having to undergo training in recognizing and preventing child sexual abuse.

"I never thought I would be here," said retired priest Irvine Nugent, as he waited for a training session to begin in March at a school gym at St. Helen Catholic Church in Vero Beach. Similar training is occurring all along the Treasure Coast.

Since last year, the Diocese of the Palm Beaches has been holding the sessions to help prevent sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. There have been repeated disclosures that some Catholic priests throughout the nation sexually abused youth.

Two of the diocese's own past bishops left because they were implicated in sexually abusing youths earlier in their careers in other parts of the nation, according to AP reports.

The last of the bishops was replaced by Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley who helped push for the training sessions.

Then on July 1, the Vatican announced that O'Malley was being transferred to Boston to replace Archbishop Bernard Law who resigned amid an uproar over his allowing priests to keep serving after they were accused of sexual molestation.

Increased awareness

Much of the abuse by Catholic priests occurred decades ago, when people such as De Falco were young and child sexual abuse -- and child abuse in general -- was rarely brought to public attention.

Times have changed. Abuse is much more openly talked about, said Maureen and Larry Labadie, Sebastian retirees who ran the training session that Nugent and Mrs. De Falco attended with about 100 other people from around Indian River County.

For three hours, the audience watched videotapes of child sexual offenders and answered questions: All part of a specially prepared program called "Protecting God's Children." It was developed by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group Inc., a company that helps reduce insurance liability risks of the Catholic Church.

Sexual abusers "can be anyone," said Jack McCalmon, director of the group's VITRUS sexual-abuse training program. "Most child abuse is done by someone the parents know. That is scary."

They didn't see it coming.

The training sessions help people see possible abuse. The sessions began last summer with hundreds of Catholic school workers -- from janitors to principals -- being trained, said Lorraine Fabatella, chancellor of the diocese.

Then the diocese called in other adults who deal with children.

"This will be on-going," Fabatella said.

In addition to the training, all Catholic Church employees and volunteers working with youngsters, employees are getting background checks and undergoing fingerprinting.

Vigilance counts

When Mrs. De Falco was first told of the meeting, she was reluctant to go. It shook her feeling that she was living in a safe world.

"I didn't want to chain everything up and lock the doors," said Mrs. De Falco, who lives in Vero Beach.

She grew up a close-knit neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"In the summer we sat on the porch and saw the whole neighborhood," she said, of a residential area that she didn't worry about.

Today, "We need to be trusting but aware. It is very important to be aware of what is going on around us," she said.

At St. Helen Catholic Church, she saw a video of a former skating-rink employee confessing to befriending children so he could abuse them. He told of how parents left off their children without checking on what was going on in the rink.

"I took advantage of hundreds of young girls as their skating teacher," and as a softball coach, he said.

"I wanted to jump through the screen when I heard that," Mrs. De Falco said. "He was the abuser. He was the deviant. I hate him for what he did. But after I left the training session and had some private time, I thought that maybe part of what he said was right. Maybe we are not aware.

"We have to be more vigilant and ask more questions," she said.

The video also showed a:

12-year-old girl whose seventh-grade teacher "kept me after class. She started hugging and kissing me. Finally..." The girl couldn't speak about what happened. She also had been silent as a child, fearing to speak up about a school faculty member.

15-year-old boy who wanted to commit suicide after being abused. "The pain was unbearable," he said. He felt powerless to speak out about something that was emotionally very unsettling, he said.

Parents also can be hesitant to talk sexual abuse of youth.

"A lot of parents are afraid of this topic," Mrs. De Falco said. "You don't hear it being discussed around coffee tables" in social settings.

Deborah Berg, a first-grade teacher at Pelican Island Elementary, attended the training session at St. Helen Catholic Church. Her advice: "Trust your gut feelings" and hunches that something may not be right and should be brought up even if it is uncomfortable and embarrassing."


The U.S. Department of Justice compiled one of the most comprehensive, current reports on sexual assault of children. Some of the findings are:

Of all reported victims of sexual abuse, 12 percent were less than 6 years old, 20 percent were ages 6-11 and 33 percent were ages 12-17. The remainder were older.

Among children ages 12 to 17, 33.5 percent of the assaults on them were forcible rape, 24 percent were forcible sodomy, 25.5 percent were sexual assault with an object and 34.5 percent were forcible fondling.

In cases of sexual abuse of children 17 and younger, 34 percent of the offenders were family members, 58.7 were acquaintances and 7 percent were strangers.

23 percent of sexual assault offenders, of all ages, were younger than age 18. Adults accounted for the other 77 percent.

Family members were the offenders in 49 percent of the cases involving children under age 6.

Strangers were the offenders in 3 percent of the sexual assaults of children less than 6 years old and in 5 percent of the cases of children ages 6-11.

Source: Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement, U.S. Department of Justice, 2000

Other sexual abuse statistics:

One out of 10 males and one out of five females will be molested sometime during the first 18 years of their lives. Molested means there was sexual abuse involving physical contact.

Source: Los Angeles Times and researcher Diane E.H. Russell

Sixty percent of sexual abuse perpetrators are non-relatives known and trusted by the victim or their families. Of the remainder, 11 percent are strangers and 29 percent are relatives.

Source: "The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women" by Diana E.H. Russell, 1999.

The annual rate of new substantiated child sexual abuse cases in children ages 17 and younger is 1.2 in every 1,000 children. That rate is 48 percent lower than in 1992.

Source: National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.

Child sexual abuse constitutes about 10 percent of all substantiated child maltreatment cases.

Source: Crimes Against Children Research Center.

One out of six juveniles ages 12 to 17 is the victim of theft, robbery or burglary every year.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Tips for preventing child sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse of the youngest children can begin without people recognizing it because it can be a small act in the midst of everyday life.

It can start as a skating-rink employee putting a child in his lap or a relative taking a child off for a while.

Such acts can be innocent and helpful. A grandfather taking a child off to learn fishing can be a grand adventure that leaves nothing but pleasant memories.

On the other hand, another person may take advantage of a child and use time alone for un-innocent purposes.

And puberty brings on a whole different set of circumstances and emotional impulses, giving rise to an increase in young men having sex with underage teenage girls.

"The single age with the highest proportion of sexual assault victims reported to law enforcement was age 14," according to a federal Department of Justice report.

The sexual relationships can be consensual: both parties agree. But males having sex with underage girls is illegal regardless of whether they agree, according to the State Attorney's Office in Vero Beach.

One way of differentiating between the good and the bad is acting on suspicions and communicating, officials say.

Both adults and children need to be aware that things can go wrong, right in front of their eyes. So experts advise people to be watchful of whether one step leads to another. Don't deny the possibility that abuse can happen anywhere: at home, at church and among friends. Just because people have titles such priest doesn't mean they act properly all the time, according to groups that deal with sexual abuse of children.

And sexual abuse can be one act in a person's life. Not all sexual abuse is done by stereotypic repeat offenders. Only a minority of child sexual abuse is done by unsavory adult strangers. Most perpetrators are known by the family or the child.

And adolescents are perpetrators in at least 20 percent of the reported cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The following are some suggestions.

Adults: Let children express affection on their own terms. Do not insist that children hug or kiss people.

Get to know the people at places where children gather in a community.

Pay attention when an adult seems to use social occasions to overly focus on befriending a child, on taking a child away for special time that seems out of the ordinary.

Make unannounced visits to a child's nursery, babysitter, day care center or school. Make sure there are no places off limits to parents.

Check whether a child's school includes sex-abuse prevention training.

Don't allow a child to go alone on vacation, drive around or spend the night with someone other than those proven to be trustworthy.

Don't automatically assume that a person is trustworthy because of their position, title or working in a place where children gather.

Be open when children ask questions about sex. Make the answers age appropriate, but always be willing to communicate.


* Say no when something feels uncomfortable, very strange or alarming.

* Don't go along with doing something just because an adult including a relative or family friend says do it. This doesn't mean refuse to do household chores that other people usually do.

* Your private parts are your own. Don't let someone violate your personal space.

* A stranger who offers "cool" gifts and enticing items may be trying to lead you to a private place, including a car, where bad things could happen to you.

* Just because a person is an adult doesn't mean they have the right to do things that make you feel queasy or alarmed.

* Be alarmed if someone asks you to not tell anyone about something strange the person did to you.

* It is OK to be concerned if someone tries to lead you off alone to a private place that makes you feel uneasy.

* It isn't worth keeping a friendship if it means doing things that make you feel bad.

Source: National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc. and American Academy of Pediatrics.

Myths about sexual abuse:

Most sexual abuse is perpetrated by a pedophile, a stranger lurking in the neighborhood.

Sexual abuse is blown up in the media.

Boys are rarely sexually abused.

Incest is infrequent.

Sexual abuse primarily happens in the lower class.

Females are never abusers.

Sexual abuse has a minor impact on children.

Sexual abusers are usually sent to jail.

Source: Juanita Baker, director of the Family Learning Program, Melbourne. The state-funded program counsels sexually abused children and their families. Ms. Baker complied the myths from scientific research reports published around the nation.


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