Sex Abuse Program Opens Some Eyes
‘Awareness Session' Enlightens Personnel in Norwich Diocese

By Bethe Dufresne
The Day [Colchester CT]
September 23, 2003

Colchester — Sexual abuse of children was the unsettling subject of two videos shown Monday to employees and volunteers who work with children in Catholic parishes in the Diocese of Norwich.

After they watched the first one, in which predators told of their manipulations and victims told of their pain, the question on many people's lips was, “What can we do to stop it?”

The second video gave them some answers.

“It's not a complex plan, by design,” said Joseph Naff, who led a four-hour training program at St. Andrew Parish Center. Titled “Protecting God's Children,” Monday's program was similar to other “awareness sessions” mandated for church workers nationwide following the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

The five-step plan developed for Catholic parishes, but usable by anyone, is: Know the Warning Signs; Control Access; Monitor Programs; Be Aware; and Communicate Concerns.

It's the last one, said Naff, that often causes the most anguish, because people are fearful of making false accusations.

“If you're wrong, you're wrong,” he told his audience. “That may be the only chance that child has” to be saved from the lifetime scars of sexual abuse.

“The fact is,” Naff said, “we don't have to be right.” In every state, “the law protects you as long as it was done with right intent,” he said.

Many in Monday's audience said they were amazed at how calculating the sex abusers on the videos were. Sex abusers don't usually just “jump out from behind bushes,” said Naff. Typically they have worked a long time to establish a relationship with the child.

On one video, a repeat abuser told how he sought jobs that put him in close contact with children, at day care centers and roller skating rinks, enticing them with photo contests. He became a disc jockey and played Santa Claus.

Predators were portrayed as patient, cunning and deliberative. But precisely because they don't usually strike suddenly and randomly, they can be stopped.

Monday's audience was advised to beware of people who try to be alone with children, who give unauthorized gifts, engage in excessive horseplay and break the rules — especially those established by a child's parents — in an attempt to win a child's love.

“He was letting me do adult stuff,” one victim on video recalled of his abuser.

Program participants were cautioned always to check the background of new employees and volunteers, and to encourage parents and other adults to drop in on children's programs. Secluded areas in buildings should be off limits.

Above all, children should be taught that “they can tell you anything.”

Research has shown that only a tiny percentage of children will lie about sexual abuse, said Naff, and those who do are often pressed into it by a parent in a custody fight.

One man in the audience offered rather optimistically that because of all the publicity about sexual abuse within the church, people might be more apt to tolerate a false suspicion as part of a greater good.

The alternative can be devastating, for victim and church.

A priest in attendance told how his nephew mysteriously stopped taking Communion or attending church services, even refusing to attend his father's funeral Mass. Only years later did the family learn that it was because a priest had sexually abused him.

Monday's program was prepared by VITRUS services, a division of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group. Translated from the Latin, VITRUS stands for “valor, moral strength, excellence and worth.”

As participants divided into small conversational groups after each video, it was clear that they already knew a great deal about this subject.

“I had a pit in my stomach,” said Father Bob Abbatiello of St. Pius X Parish in Middletown, after watching victims of sexual abuse speak.

He and Father Roger Lamoureux of St. Mary's Church in Willimantic, both teachers, worried along with many others that the natural warmth between them and their students and parish children would suffer because of the scandalous behavior of a few.

“If little kids run up to me,” said Lamoureux, throwing their arms around him, as children will do, “I look around, because I'm afraid.”

Naff and others assured the group that the Catholic Church won't and shouldn't become a cold place because of revelations of sexual abuse by priests and others. If guidelines are strictly followed, he said, such as always having more than one adult present or in sight of children, it can actually be freeing.

Rather than withdraw because of the scandal, Naff said, Catholics should become leaders in fighting sexual abuse. He likened the church's predicament to the Tylenol scare, when some Tylenol products were tainted and the company appeared finished.

Tylenol rebounded, said Naff, by setting higher-than-ever safety standards that were emulated throughout the food and medicine industry.

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