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  Diocese Aims to Create Safe Environments for Kids

By Michael Gartland
The Post and Courier [Charleston SC]
February 19, 2006

http://www.charleston.net/stories/?newsID=71324§ion=faithvalues

Four years ago, the Catholic Diocese of Charleston did not have an instructor to travel the state and teach people how to prevent child molestation.

Now, each parish has had a lesson, and Brother Ed Bergeron is one of many who keep teaching them.

"We try to raise people's awareness of what to look for," he said of the ongoing classes. "The focus of the program is creating environments that are safe for kids."

Take opaque windows for example.

Bergeron sat in an office at St. John Catholic Church in North Charleston and smiled as two men came to remove a fogged plate-glass window from the door. He believes that the more adults can see children who are one on one with other adults, the less likely it is that child abuse will occur.

The new window, of course, is clear.

Ever since the church sex abuse scandal broke four years ago, preventing child molestation and dealing with its consequences have been church priorities nationwide. Just three weeks ago, the issue once again moved to the forefront in the Charleston Diocese when a suspended Catholic priest, the Rev. Eugene Luke Condon, was charged with molesting a boy more than three decades ago.

Condon, a former priest at Stella Maris Catholic Church on Sullivan's Island, pleaded guilty in 1998 to other decades-old abuse cases and received five years' probation. In the investigation, a trunk containing 150 photographs of naked adolescent boys was found in the church's rectory.

Condon's latest accuser was 12 when the alleged abuse began in 1972.

The Rev. Titus Fulcher heads the diocese Office of Child Protection, and said that the accusation against Condon is not the only one he's investigating. Though he wouldn't provide details, Fulcher said one other decade-old case recently came to his attention.

"We're committed to taking the appropriate legal and ethical action," he said. "If an accusation came that said something happened and that it might happen again, the priest would be pulled immediately."

Suspending a priest is the bishop's decision, but he doesn't make it in a vacuum. The Charleston Diocese has created a sexual abuse advisory board consisting of laypeople to make recommendations when accusations are made. This way, clergy bias is less of an issue.

"The clergy today have a feeling of being suspect," Fulcher said. "We are aware as clergy that to some extent we have to prove ourselves. We're accepting that challenge."

In practical, institutional terms, the challenge came from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops not long after the sex scandal broke. In June 2002, the conference voted to make victim counseling and punishment of abusers mandatory in all dioceses. Exactly how those regulations are carried out differs from diocese to diocese.

Teresa Kettelkamp is the executive director of the conference's Office of Child and Youth Protection and said that since the safeguards were implemented, the conference audits each diocese annually.

"When you think about how much has been accomplished in the last couple of years, it's amazing," she said. "But we've still got a ways to go."

Academics who have studied sexual abuse in the Catholic Church agree, but say the church has been proactive in trying to rectify past wrongs.

Louis Schlesinger is a psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and worked on the most comprehensive study conducted on abuse in the church.

Now, Schlesinger said, a second, more comprehensive study is in the works to determine exactly why so much abuse occurred.

"What we did in the first was basically just counting numbers," he said. "The second one is going to look at the causation of these things and what's going to be done to prevent it. That will take many years to finish."

For the time being, guys such as Bergeron continue to work with laity, clergy and church volunteers.

He tells them what to look out for: adults who prefer the companionship of children, adults who give children gifts without a parent's knowledge and those who are extremely permissive with children.

He also urges parents to become more involved: "Drop in. Don't just leave your kids at soccer practice, but swing on back."

Contact Michael Gartland at mgartland@postandcourier.com or 937-5902.

 
 

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