Safety Skills Called Critical

By Denise Ford-Mitchell
The Saginaw News [Michigan]
May 21, 2005

For more than two decades, Kenneth Wooden has crisscrossed America to teach parents, educators, community leaders and church officials techniques to protect and save young lives.

On Friday, the 69-year-old, a best-selling author and creator of the accredited child protection program "Child Lures Prevention," journeyed to Saginaw Township to discuss -- frequently in graphic detail -- with Catholic Diocese of Saginaw parishioners how "sophisticated pedophiles stalk, lure and capture their victims."

"It's much better to teach kids how to recognize signs of danger long before a tragedy happens," Wooden said, "because there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that can prepare you or the children for the types of things a sexual predator will do.

"Have you ever seen a videotape of a whole Boy Scout Troop being raped in the woods? I have, and there are no words to describe the incredible horror," Wooden told more than 50 people at the three-hour "Preventing Predatory Crimes Against Children and Youth" seminar at the Diocese's Center for Ministry, 5802 Weiss.

This fall, diocese educators will teach the skills to kindergarten- through 12th-grade students so they can take an active role in protecting themselves against exploitation, abduction, Internet crimes, drug abuse and school violence, said Sister Janet Fulgenzi, victim assistance coordinator for the 132,000-parishioner, 11-county diocese.

"Crimes against children occur at every socio-economic level and all geographical boundaries. It's imperative to teach youths safety skills enabling them to take an active and necessary role in protecting themselves.

"But parental involvement also is needed for success. One key is building self-esteem in children. Kids with confidence are less likely to be victims. Nurturing kids' self-worth will instill in them an expectation to be treated with and to treat others with respect and dignity," Wooden emphasized.

The seminar is part of the diocese's ongoing efforts to fulfill mandates requiring anyone working with children in the diocese undergo specialized training and background checks to quash child sexual abuse; as well as empower youngsters.

In recent months, reports of child abductions by sexual predators have filled headlines. And the Catholic Church has not gone unscathed. Sexual misconduct by priests from Boston to Los Angeles, has shaken the church to its spiritual foundation.

In June 2003, Saginaw's diocese established a review board and policies detailing how diocesan employees should handle sexual abuse claims of a minor by a priest or deacon. The last Saginaw Diocese priest accused of wrongdoing was the Rev. John E. Hammer.

The Gratiot County priest told parishioners in April 2202, attending a closed Mass at St. Mary Catholic Church in Alma that he engaged in "inappropriate sexual behavior" that ended "over 16 years ago" when he was in Ohio.

The revelation came after a then-33-year-old Columbus, Ohio, man began pushing then-Bishop Kenneth E. Untener to remove Hammer from the priesthood. The victim was an altar boy between 1980 and 1983, when Hammer "sexually abused" him repeatedly at St. Louis Catholic Church in Louisville, Ohio, near Canton.

Hammer -- who left the ministry and state shortly thereafter -- served for three years as pastor at St. Mary, which also is home to a parochial elementary school, and at Mount St. Joseph Catholic Church in nearby St. Louis. He also served from 1990 to 1992 at St. Stephen Catholic Church in Saginaw .

The Saginaw Diocese said allegations against four priests, including Hammer, and one permanent deacon were made in recent years. Church leaders have declined to name the other men, who have since resigned or died.

While the Saginaw Diocese did not pay any money to resolve the cases, nor has it paid or loaned money to other dioceses to help pay costs for sexual abuse claims, sexual misconduct by Catholic priests nationwide has cost dioceses millions in lawsuits in recent years.

Saginaw turned to Wooden, who lives in Shelburne, Vt., to help train its staff to lessen the opportunities for child predators. Wooden, served on the U.S. Army Reserves Criminal Investigation Detachment in Trenton, N.J. He also previously worked as a certified fingerprint expert with the New Jersey State Police and served as a co-producer of ABC News' "20/20," special correspondent for NBC News and consultant to CBS.

"What we're doing is teaching boundaries and the law," he said. "Once children learn that they have a better chance of recognizing a pedophile's lure. For so long parents have taught their children 'don't talk to strangers.' People have been telling their kids that since 1927. 'Stranger danger' doesn't work. A child's concept of a stranger usually is a person who looks like a monster.

"Pedophiles don't look like monsters. In fact, many are fairly attractive, smart, charming people who don't draw attention to themselves. As a 3-year-old girl told her devastated mom, after failing a lure experiment, 'I went with him because he wasn't a stranger, he was a nice man looking for his dog.' It can happen to anyone just as easily," Wooden emphasized.

"That's why we have to teach our children the types of lures pedophiles use, define what abuse is, explain the bathing suit region and why no one, man or woman, relative, acquaintance or stranger should try to touch that area and that there are laws against touching there. It could mean the difference between life and death."


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