It’s a bit lonely – and unsettling – when it seems like you’re the only one pushing for a particular idea.
That’s how we in SNAP feel about a specific type of training that we’ve long advocated. We’re convinced it could really help prevent child sex crimes and cover ups in institutional settings.
Some institutional officials train their staff in how to RECOGNIZE possible signs of abuse. That’s great.
Some institutional officials train their staff in how to REPORT possible signs of abuse. That’s great too.
Other institutional officials train their members – especially kids – in how to RESIST abuse. And that’s great as well.
But as best we can tell, no institution – no school, church, summer camp, athletic league or day care center – trains staff and members in how to REACT when abuse reports surface.
So often, those staff and members make hurtful comments, in private or in public.
And as a result, often victims, witnesses and whistleblowers whose information could make criminal prosecution begin or succeed are so scared or depressed that they stay silent instead of speaking up. Rather than encouraging and welcoming messages being sent to those with knowledge or suspicions of child sex crimes, very chilling and depressing messages get sent instead.
We’re not talking here about how the institutional hierarchy should react, but how the institution’s rank-and-file members and supporters should act. Because while it’s important that the few at the top act properly, it’s just as important for the many at the bottom to act properly.
Almost every day, we see some popular or powerful adult accused of victimizing a child. And we see some colleague or neighbor of that alleged predator defending him or her. Often, the defense of the accused involves an attack on the accuser.
That has an incredibly chilling effect on those who could make a real difference in the case.
Sometimes, the colleagues or neighbors are more benign. Over last weekend, for example, politicians of all stripes (most notably Illinois Senator Mark Kirk) told of their “shock” that ex-House Speaker Dennis Hastert might have molested a child or two during his teaching and coaching career. “Our hearts go out to Hastert’s family” was a common refrain. But few, if any, voiced any concern for Hastert’s alleged victims.
More often, however, some adults’ comments in abuse cases are downright hateful and hurtful.
–In Joliet Illinois, Fr. Richard Ross told a newspaper “I don’t have much sympathy for people who somehow couldn’t stop whatever happened. I’ll take all of these people who were abused and I’ll abuse them myself with a baseball bat. You can quote me on that.”
(Ross was upset because his brother, Fr. Anthony J. Ross, had been suspended from his Santa Rosa California parish because of abuse reports. Ironically, Fr. Richard Ross now pastors St. Bernard’s Catholic church in Joliet, about 30 minutes away from Denny Hastert’s hometown.)
Sometimes, an accused offender’s supporters go far beyond hurtful words. They hold fundraisers and rallies and set up blogs and legal defense funds for alleged child molesters.
–In the Springfield Illinois diocese, parishioners of a permanently suspended, credibly accused child molesting priest are buying him a house. They’ve put up yellow ribbons around town showing their love of Fr. Robert “Bud” DeGrand. The local bishop, Thomas Paprocki, is paying for the alleged predator’s lawyers. (This is the same Paprocki who made national headlines for claiming that clergy sex abuse lawsuits are “the work of Satan.”)
(In such an oppressive, unwelcoming climate, is it a surprise to anyone that no other victim of Fr. DeGrand has stepped forward?)
But misguided backers don’t just rally around predators. They sometimes rally around “enablers” too, even proven ones.
–In Kansas City Missouri, even after Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of withholding evidence of child sex crimes from police, some of his flock publicly defended him. And even after he finally resigned, top Catholic officials in Rome and Washington DC gave him permission to lead two ordination ceremonies.
–And even though Penn State coach Joe Paterno said he wished he’d done more about Jerry Sandusky’s crimes, football fans plan to erect a new statue in Paterno’s honor and a politician proposes naming a bridge after him.
So let’s play this out, in Technicolor detail. Imagine you’re a 13-year-old boy who’s being molested by his coach or a 12 year old girl who’s being molested by her uncle. In each case, the predator tells the child “If you speak up, no one will listen or believe you. I’m a popular person around here. Everyone will think you’re lying or crazy.”
Then, that boy or girl sees news accounts or overhears watercooler conversations about an unrelated abuse case involving a cleric or teacher. That child sees, with dismay, that other trusted adults (maybe even their own parents) are vigorously backing the accused predator.
Imagine how that boy or girl will feel. It’s very unlikely that this boy or girl will be brave enough to call the police or tell their parents about their own suffering.
So what to do if you think your co-worker or cousin or cleric or coach may have been falsely accused? Support him or her privately, not publicly. Send the accused cookies or cards. Visit or pray for him or her. But don’t tell a TV reporter “This is a shake-down by a greedy liar!” Don’t stand up at the school board meeting and declare “I hope Coach Smith sues this kid and his parents for slander!”
Fundamentally, it’s very simple: we can make it harder or easier for child sex abuse victims to report abusers. All it takes is a little bit of sensitivity and self-restraint.
And institutions where abuse happens can remind us of this, train us to do this, insist we do this and even punish us when we don’t.
—Barbara Dorris of St. Louis is the Outreach Director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. She can be reached at bdorris@SNAPnetwork.org or 314 503 0003.