The steps taken in the last 30 years to prevent the devastating trauma of child sexual abuse are making a difference. From 1990 to 2010, substantiated cases of child sexual abuse throughout the United States dropped 62 percent, according to experts David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones using a variety of sources including national surveys, FBI and NDACAN (National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect) data. Similarly, since the late 1970s, abuse by Catholic clergy has plummeted from 4 percent to less than 1 percent.
Mandatory reporting laws, prosecution of offenders, increased public awareness, and child-safe education programs have certainly contributed to this trend. Mirroring these aggressive efforts has been the remarkable turnaround in the Catholic Church with it currently having one of the most extensive, comprehensive child protection programs in the country.
The temptation now is to think society has done its job. It has “gotten rid” of the offenders by sending them to prison. Likewise, the church is dismissing clergy-offenders from priesthood. But such thinking is short-sighted. The process of making both society and church safe for children is not over. Rather, dealing with this terrible scourge, affecting all corners of our society, is entering a new phase.
I recall being at the bishops’ meeting in Dallas 2002 when the clergy sexual abuse crisis was at its zenith. In this intense environment, American public sentiment sent a clear message to the bishops, “Get rid of them.” And they did. A few hundred were immediately dismissed and more followed. Child advocates then queried the bishops, “So now, you are supervising these men?” The response came, “Once they are dismissed from priesthood, they are beyond our reach.”
The American mantra to such problems tends to be, “Get rid of them” thus giving the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. But incarceration is only a limited and temporary solution. Civil authorities are able to prosecute some offenders, but lack of evidence and resources, plus criminal statute of limitations limit prosecution rates. Even so, most child abusers will eventually return to society. What then? Megan Laws have tried to keep them away from minors but children are everywhere.
The next phase of child protection is upon us: what to do long-term with laity and clergy alike who sexually molest children? In our “throw away” society, we cannot throw people away. Eventually, we have to face our problems.
Recently a known lay offender wanted to attend Catholic services. He could never work or volunteer in the Catholic Church, which now criminally screens all employees and volunteers and provides mandatory training in child protection. No known child molesters are allowed to serve. But can they sit in the pews and worship alongside our families? The temptation is to say, “You can worship, but not here.” But children are present in virtually all churches. Churches typically do not close their doors to anyone. All are welcome, saints and sinners alike.
This is part of a larger question and challenges our way of thinking. The despicable child molester cannot be shunted away from societal consciousness. The Christian message has something to say. No person, and similarly no society, can reach holiness without facing its darkest sinful self. When we face directly the evil of child sexual abuse among us, we make our society stronger and our children safer.
The majority of child molesters can live safely in our communities – only if they are supervised, not allowed relationships with minors, and aided in living good lives, including finding meaningful work and a church to worship. But, it should be added, there is a small percentage of offenders who are perpetually dangerous men with particularly predatory instincts, as recently demonstrated at Penn State. These need to be identified and kept under the closest surveillance, if not incarceration, for life.
The problem is how to begin this next phase of child protection. This is a challenge for all America– the Boy Scouts, Penn State, the Catholic Church, public schools, and all. The outline is becoming clearer but the details of this prescription are not so clear. And in these days of tightening budgets, its implementation will challenge societal priorities. Only a joint effort is likely to succeed.
How a people protects its vulnerable, the children, is a measure of its spirit. How it cares for the most despised in its midst is a measure of its soul. In the case of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse, when they are supervised and living a safe, well life, we are caring for our children and for our soul.
Monsignor Stephen J. Rossetti is a clinical associate professor, at the Catholic University of America