For myself and many other parents, there is not just an outrage over the Church’s past history of sexual abuse cover ups, but a fear of the future. We are afraid for our children. Here are four ideas that can be implemented by all parents right now to protect our own kids from sexual abuse.
by Heidi Indahl
I am a parent and I know that most Peanut Butter & Grace readers are also parents. I don’t have to tell any of you that the recent news out of the Pennsylvania grand jury is a below-the-belt hit to faithful Catholics around the United States and beyond. Gut wrenching, faith challenging: There aren’t enough strong descriptors to provide an adequate accounting for what myself and many other parents are feeling
Of course there is a strong call for justice for both the victims and the abusers. As a virtue-value driven Catholic, I think this is a fair cry and an important one. I also have heard a strong encouragement for prayer, fasting and penance on behalf of the church. Again, this is right and good.
For myself and many other parents; however, there is not just an outrage over the past but a fear of the future. Even as faithful Catholics themselves, they are afraid (and justifiably so) for their children. What a tragedy!
Concret Steps for Parents to Protect Children
Grooming is real, and sometimes as parents we support and encourage things out of right intentions that could put our kids at future risk. Here are four ideas that can be implemented by all parents right now to protect not just our own kids, but all kids and vulnerable adults from sexual abuse.
- Hold ourselves to the strictest standard of safe environment training available and don’t excuse ourselves or our spouses or our best friends just because “they would never.” I’ve been a member of four parishes in two states, and none of them have enforced this as strictly as I understand it to be intended. I myself have been informed of classes and the importance of taking one, but have never been able to attend. This is not because of anything other than simple conflicts, and I’ve done my best to inform myself of the information in the meantime. But there has been no verification of my attendance prior to volunteering for various events. With the exception of the big things (religious instruction courses, VBS, chaperone duties), no one is checking. It is a huge burden on parish staff so let’s help them out by making sure that we and everyone else we know has attended classes.
- Be the eyes and ears of “see something say something.” This is a concept with which we are all familiar. The federal government uses it at the airport to monitor suspicious activity, and schools are beginning to use anonymous texting systems to allow students to report incidences of bullying. If a group is not following procedures, then we as parents need to speak up because something that is safe now might not be in the future. For example, a special altar server guild not following adult/child ratios and guidelines makes a kid vulnerable later on no matter how trustworthy the existing leader is or isn’t. Being willing to pull your kids from activities that are unwilling to follow the guidelines may not make you popular now, but it might protect your children in the future.
- Teach our kids bodily autonomy and respect it. Bodily autonomy is the concept that a child’s body belongs to them, not the adults around them. It means teaching kids that they don’t have to physically comply with any request in the name of politeness. To support this concept, start teaching Theology of the Body early and emphasize virtue so that kids can see and recognize situations where virtue is missing.
- Finally, we need to ask, listen and believe our kids when they feel a situation is uncomfortable. This goes for everything from locker room bullying to sexual abuse to school violence. It goes for kids standing up for themselves and for other kids who don’t have the support of family watching out for them. As a child I was the victim of unwanted sexual advances from an older boy on my swim team and when I reported it to a trusted adult, no one believed me. I was told that it was someone else’s responsibility to deal with, that so and so wouldn’t let that happen, and that we shouldn’t tell anyone else because we wouldn’t want to bother them. Many of the victims in our current crisis are in the same position I was because the adults in their life weren’t asking, listening with an open heart and trusting their children. We all know that the tragedy this time is a both/and. It is a tragedy of childhood sexual assault and it is a tragedy of secrets and cover up. (Check out this heart-wrenching plea from Catholic author and parent, Elizabeth Foss, for further reading on what she wishes she had done differently as a parent.)
“We absolutely can not take consent too seriously in our current culture! We need to not tell kids, but show them, that their no is powerful and should be respected so that they quickly realize unsafe situations. Situations where their body may be at risk from another person be that from physical or sexual assault- this matters!”“Please Don’t: Speaking Compassionately and Respectfully to Children with Medical Special Needs”
The Church Must Be Better, We Must Be Better
Our priests can do better. Our bishops can do better. I pray our pope makes some moves to atone for this mess soon. But we can also do better by helping our kids — and by extension all kids — do better. As a parent, the soundtrack of my life sometimes sound more Cat Chat than anything else. I want to close by sharing this video of their song “Rise Up.” It was (presumably) written about social justice and standing up for the little guy, but I think it applies to all of us here. We may feel powerless, but we are not powerless.