NEW YORK (CNS) – The U.S. Catholic Church's response to its child sexual abuse problem has raised the bar on sex abuse prevention for all U.S. organizations that serve children, said Monica Applewhite, an expert in abuse prevention strategies.
Writing in the Sept. 25 issue of America, a national Catholic magazine published by Jesuits, Applewhite said that when the U.S. bishops issued their "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" in June 2002 "the 'industry standards' for child protection changed."
"Formerly unwritten rules, like not allowing a sexual offender to work with children and defining specific boundaries for ministry relationships, were now clearly articulated -- not just for the Catholic Church, but for everyone," she wrote.
"Numerous churches, schools, camps and other child-serving organizations have implemented sexual abuse prevention programs since 2002, both in response to the publicity of the Catholic sexual abuse cases and in response to the solutions that were defined as a result," she said.
Applewhite is president of the religious services division of Praesidium, a Texas-based organization that provides abuse-prevention training programs for churches, schools and other organizations that serve children and youths.
In her America article, "Putting Abuse in Context," Applewhite said that in the 1950s the FBI launched an abuse prevention program that consisted of warning children not to talk to strangers or take candy from them – even though studies indicate that only 11 percent of child sexual abuse is by strangers.
In the '60s, she said, states started passing child-abuse reporting laws and forming protective services agencies to supervise problem families or in some cases to remove children from homes where they suffered abuse. An estimated 29 percent of child sexual abuse is by relatives.
"Protective services did not, however, manage cases of 'acquaintance abuse.' ... To date, no agency has been established to investigate and respond to acquaintance abuse," she said. According to Praesidium, 60 percent of child sexual abuse is at the hands of an acquaintance who is not a family member – a teacher, baby sitter, minister, neighbor, schoolmate or adult volunteer working with youths.
Applewhite said Big Brothers learned in 1974 that it "had become a magnet for adults who were seeking sexual contact with children," and it took stringent preventive steps to screen and supervise all its staff and volunteers and set up procedures to detect inappropriate behavior.
"Big Brothers went a step further by asking other major volunteer organizations that served children to join with them to create abuse-prevention programs," she said. "They were met with polite refusals and denial."
She said the bishops' response to the church's child abuse problem was "the first truly comprehensive plan for preventing acquaintance abuse within a large-scale child-serving organization."
She said the bishops' 2002 charter went beyond "suggested policies" to a written, mandated program "which included education for multiple audiences, policy development, internal feedback systems, quality control, ongoing research and public accountability for following through." That has changed the way child-serving organizations throughout the country approach the issues of abuse prevention and child protection, she said.
"Sometimes people wonder when all this will be over," Applewhite said. She said there is no end – as long as organizations are engaged in serving children and youth, "we have no choice but to address sexual abuse and its prevention."
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops