Embarrassing admission #65 (at least) on this blog: I get most of my news from Facebook.
It’s lame, but there you are. Facebook has become the national – make that international – water cooler. Every morning when I log in (and yes, it is darn near every morning), I find out all the remarkable happenings of the past twenty-four hours, from celebrity deaths to international mergers. (In the case of the latter, I also get a lengthy explanation from several progressive groups about what this means to me.) This morning, I discovered that Pope Benedict XVI had announced his retirement.
Right now, I hear several of you saying, “Can the Pope retire? Don’t they usually die in that hat?” You make an excellent point. Yes, popes can retire, as evidenced by this article from CatholicEducation.org. (Evidently back in the day, some folks thought that Pope John Paul II should have.) They just usually don’t. The last one to avail himself of that privilege was Pope Gregory XII, back in 1415. In competition with two wannabe popes – I am not making this up – Gregory decided to step down in order to bring the church back together. He had been nominated by Rome, while the French king and the Council of Pisa created their own religious leaders. (The CNN article on Gregory calls them “antipopes.”) Gregory and the French substitute resigned. The Council of Pisa’s nominee was deposed. Pope Martin V took over after that, and for a while at least, peace reigned in the ecclesiastical court.
Given that the last guy to voluntarily leave the job made that decision six centuries ago, Benedict’s decision to follow suit came as a shock to his flock. (And a surprise to his guys, and a revelation to his nation. I could go on, but for everyone’s sanity, I won’t.) The question then followed, what kind of legacy would he leave behind? He probably did a lot of good work, but what people remember is the Vatican’s refusal to take responsibility for child molestation by priests.
As Cardinal, Benedict ran the department of the Catholic Church charged with investigating the claims of abuse. He did enact many reforms to the system, both as a Cardinal and as Pope, and he apologized to the victims. But glaring exception exist in his record. He declined to defrock a priest accused of molesting 200 boys, at a school for the deaf. While he was archbishop of Munich, a priest known to be a child abuser managed a quiet reassignment to a different parish, where he still had contact with young people. Benedict chose not to fire a priest who admitted to abusing two children, saying that to defrock the priest could be “detrimental” to “the community of Christ’s faithful.” (Dude, you want to know what could be more detrimental to Christ’s community? Leaving an admitted child molester in a position of responsibility.)
The statistics on abuse strain belief in our status as a civilized nation. On average, almost six million children every year are brought before Child Services as victims of abuse. Those stats are just for the U.S., by the way. I recently heard someone on the radio – for the life of me, I wish I could remember who – suggest that crimes can’t occur in these numbers by accident. In order for this to happen, there has to be some kind of “willful neglect” going on. That phrase struck me hard enough to leave a bruise. ”Willful neglect.” Someone said, right on the radio for everyone to hear, that we are allowing abuse to go on.
The whole mess made me think of Jennifer, a fellow student at my junior high. Odd, because I hadn’t thought of Jennifer in years. I didn’t think much about Jennifer when I was at school with her, which was part of the problem. You see, this girl had a broken something through at least 25% of our time at that school. Arm, leg, whatever. The location of the plaster changed, but she never seemed to go an entire year without it. It got to the point where I was more surprised to see Jennifer without a cast than with one.
I wasn’t good friends with Jennifer. We didn’t even say hi in the hallways that I recall. No malice, just one of the many if-necessary-I-could-pick-her-out-of-a-line-up coexistences that flourish in a school of several hundred students. You can’t be friends with everyone, even if young adolescents were inclined to try, which we weren’t. But I remember her because of the broken limbs. Skiing accident, I heard once. Another time, a bone that they thought had healed, but hadn’t healed right.
Maybe Jennifer was extremely accident prone, or maybe she had some form of brittle bone disease. I don’t remember rumors of anything horrible. As an adult, though, I can’t help but wonder what was really going on. Did anyone ask? Did the school get her into counseling? Was this girl really as unlucky as she seemed, or did something uglier cause all those injuries?
Another time, at sleep-away night in Campfire Girl camp, I stayed up late giggling with a bunch of the girls. I think it was my last year there, so I was probably twelve. One of the girls, a few years older than I am, told us that her father had sexually abused her. I had just met her that night, and somehow I figured I must have misunderstood. She couldn’t possibly have said what I thought she said. We didn’t talk much more that night, and in the morning she acted like everything was fine. She belonged to a different troop at another school, and I never saw her again. I was not the after-school special friend who would help her to a better life.
I grew up in a good neighborhood, participating in wholesome activities. These are just the two stories I remember, and there is always (please, God) the chance that everything was fine with these two girls. Maybe Jennifer hit a run of bad luck those years, and I really did misunderstand Campfire Girl X. But even if those two didn’t suffer any abuse, others did. I’ve met survivors as an adult. People my age, who grew up in neighborhoods just like mine, all over the country. How did it happen?
Are we naive in thinking that the Vatican is the only one to sweep these things under the rug?
Not long ago, the headlines were full of the trial of Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky. We got to hear the accusations, the trial and eventually the conviction of the former assistant coach for child molestation. Turns out a bunch of his co-workers knew that the abuse had occurred, and didn’t tell anyone. One article I read gave a lengthy explanation of how these things happen because we humans don’t want to believe these things happen to people we know, so we learn to ignore or misinterpret the things that they do.
Kind of terrifying, if you think about it.
If you read my last article, you know I don’t like butting into other people’s affairs. But this is different. We’re not talking about someone’s own choice that they make as a grown-up. We’re talking about children, being violated, being physically emotionally injured by the very people we’ve taught them to trust – religious leaders, teachers, and most frequently of all, their own parents.
The subject of how to spot and deal with child abuse could take up every column I will ever write for the rest of my life, and several libraries besides. But we have to start somewhere. Here’s a basic catalog that I borrowed from the National Children’s Advocacy Center:
- Unexplained bruises (in various stages of healing)
- Unexplained burns, especially cigarette burns or immersion burns
- Unexplained fractures, lacerations or abrasions
- Swollen areas
- Evidence of delayed or inappropriate treatment for injuries
- Self destructive
- Withdrawn and/or aggressive – behavioral extremes
- Arrives at school early or stays late as if afraid to be at home
- Chronic runaway (adolescents)
- Complains of soreness or moves uncomfortably
- Wears clothing inappropriate to weather, to cover body
- Bizarre explanation of injuries
- Wary of adult contact
- Unattended medical needs
- Consistent lack of supervision
- Consistent hunger, inappropriate dress (particularly lack of warm clothing in cold weather), poor hygiene
- Lice, distended stomach, emaciated
- Inadequate nutrition
- Regularly displays fatigue or listlessness, falls asleep in class
- Steals food, begs from classmates
- Reports that no caretaker is at home
- Frequently absent or tardy
- Self destructive
- School dropout (adolescents)
- Extreme loneliness and need for affection
Sexual abuse may be:
non-touching:obscene language, pornography, exposure -
or touching: fondling, molesting, oral sex, intercourse
- Torn, stained or bloody underclothing
- Pain, swelling or itching in genital area
- Difficulty walking or sitting
- Bruises or bleeding in genital area
- Excessive seductiveness
- Role reversal, overly concerned for siblings
- Massive weight change
- Suicide attempts (especially adolescents)
- Inappropriate sex play or premature understanding of sex
- Threatened by physical contact, closeness
Emotional abuse may be name-calling, insults, put-downs, etc.,
or it may be terrorization, isolation, humiliation, rejection, corruption, ignoring
- Speech disorders
- Delayed physical development
- Substance abuse
- Ulcers, asthma, severe allergies
- Habit disorder (sucking, rocking, biting)
- Antisocial, destructive
- Neurotic traits (sleep disorders, inhibition of play)
- Passive and aggressive – behavioral extremes
- Delinquent behavior (especially adolescents)
- Developmentally delayed
Adapted from the Educator’s Resource Manual on Child Abuse, 3rd Edition.
So, now that you know what to look for, what do you do if you suspect trouble? This list comes from Childhelp, a national association created to help victims of child abuse.
- Ask leading questions (a question that suggests the answer or contains the information the questioner is looking for – That man touched you, didn’t he?)
- Make promises
- Notify the parents or the caretaker
- Provide a safe environment (be comforting, welcoming, and a good listener).
- Tell the child it was not his/her fault
- Listen carefully
- Document the child’s exact quotes
- Be supportive, not judgmental
- Know your limits
- Tell the truth and make no promises
- Ask ONLY four questions
* What happened?
* Who did this to you?
* Where were you when this happened?
* When did this happen?
- Asking any additional questions may contaminate a case!
Call your local law enforcement agency
Call your local Child Protective Services Agency
Call the 24-Hour Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-4-A-CHILD, and they will connect you to the appropriate agency.
The Childhelp hotline number sounds like something worth having taped to the fridge. They are staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with professional counselors, and will provide assistance whether you’ve actually had a child confess to you that he or she is being abused, or you have seen signs and don’t know whether you should report something or not.
Per Childstats.gov, there are approximately 75 million children in this country. Six million abused children means one child out of every twelve is a victim. That means in your child’s class of 30 students, at least 2 – possibly 3 – are in trouble.
I know a whole lot of people, in and out of the Catholic Church, won’t miss this Pope. His actions will probably haunt the world’s perception of church for years. But let’s not pacify ourselves with the fantasy that his lack of action was unique. If it happened in the Catholic Church and at Penn State, you can be damned sure it’s happening other places, too.
Let’s take a look at our own neighborhoods, and see what we’re allowing to take place right now.
Kimberly prays for a world where every child in the world grows up happy, safe and loved.