As the news, discussion and church pulpit’s become places to hear about the latest round of Catholic Church Sexual Abuse Scandal stories thanks in part to the release of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Grand Jury Report, we have to wonder what news should be shared with young children. As I sit and listen at family gatherings and meals, I see inquisitive eight year old eyes wanting to know what everyone is talking about. It is a difficult subject to approach with children. On the one hand we want them to know it is safe to talk to anyone in the family about inappropriate behavior but also we don’t want them thinking everyone in church, particular the presbyterate are untrustworthy.
As a past youth ministry leader and with some conversation with people who have been abused as well as other parents I want to share the following thoughts:
1. It is important to tell the complete truth
Children asking questions about this current conversation won’t be satisfied until they know what is going on. They will use their friends, their electronic device or even lurking around the adults to find out what is being discussed. Sexual Abuse predators depend on secrets, silence and shame to attack children. A child has to know they will be received well when talking to parents about any aspect of sexuality and especially abuse. If we make it a subject that is taboo, “to be discussed when they are older,” we are creating an environment of secrecy and perpetuating risk. It could be harmful if this is a topic we close off from a child.
We might think our children are too young to hear about the topic of sex but Lena Aburdene Derhally a licensed certified psychotherapist from Washington, DC in her article; How to Talk to Kids about Sexual Abuse recommends talking about sexual reproduction as early as five years old. You l know your child best but don’t let your comfortableness of speaking on the subject keep you from giving your kids information they will need to stay safe.Sexual Abuse predators depend on secrets, silence and shame to attack children. A child has to know they will be received well when talking to parents about any aspect of sexuality and especially abuse. Click To Tweet
2. Don’t make them afraid
Chances are children will come across a priest or pastor alone if they attend church with any regularity. We don’t want them to think every priest is an offender and create a false fear (as well as destroy the reputation of all clerics in their eyes.) The discussion should include the story of the church scandal, especially if your church is the Catholic Church. They can know some priest are bad people but not all are bad or too be feared. The discussion should include those outside the church as potential predators as well and that no matter what happens make them feel confident to tell mom or dad anything. Parents must be the first connection when a child feels violated or shamed for any reason. You might have a minister you know better than others, or friends at the church you could tell your children about, someone they could reach out to if you are not present. It is important to have an open and transparent relationship with your children so they know they can bring anything and everything to you, especially things they know are unusal.
A child knows has an instinctual idea when someone says, “don’t tell anyone,” it is a bad thing. I wanted something to be a surprise to our group when I was talking to a young person at church as their youth minister and I asked her not to tell anyone. She said to me, even my mom and dad. I was quick to say no it is always good to tell mom and dad and added never keep anything secret from your mom or dad, no matter who asks. (I was glad she asked.)It is important to have an open and transparent relationship with your children so they know they can bring anything and everything to you, especially things they know are unusal. Click To Tweet
3. Expect there will be times when they will be alone with someone unfamiliar
Today it seems that we don’t let our children out of our sight and in fact if we see any child alone we get immediately suspicious. But there will be times when your child will be with someone you don’t know very well. There are cases of five year old kids being sexually abused by a thirteen year old. Thinking children will always be “virtually” tethered to a trusted family member can give a false security.
I once had an incident with a very fast, very young grandson. I was trying to keep up with him running through Costco. He surprised me and turned a corner I didn’t expect. By the time I turned the same corner several elderly adults had him sitting on pallet cart and were asking him questions about the location of his parents. Even as I approached they didn’t trust that I was responsible because I looked like and old man, not his father. Expect your children will be around people not truly close; even at church.
4. Be the one to answer their questions
I touched on this above but it is best to declare it specifically. If we treat a subject as taboo there is a good chance kids will wait until they are with a friend to ask questions. We tend to think sexual issues and questions are not for regular conversation. But a child who becomes a victim will have their life destroyed. Sexual discussion must happen with someone that loves them so much they will do anything to protect them. Don’t let the conversation happen away from you, bring it home.
As a grandparent I learned right away that grandchildren will come asking innocent questions that you find out their parents did not want them to discuss.It is important for parents to be ready to discuss this current sexual abuse news that is so much in the conversation around their children's orbit. Click To Tweet
5. Be educated as much as possible on abuse
All churches today have procedures and guidelines in effect for handling suspected abuse. They also provide education and many post fact sheets and hotline numbers. Don’t shy away from learning about the signs and topics of sexual abuse. We want to think it is a problem that won’t happen in our family but the best way to ensure that is observe, question and confirm.
As a youth leader in a church it was always my responsibility to be sure the students and parents were educated on the signs of abuse. Education about sexual abuse should have parents and their children attending together. This way the parent knows what is being taught. Don’t be intimidated or put off about this education, the more you know as a parent the more you are able to keep your child and possibly their friends safe.Don’t shy away from learning about the signs and topics of sexual abuse. Click To Tweet
It is up to adults to protect children and it begins with open transparent dialogue. Don’t keep information about the Catholic Church Sexual Abuse scandal away from them if they are curious and asking questions. Always model a relationship that fosters trust and honesty with your children. If you trust them they will know they can tell you anything, a necessary recipe to uncover secrets that may harm them.It is up to adults to protect children and it begins with open transparent dialogue. Don’t keep information about the Catholic Church Sexual Abuse scandal away from them if they are curious and asking questions Click To Tweet
Helpful Links: including the Catholic Church’s guidelines for how to address suspected abuse.
Catholic Church Child and Youth Protection Resource Booklet – Sept 2010: document here.
After the Grand Jury Report’s Release: How to talk to kids about sexual abuse; York Daily Record: Article here.