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Protecting God’s Children

First role of the Church is to ‘help the victim’

By DAVID MYERS
Southwest Kansas Register

Victims come first.

This admonition by Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta represents a change in thinking since the late 1990s.
It’s been more than two decades since Teresa Green (an alias) of Texas was sexually abused by a priest. Yet, even after fighting through the long journey to re-embrace the Church, there are still triggers that send her into a downward spiral. Sadly, these triggers can include some of the most sacred objects we see in our churches
Such is the depth of her pain -- as well as that of many other victims of clergy sexual abuse. On Sept. 26, members of the chancery staff and others in the diocese took part in a day-long session designed, in part, to review what the U.S. Catholic Church has done, and is doing, to protect children from clergy abuse. Although reports of clergy abuse of minors have decreased dramatically in recent years, the program offered a sad reminder of just how devastating the damage is to the victims. The session, which was offered through the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, included several live talks presented via the internet that were viewed simultaneously by dioceses throughout the country.  
Victims come first.
According to Archbishop Gregory, the Church has had a fundamental shift in its way of contending with priestly abuse of minors. “It has shifted from focusing on the perpetrator, to knowing the victim is the first person who needs the Church’s attention,” he said.
While the focus once centered on the immediate future of the priest (leaving the victim to primarily seek outside sources for help), today the Church sees its first role as that of helping the victim.
As for the alleged perpetrators, the archbishop said that while the bishop will continue to be a shepherd to the accused priest, he acknowledged that “We don’t make good policemen. We need civil authorities to treat this as a crime.”
For Teresa Green, the change in thinking came late. When she was assaulted by a priest as a young girl, there were members of her diocese who refused to believe such a thing could have happened. For Teresa, not being believed was like being assaulted a second time.
The diocese provided therapy for Teresa, yet the primary focus from the diocese was whether or not she would sue, and for how much.
Despite her devastation with the Church, Teresa continued to embrace the Virgin Mary and often turned to the Rosary. She eventually found help through a victim’s assistance organization, where she met other survivors of clergy abuse. Although she still suffers setbacks, Teresa has remained a devout Catholic. Sadly, this can’t be said for the vast majority of victims.
Victims come first.
For speaker Msgr. Steven Rossetti, those first moments he spends counseling a victim of clergy abuse can be the most important. He told those gathered that “When a victim calls for the first time, it’s important to remember how important this is to them. Your first response is critical. It’s the first step in their journey back to trusting. We need to be people they can trust. One little violation of this – for example, if you say you will meet with them one day and then you don’t show up – will be huge.”
Allow them to be angry – at God, at the Church; don’t urge them to forgive the perpetrator. For the victim, this is “like telling them it’s okay. It gives the victim the idea that it’s them with the problem.
“Don’t overreact,” he added, “don’t press for details,” and perhaps most importantly, “apologize. Apologize for the actions of the church.”  
Victims come first.
For more than a decade, dioceses across the country regularly have been audited to make sure they are adhering to a national Charter designed to ensure the safety of children.  Through the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the Diocese of Dodge City staff and volunteers are required to undergo a criminal background check and must take part in a three-hour Protecting God’s Children awareness session.  The Charter requires that dioceses have a review board.  The review board of the Diocese of Dodge City includes David Snapp, Mike Martinez, Debbie Schartz-Robinson, Hattie Stein, Charlie Befort, Jim Karlan and Father John Strasser.  Consultants to the review board include Tamara Davis, Sister Janice Grochowsky and Father Bob Schremmer.
The role of the review board is to consult with the bishop should an allegation arise. The board must make sure that the diocese is complying with the Charter to ensure the proper care is taken for the physical and emotional well-being of the alleged victim.
The board does not replace civil authorities. Ideally, the Catholic Church and civil investigators will work in tandem to ensure the truth is revealed to the civil authorities, to the Catholic Church, and to the public at large.
Victims come first.
The good news is that headlines citing child sexual abuse by members of the clergy have become fewer. The bad news is that the suffering caused by the perpetrators runs far deeper than most people could begin to imagine. And it doesn’t matter if it happened five years ago or 50 years ago. For children, it’s a pain that goes beyond the bounds of reason. They may spend a lifetime trying to put the pieces together -- seeking therapy, sometimes turning to substance abuse.
If there is a silver lining, it is the formation of highly educated and highly prepared help groups designed to render aid to the victim.
“I believe that the public attention we received in the United States, as painful as it was, was [valuable],” Archbishop Gregory said. “No bishop I’ve ever known has enjoyed public notoriety. Because of this attention, this issue has been brought to the forefront, and the U.S. Church has taken steps to make it a leader in this area. The ability of the Church to respond in a forthright way has encouraged others to come forward for the help they need.
“This is an issue we will have to face together for the rest of our lives.”

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