By Joan Vienna
Safeguard the Children Coordinator, Archdiocese of Los Angeles
In June 2002, the child sexual abuse scandal rocked the Catholic Church to the core in the United States. As we dealt with the enormity of what had happened, the U.S. Bishops met to discuss the prevention of this problem in the future. Bishop Gregory Wilton, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, opened the meeting with these words.
“Our God-given duty as shepherds of the Lord's people holds us responsible and accountable to God and to the Church for the spiritual and moral health of all of God's children, especially those who are weak and most vulnerable. It is we who need to confess, and so we do.”
I believe that those words were inspired by the Holy Spirit, because for the first time in history—an organization—specifically the Catholic Church, decided to address the worldwide problem of child sexual abuse and assume the responsibility of protecting our children and young people from this horrific crime against the innocent.
What evolved from the Bishop’s meeting was the USCCB Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. This document has guided us for the past 10 years. We have learned to become the “ears, eyes, and voice” of children and young people everywhere. The Charter calls us to address this problem proactively instead of reactively. Those who first responded to this “call,” discovered that there were very few programs and even fewer resources designed to recognize and prevent child sexual abuse. We were not sure how to approach this problem, but we knew that if we trusted God’s call for us to act, his vision would become clear.
We determined that education and communication are the keys to prevention. Today, it seems unbelievable that no one talked about child sexual abuse despite its constant presence. Drawing on my personal experience growing up, there were two predators living in my neighborhood. I think that people had a gut feeling that something was wrong, but they didn’t know how to respond to it. When incidents did happen in the neighborhood, no one reported them. Families just protected their own children. That is the way it was, and still is, in many places around the world.
When I became the coordinator of Safeguard the Children for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, I wanted to break this silence. I chose the vision of calling people to become the “ears, eyes, and voice” of our children and young people because it wasn’t done in my neighborhood. I recognized that we have an obligation to protect all of God’s children—not just our own.
As we reach the 10th anniversary of the Charter, it is important to recognize all who have worked tirelessly during this decade to stop this horrific crime against the innocent. The VIRTUS® Protecting God’s Children program and the Teaching Touching Safety programs have played an integral role in teaching adults and children how to recognize behaviors and situations that might lead to child sexual abuse. We have learned how to be “proactive” in eliminating opportunities for such abuse to occur.
As child sexual abuse scandals now begin to surface in schools, sports programs, and other organizations, it is important to realize that if, in 2002, we had not answered the call from God to be the “ears, eyes, and voice” of children and young people everywhere, this problem in the Church would have continued unacknowledged. We must continue to work together in the years ahead to expand and strengthen our efforts to stop child sexual abuse in our efforts to stop child sexual abuse in our churches, communities, and the world.