Wolves in Shepherd's Clothing

When I first wrote this column, a couple of months ago, it was about the Archdiocese of Boston. Now it's about the Archdioces of St. Louis, and Los Angeles, the Diocese of Bangor, Charleston, Tuscon, Palm Beach and whoever knows what other dioceses and religious orders. Just when you think, "This must be it, it can't get worse," of course, it does. This piece isn't about the scandals and sins themselves. It's what parents and responsible adults have to do to protect children.

Over the past twenty years, the Archdiocese of Boston has settled scores of cases involving accusations of sexual abuse by priests. The scandals of this situation are many, involving not only the crimes themselves, but the action (or inaction) of the church bureaucracy in response.

How should a parent respond?

We have to wonder, who can be trusted with our children? If you canít trust a priest, who can you trust?

Well, letís make one thing clear Ė you can trust a priest. It would be terribly unjust for parents to respond to this latest set of horrific revelations by stigmatizing all priests as potential abusers.

But. While parents shouldnít be putting a greater burden of suspicion on priests, neither should they exempt priests from the normal cautionary consideration they give to all who come into contact with their children.

For this isnít just about priests. Itís about youth workers, camp counselors, teachers, scout leaders and internet contacts as well. The cold fact is that child predators place themselves into positions which bring them into contact with children and young people. Itís so logical that it makes you wince, and parents just have to accept this tragic Catch-22: You have to be willing to always harbor just a little bit of distrust, no matter how distasteful and ungrateful it seems, of those with whom youíre trusting your child.

When you read the accounts of adults who sexually abuse and exploit children and teens, some common factors often emerge. Many of the abusers are popular in their communities. All of the abusers and predators crossed the normal boundaries of social contact between child and adult. Many of the families whose children were involved were in some sort of crisis situation. Letís look at these more closely.

First, the popularity issue. Sure, some abusers are your stereotypical creepy loners, but a surprising number are well-regarded in their communities. In California, there is currently a case of a public high school teacher accused of seducing a number his male students. As if on cue, the community has risen indignantly to his defense, claiming that this wonderful guy could ďnever do this kind of thing,Ē even though one of his victims went to the police, got wired, and enabled the authorities to tape the teacher talking about his exploits.

Please remember that an adept child predator is going to cover for himself. He is going to purposefully nurture the image of someone whoíd ďnever do that kind of thing.Ē That doesnít mean one should be automatically suspicious of the popular youth minister, teacher or priest, but it does mean that if that same adult violates my next rule, one shouldnít view his positive image as a reason not to put up caution flags.

That most important rule parents should follow, unfailingly, is that of boundaries. The vast majority of abuse cases Iíve read about involve, at some level, predatory adults crossing one of two boundaries, or even both: assuming some kind of pseudo-parental or sibling role of intense emotional support , or socializing with their child or teen victims: taking them out for ice cream or even dinner. Taking them to the movies. Taking them on camping trips. Having them over to their private homes for social gatherings or for homework help.

No. If youíre hearing that an adult in your childís life wants to ďbefriendĒ your child in some way, put up your red flag and keep it there. Iím sorry, but normal adults to not seek to socialize with kids or teens. Hereís a good guideline to follow. If an adult wants to do something social with your child, ask yourself Ė would I even think of doing this with a kid (or even a group of kids) to whom Iím not related by blood? If you answer no to yourself, answer no to your child as well, and donít let yourself be taken in by the notion that ďWell, he works with kids. Itís his gift.Ē More often than not, being socially intense with kids is not a gift for an adult. Itís an indication of arrested development, and a problem.

The other boundaries that predators cross involves pseudo-parenting. Child and youth predators commonly seek out children in some kind of crisis who are vulnerable to appeals to emotion and whose parents are too distracted to notice whatís going on, or are even grateful for the time being given by the seemingly honestly-intentioned adult.

I was a DRE in a parish in which a college-age male volunteer with the youth group was revealed to have seduced a young high school kid in the group. My experience was instructive. When the parents found out, they immediately did the right thing: got a lawyer, and told the pastor and the diocese. The pastor's reaction was predictable: We've got to make sure that the parents don't blame us for this. Of course, it was "our" fault - the only one who could possibly be directly implicated (beside the guy himself) was the youth minister who recruited him and oversaw the camping trip and the cruise at which the contacts occurred, but the parish and the diocese were responsible. That's how this works.

I was eventually deposed in the case, after I'd moved. As I recall, the questions were about my knowledge of the youth minister's knowledge of the situation, questions which were easy to answer - I didn't know anything. She was in charge of her own program. But the situation gave me a lot to think about.

First, I saw firsthand the official Church's usual reaction to these situations: Close ranks and protect the institution. Never mind about the victim.

Secondly, I saw how a need for personnel can blind us to potential problems. The youth minister was, as most youth ministers are, desperate for volunteers, especially male volunteers. If a guy "seemed normal" he was in. Especially when the guy's mother was a parish youth minister in another state. Of course, it came out later that the guy had been implicated a couple of years before in an incident with a boy at a tennis camp at which he was working. But no one bothered to check. No one thought they had to. No one really wanted to. They just needed someone to take those tenth graders on Sunday night. (See a pattern? Replace all of those needs with "priesthood" and "seminary" and you get the idea.)

Third, most of the situations in which these particular incidents occurred were during chaotic youth group trips that were perhaps not as heavily chaperoned as they should have been. As I said, boundaries have collapsed and its become impossible to keep track of who's where with whom, and everything is fluid when the kids are calling the adults by their first names, and everyone's so happy to have adults who "enjoy" being with kids around. Yeah.

Finally, the parents. These parents were struggling with their son before this happened, but not terribly. The kids was having some trouble in school, and the youth group volunteer stepped in and offered to help - to tutor the boy. In his apartment. The boy could even spend the night if he wanted. The parents said yes. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

It might seem as if Iím saying no to all interaction between children and adults who arenít in their families, since the slippage of boundaries between children and adults over the past thirty years hasn't helped us detect and prevent children from being victimized. Iím not.

Iím just saying use your common sense and not allow yourself to be blinded by authority, popularity, your own familyís needs to the child predators who are experts at manipulation and purposefully play with parentís expectations and childrenís needs to hide their wolvish selves under the guise of harmless shepherds.

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