By Deirdre C. Mays
COLUMBIA — The topic of child sexual abuse is so fraught with emotion that it is difficult to address from any perspective.
The Diocese of Charleston took a stab at providing its employees and volunteers with more information on the sensitive subject at its first inservice training on the issue of the sexual abuse and misconduct with minors by employees and the policy that covers such infractions June 20 at St. John Neumann School.
The training sessions are for every new employee and volunteer who works at a parish school or diocesan office. The schedule included a presentation by Father Ray Chase, a priest from the Archdiocese of Baltimore who travels the country with “J’s Exhibit,” a series of poignant art pieces created by a victim of child sexual abuse. Father Chase, Director of Spiritual Development at St. Vincent’s Center Children’s Continuum of Catholic Charities, discussed how the abuse of two children by a camp counselor effectively destroyed a family.
Father Chase’s area of expertise is the effect of abuse and neglect on the developing spirituality of children. He developed programs designed to address the spiritual damage they experience. In “J’s Exhibit” he shows the artwork of Justin Wilke, whom he met when the young man volunteered at a program run by Father Chase. After learning of his abuse, the priest encouraged Wilke to create the art as a tool for exploring the experience, which makes a connection with more depth than just a verbal presentation. Wilke, his brother Matt, and his father all committed suicide as result of the crime committed upon the two boys as adolescents.
Father Chase explained the details of the paintings to participants and how specifics such as eyes that are presented so dark they can’t be seen, hands that are unformed and a body drawn up with crossed legs portray the shame, the helplessness and the fear a child goes through.
“The art helps us understand the victimization,” the priest said.
Through his art, Father Chase continued, “Justin wants us to understand this trial, not of body, but of emotion.”
Deborah Donovan Rice, director of outreach and programming for From Darkness to Light, is responsible for outreach to community groups and development of programming to prevent child sexual abuse. She discussed the fact that there is no stereotype for the perpetrator of child sexual abuse.
Many myths surround the topic such as whether or not adults will recognize signs that a child has or is being abused or that never leaving a child alone with anyone other than family or friends is the best way to protect them.
Child molesters look and act like everyone else; victims often exhibit no signs, and about 50 percent of sexual abuse of girls is perpetrated by a family member while a further 30-40 percent is perpetrated by friends and acquaintances of the child or their family. Friends and acquaintances perpetrate the largest percentage of sexual abuse of boys, although a significant percentage is perpetrated by a family member.
The best way to prevent child sexual abuse is to be aware of the facts about abuse and to be willing to accept that someone in the immediate circle of friends and family is capable of it. Rice said that offering such a presentation to diocesan employees and volunteers provided more than just information.
“This creates a culture that makes it hard for perpetrators to see this organizaiton as vulnerable to them,” she explained. “When everybody gets training that’s a signal that the organization is serious about child sexual abuse and is working to protect our children.”
By having information about the misconceptions and truths, Rice said that an individual could deal with it more effectively.
“We are getting back to the whole idea of imagining a young child in front of you who has just told you they have been sexually abused,” she said. “Do you want to be thrown off and not know what to do or have some information in advance about how to deal with your emotional response? It is better to deal with it in a workshop than in front of a child.”
Deacon Al Payne, assistant to the vicar general and diocesan screening coordinator, organized the educational sessions along with Louisa Storen, the victim assistance minister.
“We thought it would give employees and volunteers a good overview of what is going on in the diocese,” he said. “People just see policy and procedure and don’t understand that these policies are based on our efforts to protect children. I think people really don’t understand what sex abuse does to children. We wanted to get professionals from this particular field as well as a victim who is in the profession now, define the terms, discuss the myths and the facts, and then present our plan.”
Payne said the diocese offers policy, procedure and victim’s assistance.
“We are not only looking at the victim, the family, the classmates and the parishioners, but the accused to reach out to them and give them psychological and emotional assistance as well as referring them to the proper medical assistance,” he said.
Dr. Jim Dreyfuss, librarian and football coach at Cardinal Newman High School, attended the educational session. He said it was an invaluable experience, particularly for teachers because it will make them more aware of children’s behavior.
“It makes it acceptable for people to come forward to address these issues and heal,” he said. “What we’re dealing with here are very deep personal issues that affect victims and families. This is just the kind of thing that should be done in more private and public education. It couldn’t come at a more appropriate time in the Catholic school system.”
Barbara DeZee, a second-grade teacher at St. John Neumann, said she was impressed by the aggressive stance the program took.
“We have a tendency to disregard some of the myths,” she said. “As a teacher, I need to be more of an advocate firsthand with the children.”
Father Mike Polewczak, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Orangeburg, attended the training for educational reasons.
“Father Ray’s presentation was superb,” he said. “It gives us all points to use in our pastoral ministry as it arises. It gives us the perspective of what the victim has experienced, can experience and will experience. I hope everyone gathered here will find it profitable.”
Crystal Baber, an after-school director at St. Ann’s in Rock Hill, was moved by the experience.
“It’s real hard to know that someone went through all that,” she said.
The next educational session will be July 25 at St. John Neumann.