Sex Offenders Within Our Communities: Our Responsibility to Protect

(Featured July 23, 2006)

Michael J. Bland, Psy. D., D. Min., L.C.P.C.
Consultant to the VIRTUS Programs

Truth as uprightness in human action and speech is called truthfulness, sincerity, or candor. Truth or truthfulness is the virtue which consists in showing oneself true in deeds and truthful in words, and in guarding against duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy.

(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2468)

Recently, I read a newspaper article that reported a staff member at a school noticed a man standing on the school playground with his pants undone. The staff member immediately called 911 and the man was then taken into police custody. The article went on to report that the person on the school playground was a 57 year-old sex offender who had not re-registered with the sex-offenders registry. It is not always this easy to identify a problem and immediately relay your concern by calling 911. More often than not, sexual predators are not strangers, and they tend to blend in with everyone else.

The newspaper article also pointed out that, while the purpose of a sex-offender registry is, ideally, to know the identities and locations of all convicted sexual offenders, it is not a guarantee that they will not offend again. Therefore, it is important that such a registry be only one means of several by which we protect children and youth from being vulnerable. For that reason, it is important to control who has access to children and youth so that someone can’t abuse for the first time. It is also important to realize that there are things that can be done to reduce the risk.

Article 13 of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (the Charter) is “to evaluate the background of all incardinated and non-incardinated priests and deacons who are engaged in ecclesiastical ministry in the diocese/eparchy and of all diocesan/eparchial and parish/school or other paid personnel and volunteers whose duties include ongoing, unsupervised contact with minors. Specifically, they are to utilize the resources of law enforcement and other community agencies. In addition, they are to employ adequate screening and evaluative techniques in deciding the fitness of candidates for ordination.” This is in an effort to identify individuals who have had problems in the past. Additionally, the background screening objectively identifies individuals who may not be suited to work with children. Such a screening process attempts to not only remove such individuals from having contact with children but also, and more importantly, it enables the Church to recognize the people who can be trusted to work with children. As a result, parents may have a greater sense of security and reassurance when entrusting their children to these leaders within the parish.

This newspaper article reminded me that sexual offender registries, background checks, and removal from ministry cannot replace direct oversight and protection of children and youth. No one action, process, or person can protect a child from harm or abuse. Therefore, adults protecting children are vitally important for a parish, school, and community. We need to watch each other watching our children.

The community can reduce the risk of child sexual abuse by focusing appropriate attention on children and youth. The Protecting God’s Children® program teaches adults to recognize the warning signs of an abuser who exhibits inappropriate behavior with children. These red flags not only help us identify a potential abuser, but also help us maintain appropriate relationship boundaries and serve as responsible role models for the youth in our communities.

The warning signs of a potential abuser include someone who:

  • Discourages others from participating in or monitoring programs.
  • Always wants to be alone with children or adolescents.
  • Is more excited to be with children or adolescents than with adults.
  • Gives gifts to children, often without the permission or knowledge of parents or guardians.
  • Goes over board with touching.
  • Always wants to wrestle or tickle.
  • Thinks the rules do not apply to him or her.
  • Allows children or adolescents to engage in activities their parents would not allow.
  • Uses bad language or tells dirty jokes to children.
  • Shows children pornography.

These warning signs are consistent with the behavior of anyone who is at risk of abusing a child or adolescent—whether it is the first time they’ve engaged in sexual abuse, or if they have a prior history of such actions. By remaining vigilant, watching for the warning signs, and preventing anyone from being alone with our children, we can reasonably assure the safety of children in our care, regardless of whether we know the names and locations of all sex offenders.

Realistically, it may be easier to create a safe environment for children within the parish than to control the behavior of sexual offenders. While we may not know the names and locations of the offenders, we do know the names and faces of the children and young people who are entrusted to us. Therefore, it is everyone’s responsibility to watch for the warning signs and to report any suspicious behavior to the appropriate authorities.

The horrific reality of child sexual abuse may never be eliminated from our society. However, by creating a safe environment for children, by recognizing the warning signs, by maintaining multiple reporting mechanisms, and by discussing appropriate boundaries with children, we can raise the awareness to empower victims to come forward or to otherwise be identified as soon as possible. They do not have to suffer in silence.

A Plan To Protect God’s Children, which emphasizes protecting all children and youth, includes five steps:

Step 1   Know the warning signs

Step 2   Control access

Step 3   Monitor all programs

Step 4   Be aware

Step 5   Communicate your concerns

All responsible adults are needed to protect children, but it is those who interact with them directly who become the core of the prevention efforts within each parish and community. Communicating one’s concerns is taking action and speaking one’s observable good-faith concern over the actions of another. In the above mentioned newspaper article, the staff member attempted to control access to children while monitoring the playground, and communicated the concern by immediately calling 911. Because of this conscientious awareness and decisive action, children are safer!

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