What should parents say to kids about clergy sexual abuse?

| December 17, 2013 | 0 Comments

Anyone responsible for children knows the delicate balance of nurturer, protector and teacher. But when it comes to what children might hear in the news — recently, the topic of clergy sexual abuse of minors — some parents wonder how to keep them informed while protecting their innocence and not frightening them unnecessarily.

Kathleen McChesney is the former No. 3 official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as former head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection. She said parents should know what children are capable of understanding when talking about sensitive topics. Even with young children, it’s important not to dismiss questions, but to give age-appropriate answers.

“Be more positive in nature so as not to scare them; we want to empower them,” said McChesney, who now heads Kinsale Management Consulting, the outside firm the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis hired to review its clergy files. “The approach depends on the maturity level [of the children].”

Libby Bergman, co-founder of the Family Enhancement Center in Minneapolis, said any approach needs to be done calmly.

“Take some deep breaths, so kids know they can talk about it,” said Bergman, whose agency aims to prevent child abuse, help victims, and build strong, healthy children.

According to Bergman, honesty is the best policy when talking to kids about clergy sexual misconduct. She said informing children that it happens, but that it’s rare, can help them feel secure around people they should be able to trust.

“You want to give them age-appropriate information until they’re satisfied,” Bergman said. “Let kids know that you, as their parent, are making sure they’re in situations where they’re safe.”

Gretchen Thibault, a parishioner at St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, has children who range in age from 5 to 19. With her sister, Thibault developed a program to help children understand human sexuality and the teachings of the Catholic Church.

She has addressed the clergy misconduct issue carefully with her 11-year-old. Once they get talking about it, more questions often arise, such as “What do you mean by abuse?”

“I’ve answered in bits and pieces when it has been appropriate,” Thibault said.

Bergman said the younger the child, the more aware parents need to be. For children age 3 to 10, it doesn’t make sense to bring up the issue specifically.

“Younger children are going to be concrete thinkers,” she said. “At age 5, if you say, ‘A priest did this,’ they might think all priests do this, and would be scared. Younger kids need the reassurance that this isn’t the case. Be clear that you’re looking out for their well-being.”

On the other hand, Bergman said, older kids — who are more likely to hear what’s in the news — can think more abstractly, so it’s better for parents to have the information ahead of time and correct any misinformation.

“Kids 11 and up, in general, are going to be able to understand it, and it probably won’t be scary to them.”

But regardless of the child’s age, each conversation needs to reiterate that if the child has ever had an uncomfortable experience with someone, even if it happened a long time ago, he or she should tell the parent.

Thibault has told her children there are people who hurt people, and some adults who hurt children in more private ways.

“The ‘why’ is hard to answer,” Thibault said. “I don’t think going into great detail is helpful to them. And I don’t think it’s helpful to bring it up. There’s an image that doesn’t need to be there for them.”

She tells her children that people who hurt others have an illness, which brings up trusting others.

“I think it’s important for everyone to recognize that there are people in the world who have serious problems and don’t have boundaries,” she said. “We tell our children there’s never anything they can’t talk to mom and dad about — that they won’t get in trouble.”

McChesney said the parent isn’t the only person providing information regarding personal safety.

“These are moments when parents and caregivers [including teachers] can open dialogue,” she said. “Protecting children is everyone’s responsibility.”

The archdiocese has practices and programs that teach children and adults about protection and safety, as well as assistance for advocates and victims.

Bergman hopes the issue of clergy sexual misconduct will spur people to bring up the topic in general.

“It’s not a priest problem,” she said. “[They] are like everyone else in that they can make mistakes, they can make poor choices. It’s important that kids feel safe and are able to tell someone if they’ve been harmed.”


David Walsh is the founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, and Mind Positive Parenting. He has written nine books about adolescents, parenting and family life, and is a frequent guest on national radio and television programs. He says that in conversations with children of any age, adults should be calm, straightforward and reassuring.

How to talk to children of different ages

Young children (3- to 7-year-olds)

  • “Most adults you can trust, but there are some people who have not touched children in a good way. If there is anyone who has done that to you, tell me right away.”
  • Make them aware while simultaneously assuring them.
  • Make the distinction between a surprise and a secret.
  • Make sure they know the difference between good touch and bad touch.
  • Use correct terminology when naming body parts, so if anything ever happens, children can explain exactly what’s going on.
  • Teach them about private body parts, that they’re special, and no one should ever touch them, except a doctor or parent.
  • Don’t exaggerate the horror of sexual abuse, or kids won’t feel comfortable talking about it.
  • Affirm them for asking questions.

Middle school-aged

  • Reiterate good touch, bad touch, appropriate relationships, and to tell an adult if they have ever had an uncomfortable or harmful experience.
  • Keep lines of communication open by having frequent, ongoing conversations, not just “a talk.”
  • If they have any questions, always feel free to ask.

High school-aged

  • Children this age are likely to ask: “Why didn’t someone do something about this?”
  • Explain that even good people make mistakes.
  • Talk about the importance of acknowledging those mistakes, taking responsibility and promising to make changes.
  • Reiterate the importance of telling you if they’ve been harmed.

 

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