A Ray of Hope in a Heartbreaking Story of Abuse

Having worked in or with child advocacy centers (CACs) for 12 years, I see how CACs provide hope, healing, and justice for child victims of abuse — at what is often the toughest time in a child’s life. It is especially painful to victims, and all of us who serve them, when the abuse happens in the care of an organization with a mission for good, and especially when authorities choose to protect the institutions where abuse takes place instead of the child.

A grand jury report in Pennsylvania has named 300 priests and presented evidence of their alleged sexual abuse of children in their congregations. This abuse mirrors earlier institutional abuse episodes in Boston, Philadelphia, and Altoona-Johnstown, and in many ways dwarfs them. More than 1,000 children were found to be victimized over 70 years in this report, and I know as well as anyone who serves abused children — because they are so reluctant to disclose, even as adults, the true number is likely much larger.

Reading the grand jury report was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences of my professional career. While I served as a forensic interviewer at a local CAC and heard the disclosures of victims every day, reading those stories back-to-back in an 887-page report is almost more than any human can bear. And yet that heartbreak pales in comparison to the individuals who live with the reality of their own abuse and the subsequent cover-up every day of their lives.

The shocking reality is that statistics show one in 10 children in West Virginia you know will likely be the victims of sexual abuse by the age of 18. Child sexual abuse spans all geographic areas, races, and classes. It happens in your schools, your churches, and your homes. The chances that you will encounter or gain firsthand knowledge of a child being abused may be far greater than you would imagine. Now think of what you would do if you discovered any one of them was the victim of abuse.

The Pennsylvania grand jury report is filled with the failures of individuals in positions of power-failure to take responsibility and failure to protect those most in need of protection.

But I was especially encouraged by the response of Bishop Persico of the Diocese of Erie. He was the only bishop who chose to testify in person before the grand jury. While his legal counsel initially advised him to resist cooperation with the grand jury’s investigation, he ended up changing legal counsel because he felt things were on the wrong track. Bishop Persico leaned in to the reckoning — the impact of the trauma on individuals, the failures of his diocese, and the possibility for change. He chose to no longer hide behind policies, secret files, and legal advice; he chose to listen with compassion and courage and ultimately passed a new policy for his diocese.

Bishop Persico’s policy included an expanded set of definitions of child abuse; disclosure of abuse allegations to law enforcement; new efforts to cross-check personnel with previously withheld diocesan records through the Diocesan Office for the Protection of Children and Youth; and the public identification of persons who have been credibly accused of actions ranging from furnishing pornography to direct, sexual assault of minors.

Leaders in all faith communities and institutions should follow Bishop Persico’s lead, review and revise their child protection policies, and learn from the experiences of survivors in their communities.

You can learn more about the signs of abuse and how to report it at www.wvcan.org.

Chittenden-Laird is executive director of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network. The program serves most of West Virginia, including the Northern Panhandle, where the CAN works through Harmony House in Wheeling, Comfort House in Weirton and The Lighthouse in Paden City.


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