Are Catholic schools prepared to discuss sex abuse with students?
The Brooklyn Diocese released the names of 108 clergy members credibly accused of sexual abuse against children and parishioners at their Brooklyn and Queens churches and schools on Friday, just as most students around New York City headed into a weeklong winter break.
Despite the latest revelation of church abuse, not all Catholic schools are taking a proactive approach to reaching out to families and students, according to school staff, families and alumni who spoke with the Brooklyn Eagle anonymously. The lack of outreach confounds victims’ advocates.
“We live in a 24/7 connected world, so there’s no hiding these kinds of abuses,” said Zach Hinder, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a leading self-help and advocacy organization for clergy sex abuse victims. “Schools have to have parents asking about this. This is a real opportunity to provide education and outreach.”
But at one K-through-8 school in the Bronx, located in the Archdiocese of New York, staff members have not received any guidance on how to talk about child sex abuse, said one 8th grade teacher who asked to remain anonymous.
“To be honest, our school hasn’t addressed it at all,” the teacher said. “It hasn’t been mentioned to me by parents. We haven’t even received anything from the archdiocese about it or how to handle it.”
A guidance counselor at a South Brooklyn school within the Diocese of Brooklyn had a different perspective.
Though the counselor did not describe any new guidance for how to talk with students in the wake of the clergy sex abuse list, they said the school has a “Virtus Office” where students, families and faculty can report “anyone — staff or clergy — who may have harassed or harmed anyone.” The office is an “extra layer of protection” because school staff also contacts the Administration for Children’s Services to report abuse and neglect, the counselor said. The church seems “extremely proactive now and want to clean this up for the future,” the counselor added.
Regis High School in Manhattan, one of the city’s premier Jesuit schools, sent an email to alumni in January with information about five specific priests named in a separate list of confirmed sexual predators compiled by the Society of Jesus. Regis President Rev. Daniel Lahart and Board Chairperson Peter Labbat signed the letter, which also named a sixth former Regis priest who was not named on the Jesuits’ list but had allegations made against him.
“The last several months have been particularly difficult for all of us in the Church as we have learned of additional scandals at various levels of the hierarchy, along with stories of abuse that make us cringe with shame and outrage,” Lahart and Labbat wrote. “We express our deepest sorrow for any and all actions which have victimized those entrusted to our care in the Church. These events have caused us to review our own policies to ensure that we protect and care for our students in the best ways possible.”
Regis also encouraged students and alumni to report instances of abuse to the school or to the police.
With most schools on break, however, it remains unclear how prepared most faculty and staff are for the challenge of talking with children and families about sex abuse when students return on Monday. More than a dozen Catholic schools across Brooklyn and Queens did not respond to requests for information.
The Archdiocese of New York did not provide a response.
On Friday, Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio apologized to victims and said he hopes the list of clergy “will add another layer of healing for them on their journey toward wholeness,” citing scripture that “there is nothing hidden that will not become visible.”
Hinder, the SNAP director, said it is up to schools to implement a “two-prong” approach to address abuse and connect with people who may have been abused in the past.
First, he said, schools must reach out to alumni and parents “who may have been or who may know someone who was hurt in the past.” At the same time, schools must implement proactive “prevention education,” he added.
“It’s a challenging topic that people don’t want to talk about, but we know that when parents are informed, when kids know, when teachers and others are informed about warning signs, it lowers the incidence of sexual abuse,” Hinder said.
Attorney Jeff Anderson represents victims of clergy abuse who have filed suit against the Catholic Church. On Thursday, he will reveal another list of more than 100 priests and clergy from the Archdiocese of New York who were credibly charged with abuse, he said.
In a conversation with the Eagle, Anderson called on schools to foster open communication about the problem of clergy sex abuse.
“We need to listen, we need to be willing to talk about it openly and not run from it,” Anderson said. “We need to believe, listen and start a conversation about what it is that constitutes sexual abuse and abuse of power and start to talk about it with families, in schools and with colleagues.”
“When survivors say, ‘This was done to be me by one of them [clergy],’ believe them,’” he said.
Additional reporting by Meaghan McGoldrick.
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