Put Out into the Deep

Rooting Out Sexual Abuse From Our Society Needs to Be a Top Priority

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Sexual Assault Awareness Month, observed each April, is a campaign that aims to increase awareness about the causes and risk factors for sexual assault, empower individuals to take steps to prevent it in their communities, and especially to inform minors of ways to be aware of sexual abuse and how they can protect themselves.

Unfortunately, sex abuse has always been a societal issue. As we have seen in the last 20 years, the Church has been made aware of the sexual abuse by those in its own ranks. We must look forward, however, in finding ways to prevent sexual abuse, especially in institutions. As we know, the Boy Scouts of America had over 96,000 cases of sexual abuse and this entity declared bankruptcy.

Four of the dioceses in the State of New York have declared bankruptcy as a result of the Child Victims Act, which lifted the three-year civil statute of limitations and gave a two-year look-back window, which allowed victims to sue for abuse that occurred decades ago which, unfortunately, is difficult to prove and verify since memories fade and witnesses often are since gone or are dead. There is no doubt that there are victims of sexual abuse who truly need counseling and, for some, compensation for the harm they have experienced as a form of validation and acknowledgement. The Church, and especially our own Diocese here in Brooklyn and Queens, have been well aware of this harm. To be clear, no funds come from parish collections, the diocesan Annual Catholic Appeal or Capital Campaigns.

Most recently, I can say that last year, when I, myself, received two accusations of sexual abuse dating back more than 45 years when I was a young priest working in the Archdiocese of Newark, I asserted my innocence and intention to fight these false claims. Even more recently, we have seen a flurry of cases being filed under the New York Child Victims Act. If there is a real time situation where the abuse occurred within days/months and even several years, the NYPD Special Victims Division is immediately alerted to ensure a prompt response by trained professionals in this area, as well as initiate an immediate and timely investigation by Law Enforcement, with the objective of obtaining as accurate of an assessment of the situation as possible.

Unfortunately, CVA cases date back decades, some of which contain questionable accusations. I, myself, underwent a polygraph, commonly known as a ‘lie detector test’ in order to prove my innocence, since the process of investigating these decades old accusations can take years. The Diocesan Review Board is aware of these allegations and is following the diocesan policy.

Prevention is most important when we look at the situation in hindsight. The societal awareness of sexual abuse either was very limited or when known was too difficult to deal with. Today, however, we have seen great strides being made; first in being able to train all those with access to minors to know the warning signs and behaviors associated with both perpetrators and victims of sexual abuse, in order to identify and report such matters to the legal authorities. Additionally, children in both our schools and in religious formation, are being educated on the dangers of sexual abuse, how it actually happens, and how to get help. Yet, it is unfortunate that most sexual abuse takes place within the family.

This pandemic has exacerbated the problem, since the caring eyes of those who usually are teaching and supervising children, have not had as much access to them. Those responsible for the preparation of and the documentation of the Sexual Assault Awareness Month have documented that sexual abuse against minors and adults has increased.

Observed as an opportunity to promote education and the prevention of sexual violence, Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) traces its history to the 1970s, when activists first began organizing on a national scale to reduce sexual assault and violence against women.

Advocates fought tirelessly to bring a topic once taboo for public discussion out of the shadows and shed light on the widespread problem of sexual assault. In our diocese in Brooklyn and Queens, regular training to educate all employees, clergy members and volunteers on sexual abuse and prevention has been ongoing, even throughout the pandemic.

And prior to the pandemic, in our Regional Meetings, and subsequent meetings, the topic of sexual abuse was actively and openly discussed with the faithful, since public discussion of this topic is necessary to bring about awareness.

As quarantine and stay-at-home efforts drag on, a second, silent pandemic persists. Evidence shows that rates of sexual violence increase during states of emergency, including natural disasters, active conflict, and health crises. For example, reports indicate that sexual assault increased by 45 percent during Hurricane Katrina and the recovery period. The stress, fear and sense of helplessness associated with emergencies tend to increase risk factors for perpetration of violence against women. Since these vulnerable populations are usually the ones to suffer during these periods of high stress and fear, the services provided to support families both physically and emotionally by our own Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens continues to be priceless.

In March of 2020, minors made up half of the calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline for the first time ever. “Unfortunately for many, and especially for children experiencing sexual abuse, ‘stay at home’ doesn’t mean ‘safe at home,’ ” said RAINN President Scott Berkowitz. With this in mind, the efforts made by our Catholic Schools Office and our Safe Environment Office to train our teachers and school administration as mandated reporters have continued during the pandemic and post pandemic, so that they too can remain vigilant and help in protecting all children.

During this pandemic, sexual assault survivors are isolated and lack the ability and privacy to access help. Research shows that: One in 10 children have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 10, 93 percent of child sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator, 34 percent of all victims are under 12 and 66 percent are between ages 12 and 17. And only 2 percent of rapists go to jail.

Of the young people who contacted the hotline in March, 67 percent identified their perpetrator as a family member and 79 percent said they were currently living with that perpetrator. In 1 out of 5 cases where the minor was living with their abuser, RAINN assisted the minor in immediately contacting police.

At this time, rooting out sexual abuse from our society needs to be a top priority, especially in an atmosphere where pornography is readily available on the internet, which sometimes feeds sexual abuse. We really have to strengthen our efforts and put out into the deep with new resolve to make sure that our society becomes respectful of the human person. This must continue in our own Church to ensure that our terrible history does not repeat itself. 

Protecting Our Children: dioceseofbrooklyn.org/protecting-children/protecting-our-children/