The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church



Discuss sexual safety, ask questions

By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff, 2/14/2002

As allegations continue to surface of Catholic priests sexually abusing children, it's hard for any parent, Catholic or not, not to wonder, "Has my child been victimized?" More important questions, however, might be, "Does my child know how to take care of himself or herself?" and "What's the best way for us to talk about this?"

While most of us go to great lengths to talk to even our 3-year-olds about stranger danger, we tend to avoid talking about sexual safety, even though US Justice Department figures show a child is at far greater risk for being abused than abducted. For most of us, the subject feels too threatening and too embarrassing; we let ourselves off the hook by reasoning that we'll scare our child.

Not Suzin Bartley, executive director of the Children's Trust Fund.

As routinely and at the same age that she taught her sons to brush their teeth, she also taught about "swell secrets" and "tell secrets," about good touches and bad ones. A swell secret makes you feel glad, like when Daddy whispers he's sending roses to Mommy for Valentine's Day. A tell secret makes you feel bad, like when a baby sitter makes you promise not to tell anyone about a game the two of you play. Good touching is when daddy gives you a bath or the doctor gives you a shot; it makes your body clean or healthy. Bad touching is when someone wants to touch the parts of your body that fit under a bathing suit; those are private parts, and touching there without your permission can make you feel yucky.

This is not a one-time-only conversation.

Even though her sons are now 13 and 8, Bartley periodically asks questions such as, "What if someone tried to touch your private parts?" "They may roll their eyes at me," she says, "but they know the offer is on the table: That I am there to protect them and to work with them, and that they could tell me if something happened." Has she talked with them about the pedophile priests? "Yes," she says.

It's not that she thinks her sons necessarily are aware of the news stories, although researchers say the subject has likely crossed the radar screens of most middle- and high-school students and Catholic children of any age. Rather, says Bartley, it's a teachable moment.

Children who have heard stories may be frightened, says David Finkelhor, one of the nation's preeminent child abuse researchers and director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "School-age children typically don't know how to interpret words like `molestation' or `sexual abuse,' " he says. "To them, it conveys someone who is being held down, beaten up, or threatened with a gun." In addition, Catholic children may become anxious around a priest not because they've experienced anything bad, but because they hear something and pick up on adult tensions.

No matter how old your child, the best conversations begin with a question, says family psychologist David Treadway of Weston, a specialist in abuse. For instance: "I'm wondering if you've heard on the news about a priest who was hurting children." If a child says yes, ask her, "Tell me what you know." If she says no, tell her, "If you hear about it and have any questions, you can ask me."

Child and adolescent forensic psychiatrist Diane Schetky of Rockport, Me., says the basic points to make with a 3- to 9-year-old are that everybody owns his or her body; that no one has the right to touch your private parts without your permission; and that if someone does, the rule is to tell a parent or someone you trust. Schetky's area of specialty is child sexual abuse.

While parents may feel awkward bringing this up with young children, Schetky says the conversation is actually easiest with preschoolers.

"They are very curious about their body," she says. Talking about genitalia is no more remarkable to them than talking about the brain, as long as we remain matter of fact. By age 7, Schetky would offer more information: that it's not a child's fault if someone touches them, that people who like to touch children usually don't use violence or force.

Finkelhor speculates that children 10 and older who have heard or read the stories "are dying to know what actually happened" but are too self-conscious about their own body to ask. For them, questions need to be impersonal and indirect, for instance: "You know the stories in the paper about the priest? They don't actually say what he did, but I've read more about it; if you're interested, I can tell you what I've learned."

So what do you say? Here are the points Finkelhor would want to make: that the person is usually with the child in a private place and reaches over and touches the child's private parts, puts a hand under the clothes, or puts the child's hand on his or her privates. Because a person who wants to have sex with a child is usually a person the child depends on or trusts, there isn't usually violence involved. A young child may not understand what's happening. An older child may find it somewhat pleasurable and feel guilty or bad because she does. When something like this happens, it's not a child's fault, and it's important to tell an adult they trust about what happened.

If there is a priest in a child's life, Finkelhor and Treadway caution against talking about this in the context of that specific person. If allegations surface about a priest you know, Treadway would say, "Sometimes even priests touch children in ways they shouldn't. There are a lot of efforts being made right now to find out who these priests are and why they do these things, so it will never happen again, and to help the children they abused." Treadway would end a conversation by asking, "Have you ever heard of something like this happening to anyone you know?"

If a child has reason to confide, this is when it might happen: "Well, yeah. It happened to me, Dad."

No matter what you feel at that moment, try to remain calm and loving, says Christine Sommers, a social worker at Children's Charter/Key Trauma Clinic in Waltham, a treatment center for sexually abused children.

"Tell her you're glad she told you, that you know how much courage it takes to do that, and that you'll do everything you can to keep her safe," says Sommers. "Then get professional help." If she offers details, fine, but don't push for them or grill her on what happened; leave that for the professional. (Your pediatrician is a good starting point.)

Sommers adds that children are unlikely to confide in parents if there has not been a previous conversation on the subject. "They need to know that you know these things happen," she says. "Otherwise, they may think you won't be able to handle it."

If you're still skeptical about why you should initiate a conversation with your children, consider these two facts from Finkelhor: Sexual abuse begins when children are as young as 3 and 4 and peaks between the ages of 7 and 13; there are 200 to 300 children abducted by strangers in the United States each year, but 200,000 children are sexually abused.

Contact Barbara F. Meltz at

This story ran on page H1 of the Boston Globe on 2/14/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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