Ten years after the bishops’ Charter was adopted, we are all asked to be the ‘ears, eyes and voice’ of children and young people.Ten years ago, in June of 2002, the child sexual abuse scandal rocked the Catholic Church to its core in the United States. As we dealt with the enormity of what had happened; the U.S. bishops met in Dallas to discuss prevention of this problem in the future. Bishop Wilton Gregory, then-president of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, opened the meeting with these words:
“Our God-given duty as shepherds of the Lord's people holds us responsible and accountable to God and to the church for the spiritual and moral health of all of God's children, especially those who are weak and most vulnerable. It is we who need to confess, and so we do.”
I believe that those words were inspired by the Holy Spirit because for the first time in history, an organization, specifically the Catholic Church, decided to address the worldwide problem of child sexual abuse and to take on the responsibility of protecting our children and young people from this most horrific crime against the innocent.
What evolved was the USCCB Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. This document has guided us these past 10 years as we have learned to become the “ears, eyes and voice” of children and young people everywhere. It calls us to be “proactive” rather than “reactive” in the way this problem is addressed.
Those of us who responded to this “call” early on discovered that there were very few programs and even fewer resources to work with. We were not sure how to approach this problem but we knew if we trusted that God was calling us to act, his vision would become clear.
We determined that education and communication are the keys to prevention. It now seems unbelievable that no one talked about child sexual abuse even though it has always occurred.
Drawing on my personal experience growing up, there were two predators living in my own neighborhood. I think that people had a “gut feeling” that something was wrong but did not know how to act on it. When incidents did happen in the neighborhood, no one reported them. Everyone just protected their own children. That is the way it was and still is in so many places around the world.
When I became the coordinator of Safeguard the Children, I knew I wanted to break this silence. I chose this vision of becoming the “ears, eyes and voice” of our children and young people because no one did that in my own neighborhood, and I recognized that we have an obligation to protect all of God’s children, not just our own.
I want to recognize those who have worked so hard these past ten years to stop this horrific crime against the innocent. My gratitude goes out to:
---the Safeguard the Children Committees who led the effort to make our parishes and schools safe places;
---the VIRTUS¬Æ Facilitators for their commitment and determination in promoting change through the education of adults;
---and the Children’s Program leaders who have taught our children and young people to be their own “ears, eyes and voice” in protecting themselves from sexual abuse.
On our journey of faith, I believe that one of the most important things we can do is to hear the call from God when we encounter it in our lives and to respond to that call with open hearts. As child sexual abuse scandals now surface in schools, sports programs and other organizations around the world, may we as a Church be proud to know that if we had not answered that call from God in 2002 the abuse would be ongoing and still no one would be talking about it.
May our efforts to be the “ears, eyes and voice” of children and young people continue with the same unwavering faith and energy.
Joan Vienna is director of the Offices of Family Life and Safeguard the Children for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.