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Training sessions teach Catholics to recognize signs of possible child sexual abuse

By Elliott Jones, Palm Beach Press-Journal
August 17, 2003

Christina De Falco teaches catechism to youths at Holy Cross Catholic Church, Vero Beach.

"It's just for the love of children," said the mother of three. "I feel very proud of my faith."

Yet she and hundreds of others like her -- Catholics who deal with children -- have found themselves in the uncomfortable situation of having to undergo training in recognizing and preventing child sexual abuse.

"I never thought I would be here," said retired priest Irvine Nugent, as he waited for a training session to begin in March at a school gym at St. Helen Catholic Church in Vero Beach. Similar training is occurring all along the Treasure Coast.

Since last year, the Diocese of the Palm Beaches has been holding the sessions to help prevent sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. There have been repeated disclosures that some Catholic priests throughout the nation sexually abused youth.

Two of the diocese's own past bishops left because they were implicated in sexually abusing youths earlier in their careers in other parts of the nation, according to AP reports.

The last of the bishops was replaced by Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley who helped push for the training sessions.

Then on July 1, the Vatican announced that O'Malley was being transferred to Boston to replace Archbishop Bernard Law who resigned amid an uproar over his allowing priests to keep serving after they were accused of sexual molestation.

Increased awareness

Much of the abuse by Catholic priests occurred decades ago, when people such as De Falco were young and child sexual abuse -- and child abuse in general -- was rarely brought to public attention.

Times have changed. Abuse is much more openly talked about, said Maureen and Larry Labadie, Sebastian retirees who ran the training session that Nugent and Mrs. De Falco attended with about 100 other people from around Indian River County.

For three hours, the audience watched videotapes of child sexual offenders and answered questions: All part of a specially prepared program called "Protecting God's Children." It was developed by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group Inc., a company that helps reduce insurance liability risks of the Catholic Church.

Sexual abusers "can be anyone," said Jack McCalmon, director of the group's VITRUS sexual-abuse training program. "Most child abuse is done by someone the parents know. That is scary."

They didn't see it coming.

The training sessions help people see possible abuse. The sessions began last summer with hundreds of Catholic school workers -- from janitors to principals -- being trained, said Lorraine Fabatella, chancellor of the diocese.

Then the diocese called in other adults who deal with children.

"This will be on-going," Fabatella said.

In addition to the training, all Catholic Church employees and volunteers working with youngsters, employees are getting background checks and undergoing fingerprinting.

Vigilance counts

When Mrs. De Falco was first told of the meeting, she was reluctant to go. It shook her feeling that she was living in a safe world.

"I didn't want to chain everything up and lock the doors," said Mrs. De Falco, who lives in Vero Beach.

She grew up a close-knit neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"In the summer we sat on the porch and saw the whole neighborhood," she said, of a residential area that she didn't worry about.

Today, "We need to be trusting but aware. It is very important to be aware of what is going on around us," she said.

At St. Helen Catholic Church, she saw a video of a former skating-rink employee confessing to befriending children so he could abuse them. He told of how parents left off their children without checking on what was going on in the rink.

"I took advantage of hundreds of young girls as their skating teacher," and as a softball coach, he said.

"I wanted to jump through the screen when I heard that," Mrs. De Falco said. "He was the abuser. He was the deviant. I hate him for what he did. But after I left the training session and had some private time, I thought that maybe part of what he said was right. Maybe we are not aware.

"We have to be more vigilant and ask more questions," she said.

The video also showed a:

12-year-old girl whose seventh-grade teacher "kept me after class. She started hugging and kissing me. Finally..." The girl couldn't speak about what happened. She also had been silent as a child, fearing to speak up about a school faculty member.

15-year-old boy who wanted to commit suicide after being abused. "The pain was unbearable," he said. He felt powerless to speak out about something that was emotionally very unsettling, he said.

Parents also can be hesitant to talk sexual abuse of youth.

"A lot of parents are afraid of this topic," Mrs. De Falco said. "You don't hear it being discussed around coffee tables" in social settings.

Deborah Berg, a first-grade teacher at Pelican Island Elementary, attended the training session at St. Helen Catholic Church. Her advice: "Trust your gut feelings" and hunches that something may not be right and should be brought up even if it is uncomfortable and embarrassing."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests