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Awareness, enforcement help reduce child sex abuse

Associated Press Published: November 28, 2012

"The fact is, we don't see a Catholic priest getting arrested once a month these days," he said. "The Catholic Church is undoubtedly a safer place than it was 20 years ago. It's not because the bishops got the holy spirit but because they got sued over and over again and the insurance company said, 'We can't have this.'"

The program used by the Catholic Church, VIRTUS, is a three-hour course that trains individuals to recognize signs of behavior that suggest potential sexual abuse and intervene. (The word VIRTUS is Latin for moral excellence.) VIRTUS was developed by the church's insurance company, the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, and it's mandatory for anyone who interacts with kids in church-sponsored activities.

Sister Pat Hudson, a therapist and VIRTUS consultant, says that "after people are trained, they have a keen awareness. So many times, cases have come forward where people have said they noticed something," such as adults who are overly affectionate or who single certain kids out for gifts.

Behaviors like that can be signs of "grooming," where adults cultivate children's trust as a gateway to sexual activity. VIRTUS stresses the importance of communicating concerns both to the perceived offender and to those in charge.

Many children's organizations also now mandate screening — including criminal background checks — for volunteers as well as employees. In addition, the "two-adult rule" — forbidding an adult to be alone with a child unless someone else is present — has become standard in children's activities, including team sports.

Finkelhor noted that "the priest abuse problem declined precipitously starting in the late 1980s, suggesting that as people started to pay attention to it there, the problem got reined in. The recently released data from the Boy Scouts show a decline in recent years there too as they've started to pay more attention to the problem. And there's data that shows recidivism among sexual offenders has been declining as well, which suggests we're doing a better job keeping them from reoffending." Finkelhor has served as a consultant on child abuse both to the church and the Boy Scouts.

The Boy Scouts now require volunteers to complete youth protection training, which focuses on preventing sex abuse, every two years, according to spokesman Deron Smith.

At the BBC in England, the late Jimmy Savile, a popular children's entertainer, has been accused of molesting dozens of young girls in the 1970s and '80s. Victims say their original complaints were ignored, and police said the case has created a "watershed moment," with many adults reporting other claims of sex abuse they suffered as kids.

Brian Claypool, an attorney for families in Miramonte, Calif., where a teacher allegedly fed students semen-laced cookies, says headlines about these types of cases create "a ripe opportunity for our country to wake up." But he'd like to see "an independent agency or portal where parents can make a report of suspected child abuse. The one common thread in all these huge scandals is the first place where this is being reported is inefficient and ineffective. The people you report to have a conflict of interest to not do anything about it."

He added: "It's not a matter of if it can happen again, but when will it happen again, and will we find out about it?"