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Sister Mary Ann Walsh Headshot

Fingerprinting Grandma, Checking the Old Priest's Background

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A loyal parishioner says she now has to be fingerprinted to teach the religious education class she's been teaching for 40 years. An 83-year-old priest who helps out in a parish holds up papers for his police background check. Both sigh.

It is the same sigh many of us heave when we meet the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at the airport or a guard at a museum checkpoint. It is the sigh of resignation that has become part of doing business in our current society.

Most of us feel some resentment -- Why should I be questioned? -- but such checks weed out people who might harm us, and the greater the risk the greater the steps to offset it.

That is one of the messages from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which on May 18 issued its landmark "Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010."

After an intensive, wide-reaching investigation that included interviews with victims, abusers, advocacy groups and various professionals in the church and in the mental health field, John Jay researchers concluded: "The Catholic Church has taken serious steps toward understanding and reducing the problem of sexual abuse of minors by priests."

"The church has responded to the crisis, and as a result, a substantial decrease in the number of sexual abuse has come about at present," it added.

The response must continue.

Children have always been at risk - it's the nature of immaturity - and why parents have always taken extra precautions in telling them to look both ways when crossing, take small bites to prevent choking and not run with scissors.

At the end of the 20th Century, society in general and the church in particular became aware of sexual abuse of children by adults in mentoring relationships, including coaches, teachers, youth leaders and most horrifically, priests. This awareness prompted the Catholic Church to commission the John Jay School to look at what were the causes and context of abuse of minors in the Catholic Church. No one, single cause was found, but John Jay noted that several steps could be taken to lessen the chance of child abuse.

Much relies on education, something the church does well. It means education of staff and volunteers who engage children through church and school activities, education of children to say "no" when they feel uncomfortable with someone's approaches and to go to an adult for protection and education of adults in knowing signs of predatory behavior to look for and other efforts that keep abusers away from children.

John Jay credits the church for several of its steps to ensure child safety and notes that incidents of sexual abuse of minors have plummeted. John Jay reports that there were more than 11,000 credible accusations of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric since 1950 and that most cases took place between 1965 and 1985. In contrast, in 2010, there were seven priests in diocesan ministry who were accused of sexually abusing a minor. That is still too many, but for perspective it is good to note that it is in a church of 68.2 million people.

The church today is doing something right. It educates future priests on human sexuality and boundary issues. It teaches watchfulness to children so they know when to object to what makes them uncomfortable. It sets up codes of conduct, such as no wrestling, for people who work with youth. It pursues background checks on staff and volunteers.

Sexual abuse of children is a terrible human problem, which means it will never be completely eradicated. It calls for adults to always be alert, just as caregivers can never can stop telling youngsters to look both ways.

It takes a village to raise a child and it certainly takes a village to protect one. Some steps are inconvenient and time-consuming, such as fingerprinting, background checks, workshops and special Safe Environment classes. But inconvenience is part of life for anything that is important. And there's little, if anything, that's more important than child safety.