In 1985, after discovering that her three children were being sexually abused by an uncle, Denise instinctively turned to her priest for help and guidance.
But he did not know what to do.
“He told me they didn’t deal with that kind of thing, and that [my children] would have to see a psychiatrist,” she recalled. “The priest came out and said there was nothing he could do.”
Denise, whose last name is withheld here to protect her privacy, had an experience that is more common than one might think. Members of the clergy—including rabbis — typically are not trained in how to counsel victims of child abuse or their parents. And yet, it is the clergy that is often called on as the first responders by people of faith.
About 17 female interfaith clergy members gathered at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Monday, Nov. 5, for the workshop titled “Child Sexual Abuse and Neglect: What they didn’t teach in seminary.” The workshop, organized by the Pittsburgh chapter of Jewish Women International in conjunction with several co-sponsors, is the second in a series of domestic violence prevention programs for female clergy, intending to fill a gap in their pastoral education.
“I think clergy have to understand their responsibility in churches and synagogues because they are mandatory reporters [of child abuse],” said Rev. Linda Miller-Pretz, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, who organized the workshop along with Rochelle Sufrin, co-chair of JWI’s Council of Jewish Domestic Violence Coalitions. “They need to learn how and when to do it (report abuse). It is their responsibility. And you know what happens to people who shirk their responsibilities—just look at [Jerry] Sandusky and all that mess. Clergy don’t have any training in that. It’s a scary thought. This workshop is like continuing education for the sake of our children.”
Scheduled on the heels of National Domestic Abuse Awareness Month, the workshop included a conversation with Denise, as well as presentations on the signs of abuse and neglect, and the spiritual role and legal responsibilities of the clergy once abuse is suspected.
The odds of child abuse are high, said presenter Jayne Anderson of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR). One in four girls under the age of 18 has been a victim of sexual assault. For boys, the number is one in six.
The typical sex offender molests an average of 117 children — a figure corroborated by the Children’s Adovcacy Center — most of whom do not report the abuse, Anderson said. Ninety percent of perpetrators are men, and the child knows his abuser 90 percent of the time. Seventy percent of abusers are related to their victims.
Sexual abuse of children ranges from “nontouching” acts such as voyeurism or forcing them to watch pornography, to “touching” acts that can include inappropriate bathing, tickling or grabbing, in addition to actions that are overtly more sexual, according to Anderson. She highlighted “red flags” that could signal abuse, including an adult spending too much time with a particular child, buying the child gifts for no reason or frequently invading a child’s privacy.
“These things might be OK,” Anderson said, “but you have to question what’s going on.”
Rabbis Sharyn Henry and Amy Hertz, both of Rodef Shalom Congregation, assisted in facilitating a reflection breakout session focusing on physical and spiritual self-care.
“Individuals and victims do not have to suffer alone,” wrote Sufrin in an email to the Chronicle. “Separate of the legal system, which has come a long way in its sensitivity and efficacy in dealing with these cases, most clergy, especially female clergy and female lay leadership in religious or faith based schools, camps, and programs are starting to become more learned in recognizing signs and supporting victims.”
The workshop was sponsored by the Pittsburgh branch of Jewish Women International in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the National Association of Women Ministers, Joel Pretz, a mediation professional of mediate.com, and the generosity of its professional presenters.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)