After clergy sex abuse report, officials say parents should talk to kids early, often

In light of the recent grand jury report on child sex abuse by priests, how should parents talk to children about the subject?

Early and often, according to experts.

Melissa Page, the York County coordinator for the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative, stressed the importance of open communication and encouraged parents to have an ongoing dialogue with children about sexual abuse.

"If parents talk to their kids about those types of things — it kind of opens the door for communications," she said.

Page said parents should educate their children when they are younger about abuse, such as which body parts are off-limits. 

She said that way when kids see the news, such as the grand jury report, it allows parents to have frank conversations.

In mid-August, Attorney General Josh Shapiro released an 800-page grand jury report detailing allegations of sexual abuse against more than 300 priests in six dioceses in Pennsylvania. 

It alleges the clergymen, including almost 20 who were assigned to York County parishes, abused more than 1,000 children over decades.

Ongoing discussions: Jessica Castle, the community education director for the York YWCA, echoed Page's suggestions.

"I think having the conversation early is really important," she said.

More:Diocese: More than 20 accused clergymen served in York County

More:Report cites cases of 2 York-area priests as examples of 'wholesale institutional failure'

Castle said starting those conversations early will lead to ongoing discussions as a child gets older. 

She said it is important to teach young children that their body is their own and that no one should be touching them in certain areas. For cases where the abuser is supposed to be a trusted adult, such as a priest or member of the clergy, Castle reinforced that notion again.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

"We really try to clarify with children, especially very young children, no one has the right to touch you in those areas," she said.

Both Castle and Page also emphasized the importance of letting a child know that abuse is not the victim's fault and that the victim shouldn't be ashamed.

“I think that will eliminate so many barriers for children to come forward," Castle said.

New topic: For parents who might not have had conversations with their children about abuse, Castle and Page suggested talking to them in an "age-appropriate" manner.

“Making it seem less than what it is, I don’t think that’s a good idea, but also you don’t want to terrify the child,” Page said, adding that parents wouldn't want to tell a 4-year-old the same things that they would tell a 14-year-old.

When talking to a younger child, Page said, parents could simply tell them that others were hurt by people in the church.

Coordinator Melissa Page speaks during the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative at the York County Children's Advocacy Center, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello photo

"Just kind of answer their questions as they come up, but really in that age-appropriate way," she said.

Castle said parents should make children feel comfortable enough to ask questions, and the children should know that they are in a safe environment.

“I would want my child to know that they can come to me and have those conversations, that there are trusted adults that they can go to that they can talk to,” she said.

Other tips: Castle noted two things that she said aren't talked about much regarding abuse.

She said that in some instances abusers will do things that aren't physical, such as take naked pictures of a child, which could lead to more abuse.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be physical in nature," Castle said.

She said the nonphysical abuse can reduce a child's fear or resistance, leading to potentially more abuse. 

Castle also noted that abusers can get their victims to keep secrets. She emphasized letting children know that those "body secrets" are not OK.

Jessica Castle, York YWCA community education director, speaks during the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative at the York County Children's Advocacy Center, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello photo

Education: Page encouraged education for parents and adults, which is being offered by the York County Children's Advocacy Center through the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative, which is a partnership between the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and Penn State University.

“Adults are so scared to talk about it," Page said.

Page said research shows when 5 percent of adults in a community become educated about prevention, that attitudes and behaviors about abuse will shift.

“We should be horrified at the injustices done to children — but we need to act,” she said.

Page said the training, which can be done in-person or online, will give adults the tools and training to talk to their children about it.

“It’s kind of a basic child sexual abuse 101," she said.

The program can be found online at http://yorkcac.org.

The initiative also will teach second-grade students about safe and unsafe touches as well as teach parents about prevention of child abuse, according to a news release from the children's advocacy center.

— Reach Christopher Dornblaser at cdornblaser@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @YDDornblaser.