Written by Carl Peters
An adult survivor of child sexual abuse was scheduled to be a presenter on the first day of the conference, but notice came at the last minute that he would be unable to speak.
But, although it was not the topic of his talk, the next presenter on the schedule, Dr. Robert Crawford, acknowledged that he too had been a victim of abuse as a child. He also pointed out that, based on statistics, abuse victims were in the audience.
Not that anyone in the audience needed to be convinced of the prevalence — or the trauma — of childhood sexual abuse. Or the damage it has done to the institutional church. This was the 14th annual Child and Youth Protection Catholic Leadership Conference, held March 24-27 at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill.
In attendance were 210 representatives from archdioceses and dioceses throughout the United States. The large majority of the group were women, but their professional backgrounds varied. They included social workers, psychotherapists, educators and others.
Like most professional conventions, the three-day conference was designed to let participants update and sharpen their skills, enjoy camaraderie with their peers, and boost morale. But the title of the first day’s last presentation was an indication of the difficult challenge these workers face: “Keeping Our Faith When Exposed to the Worst Things That Happen in Our Church.”
Unlike the average Catholics in the pews, or even other church workers, who have found their faith tested by news stories about clergy abuse, the individuals who gathered in Cherry Hill have jobs that are a direct result of the church’s worst scandal in modern times. Furthermore, while they are employees of the institutional church, their primary responsibility is to those who have been wronged by it, and to do their best to prevent the same mistakes in the future.
That complex task was illustrated by Crawford, a licensed counsellor with a practice in South Jersey who has worked with sexual offenders for more than 15 years. A strong advocate for the church, he spoke with gratitude about a diocesan priest and a religious brother who were strong influences on him and good role models. Echoing many church leaders, he asserted that homosexuality and celibacy are not causes of abuse, and that abuse extends far beyond the Catholic Church.
The most likely place for anyone to come face to face with an abuser or a victim is at the dinner table at Thanksgiving, he said. The family, he said, can be either the most dangerous place for a child or the best prevention against being victimized.
Crawford’s topic was “The Pathway from Priest to Predator,” and he noted that predators manipulate children with a false sense of intimacy they are often missing at home. Church leaders, he argued, cannot think of a serial predator as a “priest with a problem”; he is, instead, “a pedophile who happens to be a priest or religious.”
The scarcity of new accusations against clergy does not mean the problem of childhood sexual abuse is over, Crawford said, citing the increasing presence of child pornography on the internet. “You are three clicks away from the most deviant thing you can imagine,” he said.
The first day ended with Deacon Kevin McCormack’s presentation on maintaining faith in the midst of scandal. A high school principal in Brooklyn, Deacon McCormack used a mostly light-hearted talk to make a serious point. “I have no place else to go,” he said, explaining why he remains a Catholic. “This is my home. I am not prepared to leave.”
He argued against expecting the institutional church to be perfect, and also against dismissing it entirely. He also argued that the whole of the Catholic faith is not limited to the institutional church.
“Every day you are exposed to how bad human beings can be,” he said to the audience. “Our job in the body of Christ right now is to hold fast.
“We owe it to the next generation to not let the church be destroyed.” Renewed and reinvigorated, yes, but not destroyed, he added.
Some of the other topics at the conference were “Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome,” presented by therapist Dr. Karen Ann Owen Jimenez; “The Role of the Media,” by Pat Ciarrochi, retired CBS news anchor, and Ken Gavin, chief communications officer, Archdiocese of Philadelphia; and “Healing the Ravaged Soul,” by Sue McGrath, an author and spiritual director.
Bishop Dennis Sullivan greeted the participants during the conference’s opening reception, and in a welcoming message observed that it coincided with the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, which provided the Marian theme, “Full of Grace”: “Who better than Mary, the Mother of our Lord, to be with you, to encourage you and to inspire you as you work to protect the children entrusted into your care?”
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark celebrated Mass on the second day.
The event was hosted by the Diocese of Camden in association with the archdioceses of Philadelphia and Newark, the dioceses of Metuchen, Paterson and Trenton; and the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic.
Rod J. Herrera, director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection, Diocese of Camden, and one of the principal organizers of the event, noted that attendance for this conference was higher than for any of the previous 13 conferences.
“I think that has to do not only with Philadelphia as a draw but also because of the current environment we are all faced with,” he said. “We pray for each other and we pray for our church. I want to thank our Blessed Mother for her grace and guiding and inspiring the speakers at this conference.”