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Priest Sex Scandal: Social Work Experts Urge Patience with Survivors of Abuse

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It’s happened again—another revelation that priests have been abusing children and the Catholic church covered it up is being  reported in the news. How should social workers address this issue?

If social workers encounter survivors of sexual abuse by priests they should keep in mind that “each one of these victims is going to be looking at their own recovery and going through their own recovery in a different way,” said Daniel Pollack, professor of social work at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

This month the news media reported on an extensive grand jury report in Pennsylvania that found for 70 years the Catholic church concealed the abuse of more than 1,000 children by some 300 priests. This led to public outrage and the call for further investigation into abuse allegations nationwide.

Social workers should be sensitive to what survivors want and need

Pollack is an expert on sexual abuse. He was  was tapped to serve on an independent Blue Ribbon Commission to examine the institutional responses to sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.

When it comes to helping sexual abuse survivors and their families, social workers should aim to help them handle the fallout from the abuse in ways the survivors find beneficial, Pollack said.

Daniel Pollack

Daniel Pollack

And as a social worker, “if you’re not an expert in that area, refer (victims) to someone whose expertise that is,” said Pollack, MSSA (MSW), JD.

The first thing social workers must do is take victims seriously, Pollack said.

“Secondly, I would say let the victim tell their own story in their own way in their own time to begin with—rather than trying to steer the victim in the way the social worker thinks they should go. And then No. 3, really listen to what the victim wants to do going forward.”

And despite calls for grand jury investigations, in the end, Pollack said, “the state and the church must be responsible for how they address what appears to be systemic abuse.

“At the end of the day, who can better clean its own house than the institution itself? Should there be law enforcement? For sure. But if the institution is going to be viable and go forward successfully it’s going to have to clean its own house with the help of outside experts,” he said.

News reports on priests may trigger other survivors of sexual abuse

As for those who are triggered by this recent news and memories from their own past, NASW member Katherine van Wormer, MSSW, PhD, told Social Workers Speak that flashbacks may occur.

“I’d suggest talking to a friend or family member who is a good listener,” she said. ” If the person gets depressed for longer than a few days, I’d suggest going to a mental health center or social worker in private practice for short-term counseling to work on issues related to trauma and recovery.”

Experts said social workers and other mental health professionals can help violated children and men and women regain their faith in human nature, in their religious beliefs, and in themselves.

Katherine van Wormer

Katherine van Wormer

“An excellent program for priest abuse survivors that is being used in Europe and to some extent in the U.S. is restorative justice whereby the offender apologizes to the victim and the church makes reparations,” said van Wormer, who is also professor emerita, Department of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa.

“This is good for both the priest, who is apt to be overcome with shame and guilt, and the victim-survivor who needs an apology, not only from the offender but from the church itself. This is described in a chapter in my book Restorative Justice Today: Practical Applications (SAGE, 2011),” van Wormer said.

Pollack added that victims should “to the maximum extent possible, if they’re comfortable, find someone they trust to … talk it out. Sometimes it takes a while to just talk about it.”

Recognize, too, that it may take victims some time to find the right person to talk to. And patience is required.

“Every social worker and psychotherapist is not the same,” he said. “Sometimes it might take a while for the victim to find someone they feel comfortable with.”

Legal experts tell NASW that social workers should also keep in mind that all states and territories have mandatory child abuse reporting laws, though they may vary somewhat in specifics. Failure to comply can lead to serious consequences–including the loss of their social work license. In some states, even if the victim is an adult when the social worker learns of the child abuse, the mandatory reporting requirements still apply.

A Call to Action

Meanwhile, social workers and aid groups “are urging survivors and supporters to demand every state’s attorney general follow Pennsylvania’s lead and launch formal investigations into how U.S. bishops deal with victims and predator priests,” SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in an August 22 news release.

Founded in 1998, SNAP is the world’s oldest and largest support group for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings.

“These probes protect kids by exposing those who commit and conceal abuse,” said Tim Lennon, president of SNAP. “They help victims heal and make institutions safer. And they deter similar reckless and callous behavior in the future.”

According to Chicago-based SNAP, at least 10 jurisdictions in the U.S.—mostly county prosecutors from New York to Ohio, have used grand juries to scrutinize charges against clerics who commit child molestatin and their superiors. Most have issued blistering statements that are extremely critical of the church.

And even though in this case the Pope himself has condemned the abuse and its coverup, little has changed.

SNAP says the findings, in nearly every case, are “almost identical,” and conclude that “church officials time and time again put protecting clergy ahead of protecting kids.”

“Catholic officials themselves estimate that 100,000 U.S. children have been violated by priests,” said Lennon. “But only a handful of complicit church hierarchy have ever been prosecuted. That’s a tragedy and that’s why these devastating crimes keep happening,” he said.

“Archaic statutes of limitations and other predator-friendly laws enable church officials to ignore and hide credible abuse reports and to evade prosecution,” added Melanie Sakoda, who sits on SNAP’s board. “Until these laws are reformed, grand jury reports are a terrific tool for cutting through the dangerous secrecy that still shrouds child sex crimes in the church.”

Meanwhile, SNAP and the Center for Constitutional Rights ( have written an open letter to the Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein at the Department of Justice calling for a nationwide investigation into historic and systematic abuse of children.

The letter states that the “Department of Justice must step up and conduct a thorough, full-scale investigation into this system-wide network of sexual violence and cover-up” nationwide.

For more information about the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, visit SNAP. Social workers can also help people recover from sexual abuse. For more information go to the National Association of Social Workers’ consumer website.

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