SAN DIEGO — Twenty years ago, a sex abuse scandal began that shook the Catholic Church in the United States and around the world to its core. It resulted in a series of reforms aimed at protecting children and preventing abuse internally, but it also tore away the shame and taboos that had kept victims of all kinds from speaking out, thus allowing abuse that had been hidden in families, schools and other institutions for generations to finally see the light of day.
It also ushered in a series of reforms aimed at protecting children and keeping a commitment to their safety foremost in the daily life of the Church. As part of that effort, the San Diego Diocese will join with organizations around the country to observe April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month and mark the occasion with an educational presentation and special Mass.
Both events will be held on Saturday, April 2, at St. James Parish in Solana Beach. Nancy Beehn, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in working with children and adolescents, will speak from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Her presentation will be followed by a 5 p.m. Mass that will offer prayer and support to those affected by child abuse; it will be celebrated by St. James’ pastor, Father Gerard Lecomte, CJM.
“The goal of the event is to bring awareness of the problem of child abuse to parishioners and the public and stimulate conversation about what we can do, as people of God, to help prevent abuse and support victim-survivors,” explained Mary Acosta, the diocese’s Victim Assistance Coordinator, who serves those who have been sexually abused by clergy.
Since 2003, the diocese has mandated “Safe Environment” training for all diocesan personnel, as well as volunteers who work with children. In 2020, more than 10,500 people, including clergy, seminarians and lay employees, received that training, which teaches how to recognize and report signs of child abuse. Those who work with children at parish and school sites also are required to complete a criminal background check.
Safe Environment training and background checks are required upon beginning employment or volunteer work and must be renewed every five years.
Students in local Catholic schools and parish religious education programs also receive age-appropriate Safe Environment training. More than 26,000 youth and their parents received this instruction in 2020.
“Everyone who is part of the Church must be vigilant to recognize signs of abuse and protect children in their communities,” she said.
As Victim Assistance Coordinator, Acosta has been able to coordinate services to victims of clergy sex abuse, above and beyond any financial settlements. She has connected victim-survivors with therapy and spiritual resources, such as healing retreats and spiritual direction. And the diocese has started a support group for men who were abused.
“The Church has the responsibility to protect children from abuse within the structures of the Church, as well as within the communities in which parishes operate,” Acosta said. “By bringing the issue of child abuse to the attention of parishioners and offering resources for the prevention and treatment of abuse, we are fulfilling our duties to protect children and support struggling families now and help those who experienced abuse in the past to heal.”
Information about diocesan safety policies: safeinourdiocese.org. Contact Victim Assistance Coordinator Mary Acosta at (858) 490-8353.