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Diocese raises awareness of child abuse


RAISING AWARENESS: Joanna Alcarraz of the County of San Diego’s Child Welfare Services delivered a presentation about child abuse Feb. 5 at Holy Spirit Parish. (Credit: Mary Acosta)

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SAN DIEGO — Nearly 700,000 children are abused every year in the United States, and five children die every day as a result of it. Sadly, over two-thirds are abused by a family member, and nine out of every 10 child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way.

It is because of such grim statistics that, for more than 40 years, April has been observed in the U.S. as National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

In the Diocese of San Diego, efforts to protect children from abuse have been in place for more than 20 years.

In 2023 alone, more than 12,500 diocesan employees and volunteers received “Safe Environment” training to learn how to recognize and report child abuse.

The backgrounds of more than 1,700 employees and 8,800 volunteers active at parishes and schools in 2023 were screened. And 33,823 children in local Catholic schools and parish religious-education programs received age-appropriate Safe Environment training this year.

In August of 2019, Cardinal (then Bishop) Robert W. McElroy gathered all 2,500-plus employees of the diocese’s parishes, schools and Catholic organizations for a historic meeting held at the University of San Diego. He called upon all staff members to report suspected abuse, even if they aren’t mandated reporters.

“Sadly, (child sex abuse is) still a reality that needs to be addressed,” said Mary Acosta, the diocese’s Victim Assistance Coordinator.

She said that she recently received a call from someone breaking his silence about being abused over 20 years ago at age 7. This is not uncommon. As Victim Assistance Coordinator, her job involves connecting victim-survivors of clergy sex abuse with therapists, healing retreats, spiritual direction, and other supportive resources.

But the diocese’s efforts to prevent child abuse aren’t simply about making amends for sins of the past. Rather, they tap into the Church’s timeless teachings about life and dignity.

“The first principle of Catholic social teaching upholds the truth that life is sacred and, being made in the image and likeness of God, has innate human dignity,” said Acosta. “This includes children, who are among our most vulnerable, and at a fundamental level, need protection from abuses of all kinds as these harm them and impact their sense of personal worth.”

Quoting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which identifies child abuse and neglect as “serious public health problems” that “can have long-term impacts on health, opportunity, and wellbeing,” Acosta added that this is “something abuse survivors know well.”

She said that, thanks to Safe Environment trainings, diocesan employees and volunteers are well-equipped to recognize and report suspected child abuse that they may encounter in the families they serve. But she thinks that the average Catholic in the pews could benefit from more information.

That’s why she is offering educational presentations to any parish or ministry group that would welcome one.

On Feb. 5, Acosta and a representative from the County of San Diego’s Child Welfare Services gave a presentation on child abuse prevention and reporting for the Hispanic community at Holy Spirit Parish. About 110 people attended.

Acosta said that Child Welfare Services can provide speakers in various languages, including English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

In late March, local parishes were provided with National Child Abuse Prevention Month resources from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to promote awareness and encourage action.

Acosta is also preparing to launch the diocese’s first social media campaign on this topic in conjunction with the month-long observance. Every week in April, the diocese will post information on its social media channels about child abuse, its prevention, and activities that parishes and individuals can do in commemoration of National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Acosta said local Catholics will be invited to post photos of themselves engaged in the recommended prevention activities, using the hashtag #sdchildabuseprevention.

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