Child Abuse Prevention in Catholic Schools: A Clergy Abuse Survivor’s Perspective
By Mike Hoffman, Founder
I am a clergy abuse survivor and I send my two children to Catholic schools. My wife and I believe very strongly in Catholic education which is why we sent our kids to our local parish elementary school and to high school at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago. Even though I was not protected as a child in the parish where I grew up, it is a key aspect to my healing to help raise awareness of the child abuse prevention efforts taking place at our parish to protect all of God’s children from physical, sexual and verbal abuse.
When I was a young boy, I was hurt by a very bad man who was our priest and a dear friend to my parents. My abuser told me that what he was doing to my body was a normal way for two people to show love and affection for one another. I didn’t understand what he was doing to me – but I didn’t know who I could talk to about it. I felt terribly alone and anxious. Not only did he hurt me, but he also disrupted my family. I didn’t think my parents would believe me, and, in fact, I felt they would think I was a bad boy for saying bad things about their friend. Now, as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I strive to highlight the importance of safe environment initiatives wherever children are, so no child will have to go through what I was forced to endure as a little boy.
Thanks to the efforts of so many people, there is an on-going culture of safety at my home parish of St. Mary of the Woods. Only in a safe environment can our children learn, thrive and grow in their faith, sure in the knowledge they are loved and respected. In that loving embrace, families, parishes and communities can become stronger and healthier.
Serving on the school Athletic Board is one of the least glamorous volunteer jobs on campus, made even more challenging by the competitive nature of many parents. While my kids were in school, I served for a total of 5 years, including 3 years as board president. To be eligible to volunteer, I attended, along with my fellow parishioners, the mandatory training program: Virtus Protecting God’s Children. All employees, priests, staff and volunteers must attend this workshop. Training includes understanding how abusers can groom their victims and use their standing within the community to take advantage of children. To be truthful, being a childhood sexual abuse survivor who was groomed by my abuser priest, and who was intimidated and frightened by his stature which he used to gain access to children within the parish community, I initially felt I could lead the workshop. I was wrong. The workshop was bigger than me and my personal issue.
I discovered that the goal of the workshop is to change the parish culture from silence to open discussion. I totally support this. My abuser was able to take advantage and hurt me and other children because parents, staff, employees and other fellow priests were unable or unwilling to talk about it. Now, I am a personal witness to open discussion and implementation of the best practices of child safety by our principal, priests, staff and other volunteers. Knowing my abuser thrived in the silence, I support an open dialogue that can help protect children from harm. Anyone who is thinking of abusing a child, to be sure, will have to consider the openness and willingness of our parish community to speak up.
My abuser was the head of the altar boys, and my memories of being an altar boy and those early teenage years are like a deep, dark mess. It might seem odd, then, that my wife and I allowed our daughter and son to be altar servers from 5th through 8th grade, but I was such a proud father, there in the pew, as each of them served on the altar for the first time. My most vivid memory is how, after my son’s first time, I was waiting for him after Mass in the rear of the church. I watched as an older parishioner I didn’t know, come up to him and thanked him for serving. They spoke for several moments, and although I did not hear what was said, but I watched the exchange: he shook my son’s hand and turned to me, smiling.
That image has remained with me for years: father, son, stranger sharing their faith together through the celebration of the Mass. Raising awareness of child abuse and promoting prevention efforts at home, in my parish and in the larger Catholic community gives me hope that we can continue to pass along our rich faith tradition from one generation to the next. I want to pass my faith along to my children, and I am blessed to have witnessed that in action that morning. That parishioner gave both of us a great gift: a reminder that our Catholic faith is shared. I am blessed to be in a parish community that supports and celebrates a safe environment for children so that no child will have to endure what I did.