During the first mass of the school year, two students at St. Bernard Elementary School stood in front of the congregation and lead their classmates in prayer.
They prayed for the leaders of the world, for the sick and suffering, and for the victims of abuse in the Catholic Church.
It is the only time revelations about clergy abuse is mentioned during the service. It might be the only time it’s mentioned in the school. Principal Anthony Merante said he wants to leave that conversation up to parents.
“For some kids, and this is what I’m concerned about, parents don’t want them to be aware of this and that’s the parent’s right. So you’re going to bring something up and stir something up that isn’t there,” he said.
After the mass, about a half dozen parents were unwilling to speak on the record because they said they either hadn’t talked to their kids about the clergy abuse, or they didn’t know what to say. Some said they were unsure if their young children recognized they prayed for victims of abuse.
Keeping Kids Safe
Merante did send a letter from the Pittsburgh Diocese to parents during the first week of school. It reassures parents that, “we as the Church are diligent in doing everything we can to provide safety and protection for those most vulnerable among us.”
It outlines the steps Catholic schools take and the requirements in place for anyone who comes in contact with children including criminal and sexual misconduct clearances, taking a mandated reporter class and another course required by the church called “Protecting God’s Children.”
The letter also reminds parents of the curriculum taught in schools as part of the “Catholic Vision of Love Program.”
The lessons on love and human sexuality are woven through the school year and cover “good touch, bad touch” and the right to say no. The letter says schools every year teach children, “their role in remaining safe.”
Nick Vaskov, executive director of communications for the Pittsburgh Diocese, says principals requested the letter.
“They had been asking for something to reassure parents of the steps schools take to make them safe environments for children as well as the steps they take to educate kids at an age appropriate manor. Just to be aware of suspicious behavior, or things that may be grooming behavior, signs of abuse,” he said.
While schools are legally obligated to fulfill many of these requirements, the grand jury report revealed that sometimes abuse happened anyway. The report noted several personnel files for the same priest that contained both a clean background report and a file documenting abuse.
The Diocese oversees 64 elementary and high schools in six western Pennsylvania counties. The grand jury report named 17 schools where abuse took place. That number could be higher, though. In a handful of cases, the report noted abuse happened in a school but didn’t specify which school.
Sometimes children were molested and raped in their school. Other times students were groomed during the school day.
On the second day of school at Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, students in religion class were encouraged to discuss the clergy abuse.
Principal Tony Baginski said teachers are not expected to have the answers. They are expected to listen.
“Not to try and deflect. Not try to explain away,” he said. “And there’s going to be anger there. There’s disappointment. But then also to be honest and to say we also have questions.”
Baginski said he gave that same advice to a parent who approached him at school. He said he would generally encourage them to listen to their child’s questions.
That’s what parent Maria Aikins is doing. She brought up the report at the dinner table.
Her younger son is just starting his junior year at Central Catholic. He hasn’t had a lot to say.
“But he internalizes everything and I know he's thinking about it,” she said.
One of her older sons just graduated from Central Catholic last year. He thinks it’s more of a societal issue than a church problem.
“He was more just like I've always gone to church because I go to church for God. That's how he felt about it,” she said.
Which is a relief to Aikins; she was concerned her kids would question their faith.
“I think that they did think, how should we respond? Should this, you know, make us feel less close to God, less faith filled, less trusting maybe? But I don't think it has,” she said.
She said she told her sons that priests are people and their sins should not be an indictment of the church.
Kim Moses also has a son who is a junior at Central Catholic. He attended a Catholic elementary school, but the family identifies as Christian. When the report came out, she said she looked at the list available to see if anyone at the school was named. Central Catholic was not mentioned in the report.
She mentioned the report to her son. But she said those conversations are sometimes trial and error.
“Sometimes we say too much, sometimes you don't say enough, but you got to say enough to make sure that they understand that that behavior is not only illegal, it's harmful and you have to be willing to speak up if if you ever feel uncomfortable in any space,” she said.
Moses said she has a close relationship with her son and in her house, her family often discusses sensitive subjects. But, she might have approached the subject differently if her son were younger.
What to Say
Experts also say parents should approach the subject differently for younger children. Mary Carrasco is a pediatrician and director of A Child’s Place, an agency in Pittsburgh that provides children medical and forensic assessments of suspected child abuse.
She has evaluated about 400 children a year in Pittsburgh for the last 30 years. She’s never come across a child who has been abused by a priest. She says that is concerning when coupled with the fact that the report alleges that more than 1,000 children in the region were victims of abuse.
“What’s different about this report is it seems to be a closed group. That and reports of abuse were not reported following the proper protocol,” she said.
She said the report is drawing attention to detrimental practices in the Catholic Church, but that doesn’t mean other parents shouldn’t have a conversation with their children.
Her recommendation is to have conversations with children early about appropriate behavior and to not be alone with an adult.
“Parents should tell their children it’s OK to say 'no' to things that make you uncomfortable,” she said. “I think kids need to learn that they don’t have to just blindly follow what feels like an order or feels like because this person has authority over me they can just do anything.”