By Katrina Genereux/Associate Editor, OND
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, each year the Catholic Church in the United States joins other entities to place a special emphasis on the importance of defending children from the evil of abuse. It is an opportunity to raise awareness of the problem, educate people about signs of child abuse and share prevention strategies.
The most recent data available from Minnesota’s Department of Human Services indicates state child protection agencies followed up on more than 37,000 reports of child maltreatment in 2017. Most victims involved in these reports were age 8 and younger.
In the 14 counties within the Diocese of Crookston, there were 3,075 total alleged victims of child maltreatment in 2017.
The state identifies six categories of child maltreatment:
- Medical neglect is not providing necessary medical care for a child.
- Mental injury occurs when a caregiver’s actions cause emotional or mental injury.
- Neglect is failing to provide for the physical, mental or behavioral needs of a child.
- Physical abuse is behavior that results in the physical harm of a child.
- Sexual abuse is any exploitation of a child that is sexual in nature.
- Threatened injury is attempting to harm a child or placing a child in a dangerous situation.
Most Minnesota children who experienced maltreatment in 2017 were victims of neglect.
Warning signs sometimes exhibited by children in abusive situations include: declining academic performance, hiding use of technology, no longer enjoying loved activities, aggressive behavior, withdrawing from family or friends and personality changes.
Some warning signs exhibited by perpetrators of abuse include: being overly interested in spending time with minors, giving lavish gifts to minors, violating physical or emotional boundaries, keeping secrets with minors, encouraging minors to break laws or rules, inappropriate or suggestive conversations with children, and taking photos of minors or asking them to send photos.
As important as raising awareness and encouraging prevention are, in the wake of abuse scandals, the Church also recognizes the need to support survivors of child sexual abuse by clergy or Church personnel.
Beginning in 2002, the Catholic Church in the United States implemented the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” The Charter mandates that every diocese establishes a Victim’s Assistance Coordinator to “coordinate assistance for the immediate pastoral care of persons who report having been sexually abused as minors by clergy or other church personnel.”
Cindy Hulst, a Licensed Social Worker, has been the Victim Assistance Coordinator for the Diocese of Crookston since 2017, taking over for Louann McGlynn who served in the position for a decade. Hulst sees the availability of a person in this role as an important way to facilitate healing for those who have been victimized.
“A Victim Assistance Coordinator can be the vessel or agent of showing and demonstrating the Church cares about the abuse victims, that it wants and needs transparency, and that the Church is serious and committed to its promise of reconciliation, healing and protection,” Hulst said.
She is available by phone 24 hours a day to receive calls at 218-281-7895. As the Victim Assistance Coordinator, any conversation she has with a caller is confidential. The only exceptions to this confidentiality are if a caller is a threat to themselves or others, or if they report mistreatment of a minor. As a mandated reporter, Hulst is required to inform law enforcement of these types of situations.
“The first thing a victim needs to know is they are not at fault,” Hulst said. “They did not cause the victimization and they are not responsible for the actions of the perpetrator.”
She said callers may exhibit rage, anger, fear, anxiety, suspicion, doubt, guilt, resentment, irritability or bewilderment.
Hulst said because the wounds of a sexual abuse victim are generally very deep, they need to know that making a call to her is a huge step forward toward self-care and healing.
“It is crucial the Victim Assistance Coordinator really hears and listens to what the victim is saying, to learn what is important to them and what they need and want,” Hulst said. She described her job as being a “safe place to land” for victims of sexual abuse.
“The Victim Assistance Coordinator can represent and communicate hope and healing, assuring victims they no longer have to go it alone,” she said. “What occurred to them does not reflect the Catholic Church teachings or God’s love for them. It reflects human weakness and positions of power used for self-serving gratification.”
If a victim wishes to speak with law enforcement, Hulst assists them with making a report and will accompany them if requested. She helps arrange counseling, support services or other resources if needed. She can also facilitate a meeting with the bishop or vicar general for the victim to share their story and Church leaders can offer their commitment to help heal and support. Hulst noted that due to trust issues, not all victims are ready for that type of conversation.
Hulst said often after a victim reaches out to a coordinator, they feel a huge sense of relief because their secret is out, and they no longer need to keep it in.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual misconduct on the part of a priest, deacon, or individual representing the Diocese of Crookston, its parishes, or its schools, please contact Hulst at 218-281-7895 (24-hour confidential number).
Click HERE to learn more about the diocesan Office of Safe Environment.