OUR VIEW: Sex abuse still rampant in public schools (vote)

Wayne Laugesen Updated: November 24, 2010 at 12:00 am • Published: November 24, 2010

At 15, Jennifer lost her virginity at a Colorado Springs public school to a married track coach almost twice her age. The coach groomed and coaxed her into a long-term sexual relationship, convincing the girl he could protect her from the perils of life in a dysfunctional family.

Jennifer’s story was presented in the Denver Post on Sunday as a typical example of the rampant sexual abuse of children in Colorado’s public schools. Eight Front Range teachers have been arrested and charged with sexual abuse of children in the past six months.

Victims and advocates insist that most cases of school employees having sex with children go unreported, even though sexual misconduct is the largest single cause of teacher discipline by the Colorado Department of Education.

The Post reported that one in 14 girls in grades 5 to 8 are sexually abused, based on numbers from the Rape and Incest National Network. In high school the number is 1 in 9 girls. The agency reports that boys are abused at about half the rate of girls.

This column has long alerted readers to the sex scandal in public schools. Sherryll Kraizer, executive director of the Denver-based Safe Child Program and a professional witness in sex abuse trials, has said principals and school teachers mostly ignore laws that require them to report sexual abuse of students. The Fort Collins Coloradoan found this summer that Colorado Department of Education officials have mostly ignored a state law that requires them to notify school districts whenever an educator gets arrested on suspicion of a crime. One sex abuse expert interviewed by The Gazette described a practice in which known abusers are quietly passed along to other schools with glowing referrals or silence, known as "passing the trash."

A surplus of alarming evidence and data, including a federal study pointing to a sex abuse crisis in public schools, has been met with a shortage of comprehensive coverage in the press and public outrage that underwhelms. It’s almost as if nobody cares.

By any serious examination of evidence and data, the sex abuse scandal in public schools today dwarfs anything that ever occurred in Catholic institutions, which had a sex abuse problem that peaked in 1970 with nearly 600 reported cases of sexual abuse in the church nationwide that year.

Today, based on a study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the number of reported sexual abuse cases in Catholic institutions nationwide is fewer than 10. That means more children have been sexually abused this year in public schools on the Front Range of Colorado than have been abused in Catholic institutions in all 50 states combined. (See graph )

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It’s because the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops set out to eradicate sexual abuse at a 2002 summit in Dallas. The bishops acted with alacrity, in part, because the media and society were rightly scandalized. The church established a child protection agency in Washington and nearly every diocese in the country devised strict guidelines for protecting children and thoroughly screening and fingerprinting all adults who work with kids in church institutions.

Yet public perception holds that priests and the Catholic church pose a substantial threat to children. A 2002 Wall Street Journal poll found that 64 percent of Americans surveyed thought Catholic priests “frequently” abuse children.

The poll was conducted at a time when major media organizations were producing 680 unique stories each month about the Catholic church sex scandal, based on data provided by Cymfony research firm. Cymfony’s report reveals national media coverage of abuse in Catholic institutions that’s radically disproportionate to coverage of sex abuse in other religious and secular organizations — such as public schools.

The relative lack of media interest in non-Catholic sexual abuse may explain the public’s apathy toward widespread abuse in public schools.

The Cymfony report is full of alarming statistical analyses. When the Hare Krishnas in California settled the largest sex abuse lawsuit in history, resulting from sexual abuse of children, it generated 44 stories in California over a six-month period. During the same period, Californians were treated to 17,310 stories about sex abuse in California Catholic institutions. That’s 39,341 percent more coverage than was generated by the most serious sex abuse case in history.

The report shows that two simultaneous lawsuits in Dallas — one against the Episcopal diocese and one against the Catholic Diocese — resulted in 1,232 percent more coverage of the Catholic lawsuit.

The absurdity of it is slowly becoming apparent, even to some in the mainstream national press. Newsweek reported in April that insurance companies, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and an abundance of other credible sources insist that priests and the Catholic Church have never been a disproportionately high threat to children (See Newsweek article ). In fact, based on the numbers Newsweek provided, at the peak of the Catholic sex abuse crisis the general population of men abused children at a higher rate than priests.

A civilized society should be outraged by any incident of an adult sexually exploiting a child, and clergy should be held to the highest standard.

So should teachers.

Today, sexual abuse of children is clearly out of control in public schools and is even more prevalent in homes. Society needs to stop acting as if it’s a problem caused by priests and look to the Catholic Church in the United States for answers. Due in part to public outrage regarding its mistakes and misdeeds of the past, the church appears to have emerged as the one organization with a formula for nearly eradicating sexual threats to children.

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