As allegations of sexual misconduct by priests reverberate in the Catholic Church, the scandal is sounding an alarm to adults about protecting children from sexual predators.
"Parents need to empower children, and abusers need to feel that kids will tell someone," said Mary Buxton, a therapist and child sexual abuse specialist in San Jose, Calif.
Statistics show that in 90 percent of cases, child sexual abuse is committed by a person the child knows and trusts, Buxton said. This could be a relative, Sunday school teacher or family friend. Abusers often use subtle manipulation to keep children from telling, she said, which makes it hard initially for adults to spot what's going on.
Buxton offers this advice to parents and caregivers:
Establish a family touch policy to help children practice setting good physical and emotional boundaries. For example, when roughhousing gets out of hand and someone says "stop" or "that's enough," the play should stop immediately. Also, allow a child to decline hugs and kisses from relatives if he or she isn't in the mood for it.
Have a neutral vocabulary for body parts so children will be able to articulate if they've been touched inappropriately. Buxton suggests using the correct anatomical names for genitalia.
Act quickly if you notice dramatic changes in a child's behavior, such as irritability or overt sexualized behavior. Mention to them that you've noticed they haven't been acting in their usual way, and ask if someone or something has made them feel uncomfortable.
Linda Batton, an associate for pastoral care of families with the Diocese of San Jose (Calif.), said church leaders and youth ministers should be open with children about the issues facing the church and address their concerns in an age-appropriate manner.
"What we don't want is for children to feel frightened of all adults," Batton said. "As terrible as all this is, there are a small number of clergy that are guilty of this. A majority of priests are interested and love our children and want to protect them."