Protecting children: How loving families, strong social support can help

Drew Dillingham of the USCCB office of child protection is pictured in Rome Jan. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Drew Dillingham
Catholic News Service

(Seventh in a series)

ROME — If you think the problems facing families today are new, just open your Bible; the common themes remain. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments are stories of the sins, sicknesses and difficulties that have affected families since the beginning of time.

In fact, in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis titles one of his chapters “A Path of Suffering and Blood” (p. 15-17) to describe Scriptural accounts of the “presence of pain, evil and violence that break up families and their communion of life and love.” He then lists the numerous stories of biblical families and their struggles, from Adam and Eve in Genesis to the Holy Family in the Gospels.

The Holy Family on their flight into Egypt from a stained-glass window in St. Edward’s Church in Seattle. (CNS photo/Crosiers)

In one of this week’s seminars at the Pontifical Gregorian University, my class discussed the risk factors and protective factors related to the sexual abuse of minors. Risk factors are those characteristics of a child, family or society correlated to a statistically higher rate of abuse, while protective factors are those characteristics correlated to a lower rate.

Many of the familial problems, particularly in the Old Testament, that are quite common today have been identified as risk factors of abuse. They include: ongoing marital conflicts, alcohol or drug problems, criminal backgrounds, women with “early” or “unwanted” pregnancies, separation or divorce, and social isolation of the family. These characteristics can lead to conditions that make children more vulnerable to offenders both within and outside of the family. The list of protective factors is much shorter and more straightforward: warm, predictive and supportive parent/child relationships and sibling relationships, created and nurtured by a loving and stable mother and father. Children living under these conditions are less likely to suffer abuse and more likely to report abuse if it does occur.

Playing football near the Arabian Sea coast of Mumbai, India, March 15, 2017. (CNS photo/EPA)

“The sexual abuse of children is all the more scandalous,” Pope Francis says in Amoris Laetitia, “when it occurs in places where they ought to be most safe, particularly in families, schools, communities and Christian institutions.” It is true that children ought to be the most safe in these places. Despite the constant problems that seem to face all families, the family unit remains the foundation of society and is the institution which can best lead children to happiness and holiness. For this reason, the “joy of love experienced by the family is also the joy of the church,” as the pope said.

Yet it is also true that many families will encounter the same problems that have been identified as destructive to life, love and happiness since the beginning of time. To prevent abuse, it is not only important for the church to confront the evil that may exist within some of her clergy, but also to provide families with the tools, support and general accompaniment they need to push through hard times.

Sister Leo Therese, a member of the Missionaries of Charity, helping families at a refugee camp in Basagaon, India, in 2012. (CNS photo/Anto Akkara)

Pope Francis notes, “The strength of the family lies in its capacity to love and to teach how to love. For all a family’s problems, it can always grow, beginning with love.” Helping family members grow closer to one another and to God must remain a key aspect of the Church’s mission in its fight against abuse. Building strong families, though not fail-safe, is one more way the church can decrease the risk factors that are associated with abuse. The family is the first “church” children experience. What types of “little churches” are we developing in our own homes to help our children grow safely in their faith?




Drew Dillingham is the Coordinator for Resources and Special Projects with the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.  He is an avid reader of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and shares his April 26th birthday. Dillingham also dabbles in the works of Bishop Robert Barron, thanks to the ongoing encouragement of his wife, Kim. 


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