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Foss: Take claims of child sexual abuse seriously

Foss: Take claims of child sexual abuse seriously

Volume of lawsuits filed under the Child Victims Act is simply impossible to ignore, or dismiss
Foss: Take claims of child sexual abuse seriously
Jeanne Marron says she was abused by Brother James Vincent Hanney while a student at Bishop Gibbons.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER

I spent my college summers working at a youth camp, and my training covered a lot of ground. 

Most of it was fun — game playing, and bonding and program development — but some of it wasn't. 

One of our graver discussions concerned sexual predators — what to do if we received a report that an adult had abused a child in some way, how to spot and deal with inappropriate behavior.  

At the time, I viewed sexual abuse as terrible but rare — something that could occur in a summer camp environment, but probably wouldn't. 

Now that I'm older, my perspective has changed. 

I still regard sexual abuse as terrible, but I no longer think of it as rare. 

The flood of lawsuits filed under the Child Victims Act, the much-needed and long-overdue new law that extends the state's statues of limitations for childhood sex abuse, suggests that childhood sex abuse is distressingly common. 

I can't speak to the merits of the lawsuits, which were filed after a one-year "look back" window for filing old civil claims for child sexual abuse opened last week. 

But the volume is simply impossible to ignore, or dismiss. 

It suggests that child sexual abuse is distressingly common, and that we still have a long way to go toward addressing the deep pain caused by sexual predators who preyed upon children in our communities. 

Hundreds of lawsuits have already been filed against teachers, priests and others who worked closely with youth. 

In the Capital Region, the accused include Howard Hubbard, former bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, Brother James Vincent Hanney and Brother Clement Murphy of Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons School and priests at St. Paul the Apostle and St. John the Baptist in Schenectady, and St. Mary's Church in Ballston Spa. 

The majority of lawsuits filed thus far accuse Catholic priests of abuse, but the problem of child sexual abuse isn't limited to the Catholic church. 

Lawsuits have also been filed against former Boy Scout leaders, leaders in other church denominations, and teachers and coaches. 

Taken together, these lawsuits paint a picture of collective failure, as institutions charged with educating and molding children failed to root out the sexual predators in their midst. 

Many of the lawsuits allege that trusted organizations were aware of the abuse, but did nothing to stop it. 

One suit alleges that Brother Murphy at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons "used his position as a religious brother, school administrator, and/or teacher to groom and sexually abuse plaintiff," but also that the Albany diocese should have been aware of the abuse because "numerous parishioners and students talked openly about the fact that Brother Murphy had sexually abused others." 

The abuses outlined in the lawsuits filed under the one-year look-back window took place decades ago. 

And while we can't go back in time and change the past, we can commit to creating a world where sexual abuse of children really is a rarity. 

Too many of the lawsuits filed under the Child Victims Act claim that people in power looked away from abuse, rather than confront it. 

That's extremely troubling, because it suggests that sexual predators get away with abuse in large part because other people enable them to. 

The good news is that it doesn't have to be that way. 

As a society, we have it in our power to take claims of sexual abuse seriously — to listen to children and youth who claim they were abused, investigate their claims and take action. 

The lawsuits filed over the past week are sad and disturbing, but they present an opportunity to reckon with what happened, and make sure it never happens again. 

Hopefully we'll seize it. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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