Warning: adult-y serious post. Names and situations have been changed or generalized to protect the innocent.
Last weekend was the award ceremony-show known as the “Oscars.”
For the record, I don’t think I have ever watched an award ceremony on the television. Generally speaking, there are many other ways I’d rather spend my time. But, I respect the yearly awards, and I know that they’re popular…and, they kind of set up an interesting lens for my week.
The big-time winner was, apparently (for I didn’t watch, and so I’m merely relying on hearsay), “Spotlight,” a film about the Catholic church/ sex scandals/ predators/ abused children/ the newspaper who broke the story in Boston.
This post is not about the movie. I didn’t watch it, and I probably won’t watch it for two reasons (1) I rarely watch movies of any kind and (2) I’ve worked for the church for a long time, so I know the ugly side of it just like I know the beautiful side of it. And pretend like, in your spare time you were going to watch a movie…would you really pick one that highlights the ugly of your job? Maybe you would. I, though, probably won’t.
This post is not about the sex scandals, either, but, on the chance that a reader has gone through any kind of abuse, I do want to take the time to say: friend, I’m so sorry. I encourage you to take the necessary (and often challenging) steps that will bring you to greater wellness. <3 (More resources).
This post is, instead, about the week I had with my brother, Pauliwog, at a local community center. I have nothing against this community center (which, actually, isn’t a “community center,” technically. I just don’t care to reveal what it actually is. There are good people there, doing good things. It has positive programming for kids. I have good memories from this space).
When we were young (shout out to Adele), Pauly and I acted at a community center just a few miles from our house. For the most part, good times. We have solid memories of our time there. Once we graduated from high school, though, we graduated from the program, too. So, it had been years since we were involved at this community space.
A few weeks ago, though, Paul received an email from some of the adult volunteer squad who we knew when we were involved. They were like, “Could you guys help us out? We have no adults to help in the sound booth.”
Now, Paul and I had no experience in working the sound booth, but they promised to train us, so off we went. This past week I have spend every night (except one) in the community center, working with young folks on a production.
Oddest experience of recent times.
Background: I was fifteen years old when the Boston news first broke about priests and children and all that danger. I was still a minor myself, then. As a minor, I saw a few changes made to the church I knew, and I understood them to be reasonable precautions. For instance: confessionals, usually dark, closet-like spaces, where often renovated to have glass doors, or the doors were left open. Things like this. To a fifteen-year-old, these aren’t exactly pressing matters.
I’ve volunteered with kids since about that time, helping with Vacation Bible School and the like. Sometime in the next few years, I took a course on “Protecting God’s Children,” something that is now mandated for any person who works or volunteers for the church who might come in contact with children. Every diocese has some form of this program, a way to educate adults on helping children stay safe. The emphasis of the course I took talked about understanding the thought-patterns and signals of predators, being aware of signs from children that they may be abused, those kinds of things. It was a three-hour class and, in my opinion, not a bad training at all. And, at the end, we all emerged as mandated reporters–responsible to report any suspected abuses. We were all required to have criminal background checks run on our histories. We are all required to have all of this information stored by the Archdiocese. It wasn’t perfect, but, it was important.
I currently volunteer a youth minister here at my tiny-parish. When I first began, the Director of church-things for kids and teens was like, “Do you have your certification complete?” and I told her that I did, because I do. All on the same page.
One time at my tiny-church youth group, only one kid showed up for youth group. This is a big no-no in the world of safe environments for children, where, in case of accusation it becomes someone’s word against someone else’s word. We moved our meeting to a space where we could be seen at all times by another group of adults who were having a Papal-encyclical discussion. Half of those adults are also probably trained for similar safety measures. Afterwards, I emailed the Director about the situation, and we talked back and forth in case such an event would arise again and, when it did, a minor and I again met in a space where we could be seen and heard by other adults and children.
This is the care I have been trained to provide inside of the church. Last week I attended a training session for people who work with youth. The discussion turned to providing safe environments for children in the online world, as well. The safety of minors is highly discussed in this post-scandal world. We strive to be vigilant, aware, and pro-child-safety.
Enter community center.
Enter adult-volunteer le me.
I was to tend the sound booth, which is a dark little room with a closed-door…with a singular minor.
Wave all the red flags.
I told my brother, “PAUL. We are always going to be together in there.”
It gets weirder.
I realized: no one conducted a background check. No one verified my training with kids. No parents stopped in to introduce themselves. None of the other adult volunteers worked in there with me. And, for three hours, every night, I worked with this minor, we’ll call him “Simon.” (But, so you know…I was with Paul).
On one of the first days I asked Simon, “So, tell me something about yourself, kid.”
Cue the floodgates of personal, intimate information on childhood wounds and fears and parent-child struggle and a bunch of other stuff.
Internally, after that one, I was like, “*pant pant pant* Jesus, I just came here to turn on microphones. You need to give me more warning.”
It gets weirder.
Speaking of microphones, you see. So, microphones can get finicky when they get sweaty, because water + salt (“sweat”) + electrical equipment = concerns.
There is a solution that the community center has offered, and that is: condoms over the microphone packs. Literal condoms stretched over the electrical box to protect (heh. pun!) it from kid-sweat.
Now, I’m a Catholic-lady who happens to agree with church teaching (lovingly! Hey church, I love your stance!) on things s-e-x and all dat jazzzzz (as they would say in “Chicago, the Musical”). Because of this: I don’t take any artificial forms of birth control. I don’t “mess around.” And I certainly haven’t had any reason to work with condoms….until this past week, that is. (But, I mean, I know what they are).
The community center buys condoms in huge bags which, if I had to estimate, hold about 500 condoms each.
It gets weirder.
One night, though, we ran out, and someone went to the drugstore to buy some more, and they came back with those condoms that are individually wrapped.
I went to help Simon give these condoms to the kids for their microphone packs, and he ducked into a different dark hallway (historic community centers, like this one, are mazes of hallway upon hallway), so he could open all the packs without the little kids seeing them, and I started helping him, and right about when we finished that project I was like, “Well. This is one of the weirdest moments of my life. Opening condoms in a dark hallway with minor.”
DO YOU GUYS KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT PREDATORS?
I know a few things, thanks to the mandated-training. First of all–to other adults they seem friendly and kind and really kid-involved. They do this to build a front of trust, where people don’t suspect them. Secondly–they usually have a “grooming” process, where they’ll trot out some sexualized information to see how the kid responds.
I was basically in a predator’s heaven. Hurting minor. Dark place. No background check. No pre-volunteer questioning. Open access to kids. Open access to narrow spaces. Even open access to sexual paraphernalia.
YOU. GUYS. I wasn’t even in some awkward, never-used role. There were any number of other adults with a minor or two under their “care,” and they also have access to dark hallways, vulnerable children…and who knows what else.
In the church-y world I know, just about every adult is trained to avoid these situations (and, believe me, I hustled to keep this minor in safe situations, but often the environment was working just as hard against me). In the church-y world I know, the trained adults are all trying to keep their eyes open to potential abuses.
Now, I want to believe that every single parent volunteer in that space is a loving, gentle, caring person. I want to believe that every adult volunteer who just shows up to “help,” just loves giving back to the community…but I have no way of knowing that, do I??
I realize that the parents hope and trust that every person in that place had the best interest of their children in mind. And, hopefully, they do.
But, you guys.
In a post-scandal world, we can’t just assume this about everyone. The safety of children is a very real, very serious concern.
The contrast of the situation struck me: the award-winning film about scandal, contrasted against the church-world I know that consistently questions how to improve safety contrasted against the space set aside for youth and community that didn’t enact basic precautions like background screening.
(I mean, I know that I work for a church and kids and all that…but no one asked me.)
I guess I have a few reflections on the whole matter, now that that week is behind me.
First of all, I acknowledge that the Catholic church was rocked by something really ugly, where some people made bad, hurtful decisions and other people suffered. But, when dark things came to light, the church responded quickly and continues the conversation and strives for healthy environments…more so, I’ll say, than what I see in the secular realm.
Secondly, there need to be way more discussions about this, in the public sector. It would be awesome if more people were aware of the dangers present to children, how children can be preyed upon, what signs to look for, etc. It would be awesome to have more precautions in place, for the safety of children.
In addition to this, parents need to remain very, very vigilant. Assuming that their children are in safe zones, dropping them off at the door, and then driving off can be a mistake…a very serious mistake. I understand that not every parent has the luxury of being involved and present in their children’s lives…but, even a little can go a long way, in my opinion.
Lastly, I am very effected by the few children I worked with. I’ve worked with kids for over ten years now, and pain is often very real in their lives. But, this week exposed me to new levels of suffering.
I basically talked to two minors the whole week, Simon, who you heard about, and “Alex,” who I joked with once or twice, amidst a cast and crew of about 30-40. I would basically just ask the kind of things that adults ask children, which is like, “Hey, how was school today?” or “So, what kinds of things do you want to do when you’re done with high school?”
These are very simple and safe questions.
Only, I heard a lot of hard things. Suicide stuff. Self-harm stuff. Deep family wounds stretching back for years stuff. I tried to address these professionally and adult-y like, but, with only a few days and no contact with history or families or school professionals…I could really only offer pointed suggestions for wellness, sincere words of care and well-wishes, and my presence for a week in their lives.
I’ve done a lot of work within church settings. Now, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t seen hurt and I haven’t seen broken, because I have.
The amount I saw last week, though, took things to a different level.
And I’m just wondering how to come to terms with it, as a member of the church.
Our current Pope Francis is really into talking about going outside of the church, outside of the church, outside of the church…reaching the people who haven’t made it in yet.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of needs within the church, but Pope Francis is sending us out and out and out.
And I see their faces, these two kids, Simon and Alex, who are really hurting and really vulnerable…and they need people to ask them questions like, “So, what can you tell me about yourself?”
I didn’t think that I was the right person for them. Because I don’t have any way to follow-up with them, you know? Because I know safety precautions, I didn’t even ask for their last names. They will not be contacting me.
But, as a church–how do we need to be going into our community spaces and being present?
And, how do I, as a member of this church, with a heart confirmed in love and the Holy Spirit, best use my time here?
One last story and I’m out.
On Friday night, I was talking to Paul, just Paul, even though there were kids around. I said, “Paul, what are you doing after this?”
And he said, “I don’t know, do you want to watch a movie?”
And I said, “No, let’s go to 24 hours!”
The Pope, you see, asked that Friday-to-Saturday would be set aside, “24 Hours for the Lord”, in churches across the world, where the churches would stay open all night long and priests would be available for confession and talking, and JESUS CHRIST would be present in the exposed Eucharist for us to pray.
Paul said, “Eh, I don’t know.”
And I said, “Come on, Paul, it will be fun!”
Paul did end up going, as did I.
The next day we went to the community center, again.
Alex saw us and said, “I thought that maybe you two were hungover from going out last night.”
And I said, “What are you talking about, kiddo?”
Alex said, “You said you were going to 24 Hours. I thought that it was a club.”
I laughed and told him that it wasn’t, and that we were praying instead of clubbing. I didn’t know that he had heard us talking. I didn’t know that he would remember.
But, before I left the community center that night, the final show I helped with, he found me (in a hallway…sigh), and said, “Hey, when will there be 24 Hours again? Can you pray for me, at that one?”
And I told him that I would.
I told him that of course I would.
(Also, currently trying to decide how to bring up the issue of safety with the more adult-y adults at said community center. Prayers and support and pointers appreciated).