Seminar in East Liberty to help clergy deal with sexual abuse

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Although clergy are required to report any suspicion that a child in their congregation's care has been physically or sexually abused, many either don't know what to do or are afraid to make the report, say organizers of a workshop for clergywomen on child protection.

Although some denominations -- notably the Catholic Church since it adopted its child protection charter in 2002 -- provide extensive education to clergy and parishioners about child abuse prevention and reporting, in many traditions it's rarely addressed.

"Some clergy are getting a lot of information and others are getting none. We are trying to bring the two together to expand their knowledge and share their insights," said Rochelle Sufrin, an organizer.

The workshop, slated for 8:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Monday at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in East Liberty, is a follow-up to Pittsburgh's first Interfaith Clergy Workshop for Women in May. That session was on working with adults who were victims of domestic violence. The 34 participants said they wanted more information on what to do if they suspected a child was being abused or neglected.

Many people were raised with a stereotype that a child molester is likely to be a suspicious-looking stranger, when more than 90 percent of victims know the perpetrator and 68 percent are abused by a family member, said Ms. Sufrin, a Highland Park resident who serves on Jewish Women International's Leadership Council and is co-chair of the Council on Domestic Abuse Coalitions.

"I'm a Penn State alum, and the whole thing with Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno and the university really affected many of us," she said of her desire to ensure that suspected abuse is reported.

The workshop requires pre-registration at 412-363-1013 or rrsuf@aol.com, and the $25 registration fee must be paid at check-in. A continental breakfast is included, and participants can bring a lunch or buy one.

Topics include the spiritual role of clergy with victims and families, legal requirements of a mandated reporter, keeping programs safe from predators and testimony from a mother whose children were sexually abused.

Among the speakers is the Rev. Susan Cherian, associate pastor at the Smithfield United Church of Christ, Downtown, and a psychotherapist who worked with child victims at a rape crisis center for 16 years before.

Sometimes, she said, "clergy are intimidated and freeze" when they suspect child abuse. If they are uncertain what to do or need support, she said, they can call a rape crisis center such as Pittsburgh Action Against Rape for advice and guidance. Reports can be made anonymously.

It's important to treat all abuse claims seriously, and to ask questions if a child doesn't want to be around a certain person, she said.

"Although there are no physical scars with sexual abuse, there are a lot of emotional scars," she said. "It introduces sex in an abusive manner ... and in the future they may subject themselves to more abuse."

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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