Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Community forum at St. Thomas More Parish, Spokane, enhances creation of safe environment for all

by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register

(From the March 18, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

“Welcome to an experiment,” said Doug Banks.

Banks, principal of St. Thomas More School in Spokane, was moderator of a panel discussion the evening of March 9 at St. Thomas More Parish. The experiment: an evening of information, education, and raising awareness of community issues of safety, concern, and mutual support, creating a safe environment for everyone.

Invited to the gathering were members of the parish, other denominations in the area, and concerned citizens of the neighborhood.

The community forum was organized by the parish leadership of St. Thomas More Parish, working with Mary Butler, Victims Assistance Coordinator/Special Assistant to the Vicar General of the Diocese of Spokane.

Addressing the audience were three individuals with particular expertise in issues of personal and community safety.

Bob Cepeda is a 24-year police veteran, a crime prevention specialist with the Spokane Police Department.

Mary Ann Murphy is executive director of Casey Family Partners, an agency specializing in work with neglected and abused children.

Jennifer Stapleton is executive director of the Domestic Violence Consortium.

Bishop William Skylstad welcomed those attending and thanked those presenting.

“This is the first program of this kind in our diocese,” he said. He referred to the “horrific sexual abuse scandal” and urged those present to “listen, hear and respond to children when they say something bad is going on.”

There were common threads to all three presenters.

All stressed the need to be aware of neighbors, of neighborhoods, of community interaction.

“Perspective is an important thing,” said Cepeda, who grew up in Harlem, New York City. “If we allow ourselves” to become isolated, “close the windows, don’t look outside – our neighborhoods will change,” he said.

The largest numbers for criminal activity are not assaults, but classified as property crimes, he said: burglary, vehicle prowling, identity theft, and so forth.

“Be aware of something that’s out of place” in the neighborhood, he said. “Then follow through. Address that with someone. If you don’t report it,” nothing can be done, he said.

”This is a wonderful area” to live in, he said. “But unless everyone communicates, deals with the emerging problems, it can flip very easily.”

Jennifer Stapleton of the Domestic Violence Consortium addressed issues of intimate partner violence in Spokane County.

Violence in the home, she said, is often considered “a hidden issue in this country, in this community.”

According to Stapleton, however, some 50 percent of women and 20 percent of men experience domestic violence. Of those individuals, fewer than 20 percent ever access any formalized services, “including advocacy counseling services, law enforcement, courts, faith community counseling,” or other services. “The remaining 80 percent talk with friends, with their natural support systems.

“We have the ability to identify these individuals,” she said. “They turn to us for help.”

Being willing to help can break the ongoing cycle of domestic violence, which statistics indicate is an intergenerational problem.

There is “a correlation between abuse in the home” of a child and that abuse occurring later in the child’s life, as an adult. Children can come to view domestic abuse as “normal, and then initiate that abuse against someone in their own family,” she said.

By staying aware and recognizing warning signs of domestic abuse, intervention can happen, said Stapleton.

Families where domestic abuse is occurring often are isolated, she said. “They aren’t involved in neighborhood activities; hiding the secret.

“We need to break down the isolation,” said Stapleton. “We have to open the avenue for these individuals to communicate.”

Intervention isn’t enough. The community must focus on prevention as well as intervention, she said.

“Stop treating it as a private matter,” said Stapleton. “Talk about the issues. Don’t let it stay a secret.”

“Do we want to take a hands-off role? Or do we want to make ourselves aware, take action to prevent (domestic violence)? Assist those who need help but who are too ashamed, too scared to ask for assistance?

“We can save someone’s life,” she said.

Casey Family Partners began as a regional center for child abuse and neglect in 1988, said Mary Ann Murphy, the agency’s director.

In that time, professionals in the field of addressing child abuse have found that far more common than child sexual abuse – about six percent of child maltreatment – is child neglect: children without adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision.

Children also suffer severe trauma from witnessing violence.

A common misperception is that child abuse can be “discipline gone too far,” said Murphy. Child abuse, however, has nothing to do with discipline.

In the case of abuse, “the parent (or some other authority figure) has something boiling inside them,” she said. “Maybe anger, maybe sexual energy. They lash out at the child because the child is there and small and powerless. It is not at all a rational act.

“It is closer to torture than anything that we would reasonably talk about,” she said.

She also discussed aspects of child sexual abuse.

Pedophelia, she said, “is not related to homosexuality. The overwhelming majority of (sexual abusers of children) are heterosexual.”

By the time children have reached the age of 18, one in three girls, and one in four boys has experienced some form of sexual aubse, said Murphy, though she admitted that “we have only guesses about what the incidence rate is. Only two-thirds of children tell someone” about abuse, she said, and only a quarter of those abused report the abuse to a figure of authority, and only six percent report to police.

Children who have been or are being abused “try to take themselves away in some way,” said Murphy. Over the course of a lifetime, that can mean the “removal of emotional engagement.” In time it can mean self-medicating: numbing “through drugs, alcohol to keep those feelings down.”

Often, they put on weight, “so that they will not be sexually attractive,” or abuse substances, or smoke. As adults, “they have the most difficulty correcting those behaviors,” said Murphy.

But “there is heroism in the very act of surviving an abusive childhood,” she said,

First and foremost, the community must overcome the denial of the existence of child abuse and neglect. “It does exist,” she said. “It exists close to us. We cannot assume that parents or authority figures are trustworthy on the face of it. Secrecy and isolation are the two things that perpetuate family violence.”

About 25 percent of children who abuse grow up to abuse their own children, she said. For the 75 percent who don’t, it may be because “there’s at least one person in their life, preferably a parent, but someone – a friend, relative – who loved them unconditionally, which gave them the strength to overcome this experience,” Murphy said. “That’s what we can be for the people we come in contact with.”

She said, “All babies need all of us.”

Doug Banks concluded the evening with an examination and explanation of the Diocese of Spokane’s Code of Conduct for Church personnel.

The Code, he said, “Helps us to deal with the realities” of ministry in the Church. The Code helps Church personnel be more vigilant in “watching out for the wellbeing of children.”

The Code’s various aspects protect the children entrusted to the care of the Church, but also help personnel themselves, providing guidance and concrete examples of appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

One example is that “touching must be age-appropriate and based on the needs of the child, not the needs of the adult,” Banks said.

“The emphasis of the code is on the protection of children,” said Banks. “We will find ways to make these things work.”

Just as any other member of the community, Church personnel and leaders must be aware.

“We must be cognizant of the power we have as leaders,” said Banks. “People look to us and in some ways give us power, and in some ways we have that power. We have to be careful of the things we say and do, because of the positions we’re in.”

He concluded the presentation with a note of hope.

“We are here. We are talking about this,” he said. “The greatest fear is that we stand back and do nothing – do nothing to protect our communities, our children, our partners – in essence, all of us.”

(Contacts and information:
The Diocesan Code of Conduct is available on the diocese's web site.
• Spokane County Domestic Violence Consortium: 487-6783.
• Spokane Police Department Crime Prevention Unit: 625-4079.
• Casey Family Partners: 473-4810.
• A similar panel: March 24, 7-8:30 p.m., St. Mary Parish in Spokane Valley. Call Diane Sanderson for information: 928-3210.
• Parish communities interested in hosting a forum of their own should contact Mary Butler: 353-0442.)

Inland Register archives

Home | Bishop | Communications | Parishes | Catholic Charities

© The Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved