WASHINGTON – When students at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville return from Easter vacation, the school rector will go to their religion classes and talk about the priest sexual misconduct scandal that began in Boston and hit closer to home recently.
“It needs to be addressed. They expect that it will be addressed. I believe that we have an obligation to address it,” the Rev. William Sullivan said.
Across Maryland, Catholic schools, with little direction from their dioceses, are deciding how to talk to their students about the scandal or if they should talk about it at all. For elementary schools, the issue is more delicate, but many high schools, such as DeMatha, found discussion of the scandal necessary.
Sullivan said his students are sophisticated. They read the newspaper and watch the news on television and many have brought up the issue in class.
In February, a Boston priest was sent to prison for molesting more than 100 boys over 30 years. Locally, a pastor in Washington was recently accused of sexual misconduct with two young women 18 years ago and a Baltimore priest was charged with possessing child pornography.
In the Diocese of Wilmington, which serves the Eastern Shore, officials reported 15 cases of child sexual abuse by priests in the past 25 years.
While the incident has been addressed from parish pulpits, Catholic schools are finding their own way.
“As a school, we look for the teachable moment to convey issues and teach that there is always more than one side to everything and what they see and what they read is not always the entire perspective,” Sullivan said.
At the Cardinal Gibbons School in Baltimore, principal Gary Meyerl thought it important to discuss the scandal with the middle and high school boys. He said there has been open conversation in all of the religion classes and the boys and their families have been encouraged to pray.
“This is Holy Week. We need to pray for those who need forgiveness,” Meyerl said last week. “All too often, we only pray for those who have been victimized, but we need to remember those who are victimizing as well.”
At the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, the girls have been encouraged to pray for the whole Catholic church. Danielle Ballantine, a spokeswoman for the high school, said teachers try to be sensitive and compassionate when the issue comes up in class.
Ballantine said they teach the students to have respect for their bodies and to have the courage to come forward and get help if anything inappropriate happens.
“Our bottom line is to help the girls make good decisions and to have respect for themselves and others,” she said.
In some elementary schools, discussions about inappropriate behavior resulted in some children coming forward with problems at home or in previous schools, said a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington. Susan Gibbs said some of those cases have been reported to the authorities.
Gibbs said the archdiocese sent crisis intervention teams to schools that had been in contact with the Washington pastor accused of sexual misconduct. Counselors worked with teachers and students to initiate “good touch/bad touch” conversations, she said.
But many Catholic elementary schools decided not to discuss sexual misconduct after the recent headlines.
The principal at Our Lady of Fatima Elementary School in Baltimore said it was not appropriate to talk about the scandal with her students.
“We’re just an elementary school, so it’s not something we would openly discuss with the students,” Jean Wimmer said. “Because it hasn’t directly affected us, we haven’t made an issue of it here.”
At Saints Peter and Paul School in Easton, director of development Brian Barnes said they decided it would be better to let parents and parishes deal with the scandal.
“We feel that it’s a matter dealt best through the diocese and the parishes in their own way, and for the parents to deal with as they would deal with any issue that came up,” Barnes said.
He said they used a similar approach to deal with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Teachers told the students that something bad had happened and to talk to their parents about it when they got home.
But other Catholic schools are having more open discussions about the scandal and its impact on the church.
After an Easter prayer service Tuesday at Archbishop Martin Spalding High School in Severn, school President Michael Murphy addressed the 950 students, the faculty and staff.
Murphy, citing the pope, said, “There’s a black cloud of suspicion over every priest right now.” Then he thanked the school priest, the Rev. Tom Ryan, telling him they were lucky to have him there.
Guidance counselor Michael Calderone said the whole school stood up and applauded.
“When Dr. Murphy said everything about Father Ryan, it wasn’t the faculty or the staff, the students initiated the ovation,” he said.