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'Sexual-Abuse Hysteria' Cited for Climate of Fear : Children: Priests, Scoutmasters, teachers and coaches often are reluctant to show affection, fearing the gesture will be misinterpreted. But they warn that children, and society, have lost something valuable.

March 20, 1994|DAVID FOSTER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

When the Rev. Ron Wolf greets parishioners after Mass, sometimes a child will run up and give him a big hug. In more innocent times, it was the kind of loving gesture that made a priest's day.

But these are not innocent times.

Now, a child's hug freezes Wolf with apprehension. Too many priests have been accused of sexual abuse, he said. Too many parents are suspicious of any affection shown to their kids.

"I have to be really, really careful," said Wolf, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas, a Roman Catholic church near Albuquerque, N.M.

"Sometimes the thought goes through my mind, 'I wonder who's watching? Who's taking a picture?' I've never had any problems at all, but I'm not taking any chances."

He's got company. Priests, teachers, coaches, Scoutmasters--people once considered pillars of any community, trusted as role models for children--now often find themselves under a cloud of suspicion.

Fear of sexual abuse allegations has prompted some adults to stop working with children altogether. Others try to protect themselves by withholding the physical affection shared freely in more trusting days.

"What you are seeing is sexual abuse hysteria," said Dr. Richard Gardner, professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University. "People are running scared. You can't touch kids anymore."

It's not that young children no longer crave hugs, kisses, cuddles or pats on the back.

"Children need nurturing touch," said Cordelia Anderson of Minneapolis, a lecturer on sexual health and violence prevention.

"But now, if you mention touch, people think about sexual abuse. Many adults are more worried about litigation and protecting themselves than giving children what they really need."

You can hardly blame them. If Americans once buried their heads in the sand about sexual abuse of children, a stream of gruesome headlines in recent years has made it seem as if exploitation is everywhere: Orgies at preschool. Molestations behind the altar. Sex in the Scoutmaster's tent.

The rate of reported abuse has risen sharply since the 1970s, but nobody knows for sure whether it's because abuse is increasing or because people are more aware of the problem.

One thing is certain: Nobody is immune from accusation.

Consider the case of Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, one of America's most visible Roman Catholic prelates and a leader in the church's struggle to rout priestly pedophilia.

In November, 34-year-old Steven Cook filed a $10-million lawsuit accusing Bernardin and another priest of molesting him as a teen-ager. In February, Cook dropped Bernardin from the lawsuit, saying he no longer trusted his hypnosis-recovered memories. But the damage to the cardinal's reputation remained.

Bernardin's vindication produced little cheering among Catholic leaders. Scores of sex-abuse cases involving priests are still hanging; one estimate puts the church's cost of settling the scandals at more than $400 million.

If the Rev. Wolf is wary of hugs, it's because he headed an investigation of sex-abuse lawsuits that have brought his archdiocese to the brink of bankruptcy.

"What happened to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe is an absolute, unmitigated disgrace," Wolf said. "I think we have to take the necessary precautions to make sure that abuse never again exists."

Wolf said he is never alone with altar boys. If he counsels a young woman at night, she has to bring a parent, and when the session is over, there are no hugs, just a handshake.

His reserved demeanor saddens him.

"I care about children," he said. "But in this day and age, you have to set your limits. And the ones who think they're so secure . . . they're the ones that are going to be thrown to the wolves."

Absent specific instructions from Catholic leaders, priests are on their own to develop a personal code of conduct. But many other organizations that work with children have more formal hands-off policies.

The Boy Scouts of America requires that two adults be present during all Scout activities. Many public school districts have unofficial no-touch policies. The YMCA's national office advises local clubs to scale back on touching older children.

"It's very natural for a preschool child to cuddle up against you while you're reading a story," said Leslie Cohn, YMCA spokeswoman in Chicago. "With a school-age child, you'd say, 'No, sit beside me.' "

Richard Blount knows how easily good intentions can be misread. The retired owner of a Seattle travel agency volunteers as a reading tutor at an elementary school.

One day, he picked up his 9-year-old student for an outing to Mt. Rainier National Park. He didn't realize that two women were trailing him, thinking Blount had forced the boy into his pickup truck.

After 20 miles, the women pulled around Blount to cut him off. One jumped from the car and screamed to a bystander, "Call 911! He's kidnaping that boy!" When police arrived, they called the boy's grandfather and straightened things out.

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