High profile cases, such as the Jerry Sundusky case, have garnered national attention in recent years, bringing the sexual abuse of minors to the forefront of public awareness. Incidents have happened everywhere from schools, to churches, to neighborhoods. Deaf schools are not immune to this tragedy.
In the 1950s, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy molested countless students at St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis. Despite the boys’ attempts to report the abuse, Murphy’s actions went unaddressed until after his death in 1998.
“Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” a documentary produced by Alex Gibney, explores and exposes how the Catholic church mishandled sexual abuse in schools and churches throughout the last century. He uses St. John’s School for the Deaf his primary example.
The priest abused the men in the film when they were schoolboys in the 1950s and ’60s, favoring with horrendous cunning the ones whose parents couldn’t speak to their sons in sign language.
As the boys grew into men they began to communicate with one another, and eventually became some of the first to go public, in the 1970s, with accusations against a priest. — The New York Post
Deaf children are uniquely susceptible to sexual predators, so deaf schools, particularly residential schools, should be especially vigilant.
Most deaf children struggle with communication with the hearing world.
The language barrier stands between communication with parents, church leaders, non-signing school administrators and law enforcement officers.
Because many hearing parents choose to not learn to sign, some children who go to deaf schools view the school as their family—classmates become siblings, while teachers and dorm parents become like parents. If abuse is coming from within the school, they are less likely to see their parents and others outside of the school as allies who can come to their defense.
Also, it is not uncommon for the abuser to be one of the few, if not the only, links that a child has with the hearing community. A victim is not going to ask an abuser to interpret as they report abuse.
The residential school environment creates the innumerable opportunities and provides predators unparalleled access to potential victims.
Schools shouldn’t just be concerned about faculty and staff abusing children, but students as well. Two families filed lawsuits against Colorado School for the Deaf because they believe that the staff was aware of, but did not report or prevent a 14-year-old student from sexually assaulting other students.
Like any other child, fear is another primary factor when it comes to reporting sexual abuse. Whether the abuser is an authority figure or a peer, fear of backlash, disbelief and negative attention plague victims and often keep them from reporting abuse.
Deaf schools should have very specific plans in place to prevent, report and stop abuse.
First of all, education is the most important aspect for deaf children. They need to know what is appropriate and what is not. These standards must be communicated in a way that they understand clearly.
There should be multiple people they can go to if they feel threatened or are abused. That way each authority figure is held accountable by the others.
An open door policy must be implemented AND communicated with students. They must understand that they can come forward and report abuse without fear of repercussion.
All reports, no matter how unlikely they seem, must be investigated immediately and the proper law enforcement agencies must be notified.
Gibney’s film shows the lasting emotional impactimpact of sexual abuse. Four deaf men share their stories in ASL, voiced over by actors.
The HBO documentary will be released in Feb. 2013.