I wanted to provide readers with an update on my column that ran today on Yahoo!Finance about a murder in a small New Jersey town. Jose Feliciano, a janitor at St. Patrick’s Church in Chatham, NJ, was arrested and charged with stabbing pastor Edward Hinds to death, after the priest reportedly told him that he would be fired. A lawyer for the Archdiocese told reporters it was because of financial problems at the church, where Feliciano, a father of two, had worked for 17 years.
Now there appears to be more to the story. Feliciano failed a criminal background check. Prosecutors said he was wanted on 1988 charges in Philadelphia for “indecent assault” and “corruption of minors,” according to the DailyRecord.com.
All churches are conducting background checks of both staff and volunteers — even those who chaperone school field trips — as a result of the child sexual abuse scandal in the church. Ironically, just yesterday, I filled out the form for a background check and participated in a 90-minute training course on keeping kids safe, because I volunteer at my kids’ Catholic school as an adviser to the newspaper.
I admit that initially I was annoyed at the requirement. Why should parents have to jump through hoops because of the evil acts perpetrated by a sick group of individuals?
Now I am hugely grateful for the training, because I know how to protect my kids – and yours too. I had thought that most of these crimes were committed by strangers – such as the tragic kidnapping and murder of seven-year-old Somer Thompson in Florida on her way home from school. (News reports said at least 90 convicted sexual offenders lived within a three-mile radius of her home.)
But in the training, the moderator showed a video that included interviews with pedophiles serving time for their crimes. They talked about how they gave the outward appearance of charming and generous community volunteers, befriended their victims, and then put themselves in a position to have access to children alone. One man operated a roller rink and taught skating, coached a girls’ championship softball team and even worked as a Santa Claus during the holidays. He would take photos of his students skating and put them in a album in a secluded part of the rink to lure the kids there. Only one parent, he said, objected and asked for the photo and the negative. (“I thought, ‘Smart parent,’” he said.)
Another, who was a father himself, said he targeted his son’s friends who seemed vulnerable — households where a father was absent or where there was some conflict with parents — so he could step into the role of a trusted buddy. He would trick, rather than force, children into compromising situations, so they would feel somewhat responsible or guilty and therefore not want to tell parents. (The man was caught when he sent photos to a lab that featured naked children jumping on the bed, and the photo lab turned them over to police.)
Here are some of the warning signs of sexual predators: They are more excited to be with children than adults; they always want to be alone with children, and discourage other adults from participating or monitoring. They give gifts to children, often without permission. They go overboard touching, wrestling or tickling. They allow children to engage in activities their parents would not allow; they tell dirty jokes or show kids pornography.
The video also included heartbreaking interviews with victims whose lives were shattered by abuse; one by a camp counselor, another by a teacher, a third by a priest. All of them wondered aloud why no one noticed that something was amiss with the adult’s behavior. The moderator also gave an example of a trusted church usher who kindly volunteered to take crying children from their parents during services, and watch them in the back. Several people noticed he was always taking the children to the bathroom. He was later arrested for exposing himself to children. (On a percentage basis, the number of sexual predators found in the clergy is the same percentage found in the larger society; although abuse by religious authorities is particularly horrific because children often associate that person with God.)
I used to become riveted on child safety during holidays like Halloween, or after hearing news reports of abductions. Now I am paying closer attention to who is around my kids in their day-to-day activities. I’ve spoken with them about protecting themselves from predatory adults, and taught them to say, “No!” and run away if anyone touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable (especially someone they know). I’ve made it clear they can tell me anything and would never get in trouble for sharing information about something that happened. If you see the warning signs above, call child services; reports are confidential. You could save a child from a lifetime of emotional pain.