Hunter Ahrens, age 17, a senior at Exeter Township Senior High School, Reading, and a scout with Troop 377, Reading, is completing his Boy Scout career with an Eagle Scout project through “Exeter Against Abuse.” The project is aimed at helping to protect and ultimately save children in Berks County, throughout Pennsylvania, and across the country.
Ahrens called together members of the Exeter community, as well as Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-126th), professionals in the fields of child protection and child sexual abuse, State Rep. David M. Maloney (R-130th), and Sen. Judith Schwank (D-Berks) on Jan. 29 to hear the statistics and goal of Exeter Against Abuse.
The community event was held at the Reiffton Elementary School, Reading, one of the schools where Ahrens wants the Exeter School District to begin educating its students to the reality of sexual predators.
The Exeter Against Abuse flyer states that 42 million Americans are sexual abuse victims, and one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they are 18-years-old.
Christine Cieplinski, an original steering member for the Children’s Alliance Center, Reading, said her professional counseling indicates the number of girl and boy victims are the same.
She said also that nine times out of 10, sexual predators are someone the child knows: a relative, neighbor, an older friend, coach, teacher, or any authority figure.
Rozzi relayed his own story of abuse by a Catholic priest.
That priest had singled him out during a Mass when he was eight-years-old and then used his authority to “befriend” Rozzi, which led to sexual abuse that lasted for five years, until he ran away from an incident.
He said two of his best friends ultimately committed suicide after suffering from sexual abuse.
Rozzi later learned the priest had previously been transferred from 16 different Catholic schools and parishes due to sexual abuse allegations.
He said that similar allegations against other Catholic priests in the 1940’s resulted in the Catholic Church building and opening in 1947, Camp Ped, a pedophile rehabilitation center in New Mexico.
“They just kept moving him around,” said Rozzi, adding, “My sex offender had 200 victims.”
By the time he could talk about his abuse, seek help, and go to the authorities, the statute of limitations had expired.
Rozzi has introduced legislation that would temporarily lift the statute in child sex abuse cases.
House Bill 238 and Senate Bill 1103, introduced by Sen. Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin), would “establish a two-year window during which the civil statute of limitations would be suspended to allow past victims of child sex abuse to access the justice system and expose guilty perpetrators,” said Rozzi last September when the bills were introduced.
“It is frustrating to sit with legislators who wanted to help the people of Pennsylvania,” said Rozzi. “If they wanted to help, legislators would have passed this already.”
He said at least 30 groups want to move the legislation forward, but members of Congress who could move it out of the Judiciary Committee for a hearing or a vote won’t due to their connections with the Catholic Conference and Insurance Federation, the two major groups opposed to the legislation.
“Let’s expose these perpetrators and hold them accountable. The one thing we can do is bring awareness to this. We cannot look the other way, we need to call the police. Most of the time it is your family members who are the perpetrators.”
“If you abuse children, you need to be held responsible, you need to be held accountable. It’s heart-breaking because of the letters we get. I understand your pain and I will never stop the fight to protect the kids in this state. I would be proud if we could protect one child. This is not a party issue.”
“We need to let the kids know they have the power,” said Rozzi. “We need to give victims the voice they need, and help them move forward with their lives.”
Melissa Haydt, vice president of the Children’s Alliance Center, Reading, said she conducted 460 child sex abuse interviews in 2013 on children as young as three and up to age 18.
“Three years old is the youngest, regarding the ability to communicate. But that is not the youngest age, there are babies. A six-month old contracted a sexually transmitted disease. They need to know at a young age to tell someone, if someone does something that makes them feel uncomfortable.”
“I think Hunter has the right idea for the Exeter School District to approve a program. If the school district does allow such a program (and curriculum) all children will learn how to protect themselves from sexual abuse, date rape, and learn that it is okay to tell someone, and that it isn’t their fault. I hope that it will mushroom into other school districts, because that will be a tremendous help.”
The CAC lists the following physical signs of sexual abuse: difficulty walking or sitting; torn, stained or bloody underclothing; pain or itching in the genital, vaginal or anal area; venereal disease, and pregnancy.
Behavioral signs of sexual abuse include an unwillingness to change for, or participate in, gym class; withdrawal from family, school, or friends; reverting to more childish or infantile behavior; bizarre, sophisticated or unusual sexual behavior or knowledge, and reports of sexual abuse.
Cieplinski’s organization does annual productions of the “Vagina Monologues,” “I Am A Beautiful Creature,” “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and a Prayer,” “Words from Prison,” an annual children’s production, as well as the workshop, “Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse.”
“Boys turn their sex abuse anger outwards and girls turn it inwards on themselves,” said Cieplinski, adding that their writings indicate when things are good and also when things “start to go sour.”
She said children’s performances in plays help them to share their stories and sometimes to help them to stand up for themselves for the first time.
Other signs that she has seen include: an abnormal fascination with genitalia, new bedwetting or toilet issues, sudden depression or anxiety, change in attitude, nightmares, sexual dreams, a new distance from a friend or relative, loss of appetite, anorexia, bulimia, attachment issues with parent, self harm, heightened startle response, sleep disorder, substance abuse, teens running away, and attempted suicide (either real or as a means to tell their story).
“In younger kids there may be a regressive behavior, but in all ages a compulsive behavior that could lead to the need to change physical features (cut their hair), which shouldn’t be ignored,” said Cieplinski, adding that some teens need the pain from tattoos or piercings to help relieve their guilt.
To report suspected child abuse call Childline at 1-800-932-0313.