Martine Siegel, the victim assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Louisville, has fielded dozens of calls in the last week from St. Margaret Mary Church families whose pastor, Father Stephen Pohl, was arrested last week.
The priest is charged with accessing pornographic images of children online and investigators say he possessed inappropriate photos of St. Margaret Mary School students.
The first thing Siegel has been telling parents, is this: They bear no responsibility.
“Parents and teachers are not responsible for what has happened,” said Siegel, noting that some have told her that they feel they should have known. “They’re taking on a lot of personal responsibility because they trusted him.”
Siegel, a clinical nurse specialist in psychiatry and a registered nurse, is the
director of counseling services for the archdiocese. She also served as the counselor at Holy Trinity School in the past.
What can help families, she said, is for parents to recognize what they are feeling and to be aware that their children “will take their cues from them.”
“The better grasp (parents) have of their own feelings, the better they will be able to help their children,” she said.
Next, Siegel said, it’s important to talk to children about what’s happening in their lives.
“With a middle schooler or a junior high student, you want to be direct with them,” Siegel said. “Notice their responses, both verbal and non-verbal.
“With the little ones, you’re going to be less direct; you’re going to have to look at their behavior and listen to the questions they bring home to you,” she said. “We talk about the ‘uh-oh’ feeling with the little ones” to help them identify their feelings.
Siegel said all families should discuss their child’s school’s sexual abuse prevention curriculum. Local Catholic elementary schools are required by the Archdiocese of Louisville to use the “Speak Up, Be Safe” program.
“I think it’s very important for parents to be aware of when the school is teaching the ‘Speak Up, Be Safe’ curriculum because that’s the ideal time to talk about this. It opens the conversation for the parent and child and between the teacher and students.”
Children need to know, “I can tell someone when I’m in an uncomfortable situation,” she said.
Signs that a young child might have had an uncomfortable or inappropriate experience, Siegel said, include changes in behavior, such as becoming suddenly fearful or clingy and crying; regressing or complaining of tummy or headaches.
In addition to the prevention program for children, the archdiocese also requires background checks of all employees.
And both volunteers and staff who have contact with children in the Archdiocese of Louisville are required to take Safe Environment Training. In the last fiscal year, the archdiocese trained 2,618 adults during 48 training sessions. The sessions are offered multiple times a month around the archdiocese.
The training program explains abuse-reporting laws and teaches adults to report any suspicions they may have to law enforcement or Child Protective Services, Siegel said.
“Adults need to know when to report,” Siegel said, noting that this message is worth repeating. “You don’t have to have proof that something is happening. If you suspect that some sort of child abuse is happening, then you have to call (authorities). You tell them what you suspect and let them take it from there.”
The calls can be made anonymously, Siegel said.
Child Protective Services in the Louisville area can be reached at 595-4550. The Louisville Metro Police Department’s Crimes Against Children Unit can be reached at 574-2465.