Cathy Shannon is director of Child Protection and Victim Assistance for the Archdiocese of Portland.
Cathy Shannon is director of Child Protection and Victim Assistance for the Archdiocese of Portland.

In Boston 15 years ago, news broke that multiple priests had committed child sexual abuse. That prompted investigations and lawsuits across the country.

A decade ago this summer, a prayer service took place in Portland’s St. Mary Cathedral. It marked a conclusion of the Archdiocese of Portland bankruptcy, which had been caused by claims from almost 180 accusers. At the service, this was one of the prayers of the faithful: “We have chosen to save face rather than save children. We have been silent when the truth needed to be spoken. We ask for mercy, Lord.”

Under the guidance of then-Archbishop John Vlazny, the archdiocese was a leader in creating and revising a policy on the protection of children. Local church leaders established codes and standards of conduct for employees and volunteers. Screening and background checks are still in place for clergy, religious, seminarians, employees and volunteers. More than 11,000 background checks are completed per year and are renewed every three years.

Workers, parishioners and even school children get trained. Materials are offered in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean.

There are few reports of current abuse, and the number of cases from decades ago is shrinking in general.

“But we need to stay open and responsive,” says Cathy Shannon, director of Child Protection and Victim Assistance for the Archdiocese of Portland since 2002. Though convinced that children are safer now than they were then, Shannon can’t feel at ease.

She says there is still much to do to change statistics in general society: 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be abused before the age of 18. Dioceses in the United States recorded 730 allegations in 2016, up from previous years, though mostly because the statute of limitations was lifted in Minnesota.

Some days, Shannon feels exhausted and sad. She must keep at parishes to get their people trained. She hears many painful stories. “But I am also in a graced moment,” she says, explaining that her faith has helped her realize that Christ is with people in their suffering.

She is optimistic. More parish and school staffs take the initiative and ask her, “How can we make things safer for kids?”

Shannon realizes that many Catholics are fatigued by news of abuse and lawsuits. She knows things are better and safer now, but also knows the church cannot let down its guard. She hopes that the more Catholics know about victims, the more compassionate they grow.

“We are learning how destructive in a child’s life abuse can be,” she says. “They need coping mechanisms. Their anger may upset us, but sometimes that is the only thing they have control of.”

Shannon has advanced her office’s work to the next step, exploring boundary violations between adults and children — such as a coach seeking to be alone with a child, a teacher telling dirty jokes, a camp counselor sending suggestive texts and clergy asking youngsters to keep secrets. Catching problems in this phase may prevent sexual abuse.

Shannon also is addressing inappropriate behavior between children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 36.9 percent of 14-year-olds have had sex — more than one out of three. Among 12th-graders, 66.4 percent have had sex. Some of that activity is abuse.

Meanwhile, pornography is an epidemic and is linked to abusers, Shannon explains. Two-thirds of males ages 13 to 24 admit to using pornography frequently. “Many young adults and teens don’t see the harm in it,” she says. “It’s a destructive element to the brain.”

Shannon and the archdiocese’s family life office are teaming up to launch a porn prevention awareness program.

The church also is working to thwart sex trafficking. Proximity to interstate highways and the river, combined with weak laws, makes Oregon the state with the second most instances of trafficking. Many minors are involved. Parishes have received a video DVD program about the problem.

Pastoral center workers rely on hundreds of parish and school staff to help the child protection system work. Shannon feels hopeful because she has seen an increase in reporting on warning signs. She often calls workers to tell them they must halt the suspect behaviors immediately and that people are on the alert.

Shannon cannot say it often enough: Anyone who has reasonable cause to believe a child is being abused should go directly to the police or state child protective services.

Find out more

Archdiocese of Portland Child Protection and Victim Assistance Office, 503-233-8302 or