After Priest Sex Scandal, Church Obliquely Warns Kids

David Clohessy was 11 when his Missouri priest began to molest him.

For four years, on church-sponsored trips, hundreds of miles away from home, the boy would wake in the middle of the night to find the man he trusted on top of him.

Clohessy initially blocked out the memories, until he learned that three of his brothers had also been victimized.

The trauma weaves through every aspect of his life: He filed a lawsuit against the priest who molested him, who was later suspended but not defrocked, and counseled other survivors of priest abuse.

But the most profound impact has been on how he has raised his own two boys -- now 11 and 15, exactly the same age as Clohessy when he was first molested.

"Sadly, there are few sleepovers at people's houses, and they have probably been told more than most kids about their body and privacy, and how to protect themselves," he said.

Clohessy has been watching the Catholic Church in New York City, where the archdiocese is distributing age-appropriate books to children to help safeguard them against similar abuses.

One -- a coloring book -- depicts a guardian angel hovering over a man under an open door and child at the altar. The angel says, "If a child and an adult happen to be alone, someone should know where they are, and the door should be open or have a big window in it."

The man does not wear a collar and is not explicitly characterized as a priest, an omission that disturbs Clohessy, who is now the national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

"I think we should err on the side of clarity," he said. "We just have to bite the bullet and say to kids, even a grown-up who you like and your parents respect, and even a grown-up in a position of real authority, with a fancy title and a big job, can hurt you."

This mea culpa from the church is not only vague but useless, said to Clohessy.

The coloring book was designed to be part of the abuse-prevention curriculum mandated by a 2002 U.S. bishops charter. The book offers a series of warnings about gift-giving strangers and online predators. Priests are finally mentioned, but as part of a word search for a list of adults who can be trusted.

"It's a step forward, but it doesn't go far enough," he said. "It continues our society's longstanding preoccupation with 'stranger danger' when, in fact, research shows the overwhelming number of kids are abused by trusting adults."

In 2002, the Roman Catholic Church was engulfed by scandal when Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law resigned for overlooking the sexual abuse of thousands of children over many decades.

The crisis was not isolated there. As public furor grew, other dioceses began confronting abusive clergy in their ranks. SNAP and other rights organizations estimate as many as 100,000 children were victimized.

Edward Mechmann, director of the church's Safe Environment office, told ABC News that the New York Archdiocese didn't want its book program to be "just a reaction" to the scandal.

The program, he said, was developed as a starting point for discussions between children and their parents and teachers.The coloring book and a comic book for older children are part of a larger religious curriculum and other efforts to educate and protect children.

"We could have just focused on priests, but they are only a small part of the overall problem," said Mechmann. "That wouldn't have been fair to priests, most of whom are good and holy men."

Sexual abuse, said Mechmann, can come "in any direction" and "in any context" -- at home, on the athletic field, in the schools and in church. "You still have to have the proper relationship with proper guidelines and boundaries."

Clohessy argues that educational messages need to be specific to be effective.

"Scouts are vulnerable to leaders, school kids are vulnerable to the abuse of teachers and Catholic kids are similarly vulnerable to priests," he said. "But if I'm writing for the Scouts, it needs to be upfront and say leaders can be predatory."

"To put it conversely, children attending summer camps don't need to be warned about abusive rabbis," he said.

Clohessy's own trust was violated as an altar boy. "My family was devout and lived a couple of blocks from the church," he said. "We were a big family but not wealthy. He [the priest] would say he had a friend with a cabin in Colorado or we would go to the beach. We were honored in that day and age that the priest would take a child away."

But overnight trips led to unwanted touching that Clohessy still cannot describe without choking on his words. "I would freeze," he said. "I was confused and terrified, then would go back to sleep with absolutely no recollection whatsoever."

The former political consultant was never able to get compensation from the church, but good therapy, a relentless campaign to press the church for action and working with victims eventually helped him heal.

Mary Gail Frawley O'Dea, a North Carolina psychologist who works with child abuse victims, criticizes the church's too-little, too-late program to protect children. She was invited to speak at the 2002 conference of Catholic bishops in Dallas that mandated a zero tolerance policy.

Children need clear "straight-forward messages," and an atmosphere of openness, according to O'Dea. "If grampy feels your privates, you can have all the coloring books and movies and slide shows you want. But kids will still not come forward."

"You can't split off education from the rest of the way we deal with children," she said. "If you have an open relationship, and they feel you will answer their questions in an age-appropriate way about their bodies and where babies come from, that is the atmosphere in which your child is most likely to say something happened."

Ultimately, say both O'Dea and Clohessy, the Catholic Church has sidestepped the issue of abusive priests.

"They know the priests have a problem and have done nothing about it," said O'Dea. "The bishops need to hold themselves accountable. They're the ones who need the coloring books with the guardian angels."

But New York's massive Catholic Archdiocese maintains it is not just distributing a book, but working to spark dialogue on the topic, as well as doing background checks on 20,000 employees and more than 38,000 volunteers.

"Sure, we can always do more, but we've come a long way," said Mechmann. "It's a huge task and we're just one archdiocese. We wish we could do more and wish more had been done in the past. But we've done as much or more than any organization around."