The Philadelphia Archdiocesan Office for Child and Youth Protection is headquartered at 17th and Vine

The flood of horrors revealed by investigations into child sexual abuse in the Pennsylvania Catholic Church continues to pour forth.

After Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro released his 3,000-page grand jury reportsurvivors have sought justice via the courts, state legislators have debated solutions and federal investigators are getting involved.

Although many questions surrounding blame and redress are still pending, the airing of the allegations seems to have so far had at least one measurable effect:

More Philadelphia church abuse survivors are coming forward to report.

Almost as many people came forward in August as all of last year.

In the three months since the grand jury bombshell, the number of people contacting the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Child and Youth Protection to discuss childhood sexual assaults and seek services has skyrocketed.

If you extrapolate out, reports appear to have nearly quadrupled compared to a similar time frame in 2017.

Since July 1, aka the start of the Archdiocese’s fiscal year, the office has received 24 reports of childhood sexual assault involving clergy. Compare that to the entire 12 months previous, during which time the office handled a total of 19 abuse reports. If this new pace kept up, it would translate to nearly 77 reports for the year — a jump of around 400 percent. (Archdiocese officials declined to provide data on reports filed in previous years.)

Of the abuse reports filed in Philly since the start of July, there were:

  • 4 filed in July
  • 12 filed in August — the month the statewide report was first released
  • 4 filed in September
  • 4 filed so far in October

“The survivors we’ve been working with have had a challenging time,” said Leslie Davila, CYP director. “They’ve expressed that hearing it repeatedly has been retraumatizing for them.”

Home of the Philly Archdiocese’s Victim Assistance Program Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Hearing about abuse can trigger the same reaction as abuse itself. 

Increased outreach for help is common among survivors of sexual assault when the topic appears in the news.

During the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, for example, there was a 201 percent spike in calls to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network hotline. And when the #MeToo movement gained national attention in October 2017, the Crisis Text Line reported double the number of people reaching out with stories of sexual assault.

“When these type of stories are in the news, many survivors feel empowered to come forward,” Davila said. “Many sexual violence centers and sexual assault centers are also reporting an increase in calls.”

The experience of remembering trauma can be just as painful as experiencing it in the first place, scientists believe — your body releases the exact same chemicals. So when Philadelphians who’ve experienced sexual abuse as children hear today’s news on the same topic, they’re vulnerable to experience that trauma all over again.

For the Office for Child and Youth Protection, this means an influx in reports. Oftentimes, Davila said, they’re survivors coming forward for the first time, who had never before reported their abuse.

People who’ve already reported come forward, too, because they need extra support in the face of regular news about the trauma they experienced.

“We’ve seen an increase in calls from survivors, some of whom were already known and had not been in contact with us for some time,” Davila said. “They’re re-engaging in services.”

The Philly Archdiocese says it’s focused on healing and prevention.

Across the country, archdioceses maintain victims services agencies to help those who’ve survived childhood sexual abuse at the hands of the church. These offices have been around more than 15 years — ever since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established its Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The USCCB set these agencies up in July 2002, six months after The Boston Globe uncovered hundreds of allegations of childhood sexual abuse committed by clergy in a half dozen Massachusetts parishes.

In Philly, the CYP staff provides a variety of services, including:

  • Counseling
  • Abuse prevention education (for children and adults)
  • Background checks for everyone working with kids
  • Responding to allegations of abuse
  • Working with local authorities to report abuse
  • Disciplining offenders

As is apparent at this point, these nationwide victims services agencies have not solved the problem. Philly’s Office for Child and Youth Protection acknowledges that people have raised questions about its effectiveness.

“There is a lot of hurt and a lot of pain that is out there, not just from victims and survivors but the community at large,” Davila said. “We try to be responsive in explaining the procedures and the steps we have put in place to help victims and survivors heal.”

And ultimately, Davila said, she’s confident that her office’s services have made a difference.

“We continue to do this work — to listen to survivors, to be there for survivors, to provide support,” Davila said. “The Archdiocese is really focused on the healing and protection.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...