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Editorial: Abuse in plain sight

Child-abuse lawsuits involving the Catholic Church dominated the initial headlines when the Child Victims Act opened a window for filings on Aug. 14, but it was always clear that the problem was much more widespread.

The accusations brought against a former social studies teacher in the Kenmore Tonawanda School District are not only especially loathsome, but hint at a possible wave of future suits against teachers in schools of every kind.

The case of Arthur F. Werner, a former social studies teacher at Herbert Hoover Elementary School, is particularly unusual. Rather than assaulting young boys in a secluded place, the victims — then fifth- and sixth-graders — accuse Werner of calling them up to the front of the classroom and groping or fondling them through their clothes, in view of the other students.

As of Thursday, Attorney Christopher J. O’Brien had filed 20 lawsuits in State Supreme Court, naming the Kenmore Tonawanda School District as the defendant. After filing the first four of them, O’Brien said the community might be seeing only “the tip of the iceberg.”

The district’s liability for incidents that happened in the 1970s are for the courts to decide, but the question must be asked: How can a teacher behave that way in plain sight and not be stopped? According to one accuser, an art teacher walked into Werner’s classroom one day and saw Werner groping a student, but did nothing.

Just because schools in the 1970s didn’t put up posters saying, “If you see something, say something,” there’s no fathoming why someone would not put a stop to a teacher who was humiliating and traumatizing children in such a public way. Did classmates of the children being abused never tell their parents about what they saw? Did the teacher have such a hold over his students that none dared speak of his alleged illicit behavior? Were there no teachers or administrators at Hoover Elementary who suspected what was alleged to be taking place in Werner’s classroom, and couldn’t one — just one — have done anything to stop it?

Answers to some of these questions will come out in court, but some will be lost to history.

To its credit, the district says it learned of a complaint about Werner about a year ago and investigated, spoke with law enforcement and made sure Werner, now 86, was not still working with children.

The Child Victims Act has given abuse victims a one-year window to bring lawsuits over crimes from years ago that previously were prohibited by New York’s statute of limitations. More than 550 lawsuits have been filed throughout the state, including more than 100 against the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. Hundreds more lawsuits are expected across New York.

Teachers, camp counselors, coaches, priests and other religious leaders, as well as the Boy Scouts are among the accused.

For the abused, the psychic and emotional scars can last a lifetime. If Werner did what he is accused of, he not only inflicted lasting emotional damage on those he molested, he scarred other students in his classrooms who witnessed his behavior and wondered if they would be the next victims.

According to the American Counseling Association, childhood sexual abuse has been correlated with higher levels of depression, guilt, self-blame, eating disorders, anxiety and sexual and relationship problems.

Lawsuit awards or settlements won’t “make whole” the victims of child molestations. That’s something money can’t buy. But the lawsuits will at least give the victims a chance to be heard and show would-be abusers and their enablers that there is steep price to pay for their crimes, even if it is too long in coming.

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