Bermuda’s first charity aimed specifically at child sexual abuse is celebrating its official approval by going live on the Internet and courting supporters at this wek’s Bermuda Marathon Weekend road races.

“We are here, we are watching, and we’re going to get the word out,” warned SCARS president and founder Debi-Ray Rivers, who said that sex offenders in Bermuda will be left with “few places to hide” as more residents are trained in how to spot the signs of child sexual abuse as well as the common traits of perpetrators.

The charity’s name is an acronym for Saving Children and Revealing Secrets, and organisers say its mission is to raise awareness and push for tougher legislation.

But the group is not on a “witch hunt”, added executive vice president Jon Brunson.

“What makes us different is our focus on this very specific issue, and our emphasis on prevention, to minimise the act itself from occurring.”

With its new website and first lectures at local schools, SCARS also caught the attention of running fan Ewelina Kudla, who is gathering sponsors for the charity at the Bermuda Half-Marathon this Sunday.

Ms Kudla, an insurance worker, said she was taken with the organisers’ passion for their cause.

“I’ve been getting sponsorship from friends in Poland, where I’m from, and Belgium, the UK and Germany,” Ms Kudla said. “For me, there is something about helping vulnerable children I have always chosen children’s charities in the past.”

Ms Ray-Rivers said Bermuda badly needs to start talking.

“It’s difficult when everybody knows everybody,” she said. “Victims are less likely in Bermuda to come forward. Their abuser could be someone well-respected in the community, or someone everyone knows. Families don’t want to report what’s going on because of the shame. But how they respond determines how that child will heal. At the end, children need to see accountability.”

Added Mr Brunson: “It’s a taboo subject. What we’re trying to do is get the conversation going.”

The two will head to South Carolina next month for a workshop, the Stewards of Children programme, offered by the child advocacy non-profit group Darkness to Light.

Ms Ray-Rivers explained: “We will use our training back here in Bermuda to encourage people who work in organisations connected with children sports groups, Sunday schools, teaching organisations to learn what to look for.”

The goal is for Government to toughen requirements for any organisation that deals with children to equip members with a basic certification for spotting the signs of abuse.

SCARS wants to gain Government’s approval to operate within both the private and public sector. In the meantime, its officers are intent on getting the word out, and linking up with existing organisations, such as police, Child and Family Services and the Family Centre. They are also introducing themselves to the public and listening to the often disturbing stories told by victims.

“We’ve spoken at Clearwater Middle School and West Pembroke Primary, we’ve talked on the radio talk shows, and we’re working on other engagements,” Mr Brunson said.

“Just speaking on the radio, we heard from an older man who was a survivor of sexual abuse from when he was between the ages of seven and 12. But to hear his story and how he told it, it was like these things had happened to him yesterday. That’s how fresh his wound was.”

So far, there has been no criticism of the group and its goals.

An initial application by SCARS for approval by the Charity Board was turned down last summer over concerns that their organisation would be “doubling up” doing the work of an already-existing charity. The group had to take its appeal to Community Development Minister Michael Weeks.

“And rightly so,” Ms Ray-Rivers added. “There are so many charities in Bermuda that do similar things. We had to prove why we are different, and we did. We’re about prevention. There are many organisations that work with children, but for the most part their focus in on what happens after sexual abuse.”

Following a review, approval was granted in October.

Although SCARS intends to reach out, in time, to the Department of Corrections and others who deal with sex offenders, the group also wants to send a message to would-be offenders that “a watchdog is out there”, she added.

“To be physically attracted to a child is an illness, and to act on it is a crime. And someone who knows that this act is being committed on innocent children becomes an accessory to that crime if they don’t report it.”

As for adults learning how to prevent, recognise and react responsibly to child sexual abuse, Mr Brunson said: “Reacting responsibly is very important. One thing we also say to anyone who deals with the care of children is that, if you ask a child a question about being touched inappropriately, you have to be prepared for the answer you may receive.”

He continued: “Our work is about arming parents, teachers and professionals with information on what to look for, what the signs are. One thing child molesters do very early is groom their victims. It is not an impulsive act. Ninety percent of the time, the child abuser is someone known to you. They’re manipulative people who look for weaknesses that they can exploit, and part of our goal is to unmask them.”

However, identifying proven sex offenders is “one thing we have to be very careful about”, he said.

For Ms Ray-Rivers, a key issue of how society treats child sexual abuse will be adjusting the boundaries of the law.

“Prosecution should be taken out of the hands of families,” she said. “If police have evidence, they should prosecute. What family wants to prosecute one of its own trusted members?”

Mr Brunson added that SCARS has joined others in the community in calling for legislative change but the group knows efforts will take time.

“We are all for the electronic monitoring ankle bracelets for sex offenders, so that the authorities can keep track of where they are,” he said. “That’s useful, and the sex offenders list is useful. How they will be used is yet to be determined.”

Still in its early stages, SCARS uses Mr Brunson’s office in the Vallis Building as a physical base, and lately has put the brunt of its efforts on getting its website up and running.

This Sunday, their first fund-raiser, Ms Kudla, will run 13 miles to show her support and raise some capital.

“I couldn’t believe that someone I didn’t even know would do this for us,” Ms Ray-Rivers said. “It means a lot.”

By Jonathan Bell The Royal Gazette