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NORTH RICHLAND HILLS (CBS11) – A search for answers—and perhaps a child predator—is underway in North Richland Hills. Police are investigating allegations of child sexual abuse at St. John the Apostle Catholic Church.

The accusations became public over the weekend after a statement from the Fort Worth Diocese was read at each mass.

In part, the statement references having received “reports very recently of sexual abuse of children by a layman who is a member…” The accused has been described as a volunteer at the church, although a name has not been released. According to the statement, “…abuse is alleged to have occurred over the last seven or so years.”

Three children have brought accusations. Two of the incidents allegedly occurred on church property, perhaps “during evening prayer meetings.”

An alleged third incident involving the suspect occurred in Colleyville, but, North Richland Hills Police are leading the investigation into all of the incidents and Monday told reporters that they intend to move cautiously.

“The victims… [are] our primary concern,” says Keith Bauman, North Richland Hills PIO. “But, we are also not at liberty to talk about an individual until we have additional evidence… or information to say ‘yes, this person is accused of this’ and we have this information. We don’t have that at this time.”

According to Bauman, police were first contacted July 7. Two other reports were made shortly thereafter. However, police today declined to release any details of the suspect and would not divulge who contacted them—whether a parent after receiving an outcry or another mandated reporter.

“The children need an advocate,” said Bauman at an afternoon briefing. “If grownups don’t protect the children, nobody will. But, at the same time we don’t want to accuse an individual of a crime they didn’t commit. So we don’t know where this is going to go.”

Meanwhile, experts call child abuse the “national crisis that makes us cringe” but, that we still hesitate to confront.

“It’s easy to believe that it’s an outlying issue… the truth is: the incidents of sexual abuse is much more rampant than we’d like to believe,” says Kristen Howell, Chief Programs Officer at the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center. The staffers there would most likely not be asked to consult on the North Richland Hills case, so we asked experts there to provide guidance for parents who are not being asked to talk to their children about a topic that most would rather avoid.

Howell says that the best way to get accurate information from a potentially abused child is to have one expert conduct the interview. Often she says an abuse victim will shut down having “told what happened before” and critical details may be lost. So when probing, she encourages parents to monitor their own emotions: stay calm and “find out if something has happened and stop there, and call authorities.”

She also reminds parents to not minimize what they may hear. “Children don’t come home and say ‘oh, my gosh, something bad happened to me’,” says Howell. “It’s gone on for a number of times, it’s been very confusing to the child and they know it’s a secret. So they know they’re not supposed to report it. But, they don’t know what it is.”

Howell recommends keeping the lines of communication open and keeping the conversation with young children simple—for example: using the parts of the body that a bathing suit covers as areas that should remain private.

“It’s important to have conversation on an ongoing basis with your children on how they can stay safe and how you as an adult will keep them safe.”

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