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Editorial: Protecting children

Programs this week in Easthampton explored one of the most difficult things to talk about in public: the sexual abuse and exploitation of young people. In one, Leverett artist Donna Jenson performed a play about the incest she says she suffered from the age of 8 to 12 — and then spent a lifetime trying to overcome.

Theater is a most public art form. It is a powerful tool to open minds, but as became clear in a recent criminal case in Easthampton, its backstage relationships can be as fraught as those in any workplace.

Organizers of the programs, which conclude Saturday with a writing workshop led by Jenson, can judge these events a success if they help stop even one case of abuse. Jenson showed courage in writing the story of her abuse in a theater piece called “What She Knows: One Woman’s Way Through Incest to Joy,” which took her seven years to finish.

On Thursday, she performed the piece and stayed with audience members at the Eastworks building to talk about it. On Friday, Joan Tabachnick of Northampton offered a workshop on preventing sexual abuse for members of theater organizations.

Tabachnick and Jenson chose Easthampton for this work for a reason. It was here that the founder of the former Pioneer Arts Center of Easthampton committed statutory rape by engaging in sex with one of his acting students when she was 14 and 15 years old. David Fried Oppenheim is now in state prison serving a 5- to 7-year sentence for that crime.

At his trial, other teens said they were lured into sex acts with Fried Oppenheim, who used private classes and his position as the theater’s casting chief to grossly violate the community’s trust in his organization, and student and family trust in him personally, by taking advantage of these children.

PACE is no more, but some of its former board members created a new performance group, Metacomet Stage, that helped sponsor this week’s project.

Artistic Director Mark Vecchio says the company would have liked to be the sole sponsor of this week’s programming, just to make clear that people involved with PACE understand, as he put it in an interview this week, that the “terrible” relationship Fried Oppenheim had with the student he was convicted of raping broke the trust that must exist when performers open themselves emotionally in training and rehearsals.

Metacomet Stage was one of about half a dozen arts groups that planned to attend Friday’s workshop on preventing abuse. In that session, Tabachnick planned to help participants recognize the signals given off unintentionally by someone planning to take advantage of access to young people, in whatever setting — schools, camps, art programs, church groups ... sadly, the list is long.

Warning signs aside, Tabachnick and others recommend that groups set clear policies that can prevent abuse, such as not allowing an adult to be alone with a child. That simple rule was not followed in this year’s most high-profile abuse case, that of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children at Penn State. That lack of oversight is probably to blame as well for most of the thousands of cases of child sexual abuse brought to light this month with the release of files kept by the Boy Scouts of America. The shame of Scouting’s failure to confront the ongoing victimization of children will be with us for years, as will the other institutional failure of the same scale — the Catholic church’s protection of pedophile priests.

While theater companies like good houses, the size of audiences at this week’s performance and workshops in Easthampton wasn’t the point.

Organizers went to a place where something bad happened with a fervent wish to make something good. This work needs to continue, because public awareness can be a powerful obstacle to a would-be abuser. Everyone needs to know that the abuses that occurred inside a former theater company can happen anywhere and anytime.

We don’t have to suspect everyone of abuse, but adults do need to watch out for the young people in their lives and intervene if they see something fishy. Because some people mean children harm.

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