Ten years ago few in the church had heard the voices of those abused by its clergy. The U.S. Catholic bishops, meeting in June 2002 in Dallas, Tex., changed that, however, as they came to grips with a problem that was deeper and more extensive than they had realized. Their soul-searching led to the passage of a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and to several structural changes. Among the most significant of these is the creation of two new ministries: that of victim assistance coordinator and of safe environment coordinator.
Today every diocese has a victim assistance coordinator, whose ministry is to hear and help people abused by members of the clergy and to encourage others to come forward if they too have been abused. Every diocese also has a safe environment coordinator, whose job is to make sure dioceses and eparchies, parishes and schools create and maintain safe environments through screening and training programs. These two positions stand as a driving force behind the implementation of the U.S. bishops’ charter.
These new ministers come from a variety of careers and educational backgrounds. Most victim assistance coordinators are licensed social workers or other mental health professionals. Safe environment coordinators tend to be teachers, principals or human resource professionals. In some dioceses, safe environment coordinators work in the human resources department, in others the education office. All seek to make the church a safe place for children and young people, a place parents can leave their children with confidence.
The new ministers assist within and beyond diocesan boundaries; the services they offer help anyone who works with youth. Public awareness of the need for their wisdom has grown dramatically in recent months, as Americans have seen that sexual abuse of minors occurs not only in church activities but in sports programs, scouting and youth groups—in virtually any program that brings young people and adult mentors together. Youth programs do a vast amount of good and attract generous people willing to guide youngsters, of course, but they also have the potential to attract predators. As a result, the new ministers must deal at times with the dark side of humanity.
Still, as Mary Girard, victim assistance coordinator for the Diocese of Alexandria, La., puts it, “I have never doubted that it was God who wanted me in this position.” Paul Duckro, director of the Office of Child, Adolescent and Adult Protection in the Diocese of Tucson says, “I believe I have grown personally in taking on this ministry, and I am grateful to have been called to it.”
The work is not for lone rangers. “I am supported just by being part of this group of S.E.C.’s and V.A.C.’s, not to mention the benefit I have received from the wisdom and the talents of so many of my peers,” adds Mr. Duckro. The bonding among these ministers resembles that found in other high-stress careers, like firefighters, police and military in wartime.
Victims No More
The goal of the victim assistance coordinator is to help abuse victims become survivors. “I was able to assist in providing help for healing to the majority of victims who previously were not believed, who were rejected, dismissed,” says Ms. Girard. “I have seen people whose whole lives were affected by the abuse from clergy…. They grieve the loss of their church and sense of God.”
So have I. In 2003, as the new director of the Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults for the Diocese of San Jose, I attended, at the invitation of a survivor, a meeting of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Sitting in a circle, the participants started to introduce themselves. I said Ihad come from the diocese to listen and help. There I learned of the immense pain and struggle of abuse victims. I heard stories of lives turned upside down because a victim reported abuse, as well as stories of strength and courage, determination and forgiveness from the victim/survivors. Some participants expressed love for the church; one expressed at the meeting a strong personal desire to make sure no other child is abused.
The crime of sexual abuse of minors calls for many types of action by the church. Dioceses have placed victim/survivors on their review boards, pastoral outreach committees and bishop advisory boards. Some of these survivors staff support networks that offer victims the kind of understanding that comes only from shared experience.
Research and experience show that victims of sexual abuse come from all walks of life, ethnic and cultural backgrounds and socio-economic classes. Some have experienced abuse as a one-time incident; others have suffered it for years. Among victims, minors typically suffer confusion, disgust, guilt, fear and shame; many describe a sense of being frozen, of not knowing what to do and yet feeling responsible for what happened to them. The effects of therapy are varied: some victims have recovered, while others have not. Some victims have committed suicide. Some have returned to church, while others want nothing to do with the church. This is the world of the victim assistance coordinator.
Keeping It Safe
Safe environment coordinators express a sense of calling by God and a fierce determination to see the bishops’ policies (outlined in the charter) implemented in diocesan parishes and schools. Some safe environment coordinators have taken bold stands in the community. They have suspended a head coach a day before a big game because he failed to attend training. They have suspended teachers because they were behind on their training. They have suspended volunteers because the required background check had never been completed.
They have also removed volunteers deemed a liability because of their grooming behavior toward minors. Singling out one child for special attention, giving gifts, wrestling or consistently being alone with a child are red flags. The coordinators know to avoid risks when it comes to minors and to trust their instincts when they signal discomfort with child-adult interactions. They have also been heartened to hear parents recount how their children told them of boundary violations before the behavior became abuse because, said the child, “I finally get what all that training was about.”
The coordinator’s two main responsibilities are screening and training.
Background checks: Some 75 dioceses/eparchies required background checks before the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” mandated them in 2002. Since that year all diocesan clergy members, employees and volunteers who work with children are required to undergo a background evaluation and training. Initially, some parish and diocesan leaders felt this was an overreaction. Many changed their view, however, when they learned that background checks had uncovered convicted sex offenders and child abusers, who should not be around children.
Early on, some dioceses and eparchies reported that the number of volunteers had dropped off as a result of the mandate. Having to submit to independent audits in 2003 caused dioceses a unique set of problems. Diocesan Annual Reports noted confusion about what was required of them. That took time to sort out. Yet by 2008 almost all dioceses and eparchies were found compliant with the charter, article by article. By 2010, management letters were issued to offer guidance for performance improvement or to highlight potential problems. Those conducting the 2011 audits will issue recommendations to further improve the record-keeping and implementation. While background checks and training may make volunteer recruitment more difficult, the measures have become routine—two of many steps that parishes and schools take to protect children.
While most bishops are involved in complying with the charter and the audit, there are exceptions among several eparchies and two dioceses. Thecharter is an agreement among the bishops to hold each other accountable, and as such each has a moral obligation to participate. Participation in the audit is voluntary.
The Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., participated in the first audit (2003), was found compliant and has since refused to be audited. The Diocese of Baker, Ore., held to the standard that parents be the only teachers for their children, especially about topics of this nature. A diocesan training program for parents only was developed. The diocese did not participate in the audits because the bishop at that time knew the diocese was not in compliance. The current apostolic administrator is addressing this situation and expects to participate in the 2012 audit. Both dioceses have identified victim assistance coordinators and secure environment coordinators.
Prevention is costly. According to a survey in 2010 by CARA, U.S. dioceses/eparchies reportedly spent $20,954,405 in 2010 for abuse prevention (not a large amount compared with the damage to a child and the overall cost of settlements). The expectation is that as adults working with children learn what their protective roles are, what to look for and how to respond to questionable behavior, then sexual abuse of children can be prevented.
Training programs: The goal of training is to educate adults on the nature and scope of abuse. Few adults realize that one in four females and one in six males report having been sexually abused as a child (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006). Strangers commit 11 percent of sexual abuse; relatives, 29 percent; and “people known to the victim,” 60 percent. Sexual abuse of children occurs in all socio-economic groups and neighborhoods.
Over the last decade, safe environment coordinators have seen to it that more than 58,843 priests, deacons and candidates for ordination; 239,090 employees; 162,026 educators; and 1,686,713 volunteers in parishes have been trained to create safe environments and prevent sexual abuse of children—a staggering accomplishment.
Safe environment training reaches beyond church institutions. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, for example, has offered training (using the risk-control program VIRTUS) to Lutheran, Methodist and other congregations that participate in joint youth programs with them. The Diocese of Grand Island provides continuing-education credits approved through the Nebraska Nurses Association; medical and mental health providers who participate in a daylong workshop can receive license-renewal credits. The Diocese of San Jose offers joint safe environment workshops for parishes that host boy scout groups. Attendance enables scout leaders to fulfill both the scouting requirements for working with youth and those of the diocese.
Though it is always the adult’s responsibility to protect minors, safe environment coordinators also train children. The training teaches youngsters how to recognize grooming behavior, for example, and encourages them to tell a trusted adult if another adult does something that makes them uncomfortable. According to the CARA report, more than 5,107,000 children were trained in the 2010 audit year. Research shows that children who received training were more likely to report what made them uncomfortable and less likely to blame themselves. Data also indicate that adults who received training as children were less likely to have become victims of abuse.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” The policy document addresses many aspects of the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy, and implementation continues to be refined. Catholics ought to feel more secure, knowing that two new ministries are in place. The victim assistance coordinator and the safe environment coordinator are working to help those wounded by abuse and to prevent abuse now and in the future.