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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops’ charter

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Transmitted 04/13/2004 4:50 PM ET

School gym becomes classroom for adults learning to protect kids

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

BETHESDA, Md. (CNS) -- In a grade school gym on a rainy night, Harriann Walker strode between the basketball hoops overhead telling more than 100 adults how to protect children from sex abuse.

"Sex abusers rely on their power over victims. They feel love for their victims. They look for jobs enabling them to have contact with children. They look like everybody else," she said, her hands moving rhythmically as she ticked off the points.

Walker, a Catholic school educator for almost 30 years, now has turned her attention to adults, too. She is one of 12 people in the Washington Archdiocese specially trained to teach parents and church volunteers about child sex abuse and archdiocesan policies to prevent it.

Because of the clergy sex abuse crisis, similar classes are taking place throughout the United States as dioceses implement safe environment programs aimed at instructing priests, employees, volunteers and children.

In late March Walker took her videocassettes and energetic classroom manner to Our Lady of Lourdes elementary school in the Washington suburb of Bethesda. There, folding chairs temporarily transformed the gym into a lecture hall.

Walker's main archdiocesan job is as principal of Holy Redeemer elementary school in nearby Kensington.

As the shadow of the netting on a basketball hoop fell over the projection screen in the blue and white gym, Walker outlined to parish volunteers how to properly relate with children and told parents about the warning signs of sex abuse.

"Remember, you cannot be prosecuted for making a good faith complaint about child sex abuse," she said, gripping the edges of her green cardigan.

Safe environment programs are mandated by the U.S. bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," approved in 2002 in light of the clergy sex abuse scandal.

Dioceses "will cooperate with parents, civil authorities, educators and community organizations to provide education and training for children, youth, parents, ministers, and others about ways to make and maintain a safe environment for children," says the charter.

The charter also requires background checks through law enforcement agencies of all clergy and of lay employees and volunteers who have regular contact with minors. The aim is to keep out of ministry, jobs and volunteer positions anyone having a child sex abuse record.

In the past two years, hundreds of thousands of names, addresses, fingerprints and Social Security numbers have been zipping through computer databases for the background checks and the results returned to diocesan officials. Several dioceses have reported finding people with child sex abuse records among their employees, volunteers and job applicants.

Experts in child protection programs note that background checks and education programs are the pillars of any system to safeguard children. Background checks alone are not enough as the vast majority of offenders never are officially registered because child sex abuse is greatly underreported.

"Background checks are important, but only 10 to 15 percent of predators have criminal records or have been reported to child protective services," said Sid Johnson, president of the nonprofit Prevent Child Abuse America.

Tim Delaney, adviser to the Washington Archdiocese on child sex abuse policies, said one way to fill the gaps left by background checks is for dioceses to contact all the references people list on their forms.

"Many employers don't call. People who abuse children know this and take advantage," said Delaney, a retired captain in Maryland's Montgomery County Police Department. He worked for 28 years in the division that investigated child sex abuse and also helped develop policies for the National Capital Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Policies should be easy to understand and leave little room for interpretation, he said.

Given that there is no foolproof system, the aim of policies, education programs and background checks is to reduce to a minimum the risk that child sex abuse can take place in a church environment, he said.

"Right now, the Washington Archdiocese is making itself a very unfriendly place for people who abuse children," said Delaney.

Problems have arisen in some dioceses which require Social Security numbers for background checks of volunteers and have significant Hispanic and other immigrant populations. Many foreign-born volunteers lack a number because they are undocumented immigrants.

The U.S. bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, which oversees application of the charter, is studying whether adequate background checks can be done on volunteers who lack Social Security numbers.

For employees the lack of a Social Security number is not an issue because they need one to be hired.

Dioceses are reacting differently to the situation.

For example, in the Boston Archdiocese, which uses a mandated Massachusetts state system based primarily on name and address, providing Social Security numbers is optional. In the Washington Archdiocese, fingerprinting and Social Security numbers are mandatory.

Overall, dioceses have been implementing background checks and safe environment programs.

As of Jan. 6, when results of a national audit of diocesan compliance with charter policies was issued, only 9 percent of the 191 dioceses audited were not in compliance on safe environment programs and only 7 percent were not in compliance regarding background checks.

In setting up safe environment programs, many dioceses are contracting specialized organizations which provide "training the trainers" services. Under these programs, specialists in sex abuse prevention train local facilitators, such as Walker, who then instruct diocesan personnel, volunteers and children.

The Washington Archdiocese is one of about 80 that uses Virtus, a program developed by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group. The risk retention group, owned by 61 dioceses, issues insurance and organizes programs to help church organizations reduce their risk liability.

Virtus is a Latin word meaning "valor" or "moral strength."

The Virtus program was started in 1998 and has special programs for adults and children. It also trains Hispanic facilitators who can then adapt the program in Spanish for the growing Latino Catholic community.

A main magnet for many dioceses is that Virtus incorporates Catholic values and the Catholic approach of involving parents in education programs dealing with their children.

Other organizations with faith-based programs being used by dioceses and church organizations include Girls and Boys Town of Omaha, Neb., and Praesidium Religious Services.

These organizations also hold sessions for large groups -- such as teachers, priests or youth ministers -- who have specific concerns regarding their work with children.

Main issues for such groups are how to show affection and what are proper ways of touching and hugging children, said Sharon Doty, Virtus education and training consultant.

"Children need to be touched, but in a nonsexual way," she said. "We don't want people to become afraid to touch."

Doty said solutions for adults involve hugging and touching children in public settings rather than in isolation and respecting a child's right to say "no."

Some parents, however, have objected to schools and parishes providing safe environment instruction to their children, saying it is sex education and should be done by parents at home.

In the Diocese of Arlington, Va., such protests led church officials to develop a system in which parents are instructed in the Virtus program and then parents choose whether their children participate in the sessions for minors.


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