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SINCE THE ESTABLISHMENT of a Safe Environments Office in 2003, some 90,000 people in Fairfield County have received awareness training or materials on the prevention of sexual abuse. Heading the office, based at the Catholic Center, is Erin Neil, M.S.W. "We need to be vigilant at all times," she says. (PHOTO BY JOHN GLOVER)
In the five years since U.S. Catholic bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People at their landmark June 2002 meeting in Dallas, TX, dioceses across the country have made significant strides to instill practices that will ensure the safety of people of all ages, anywhere in the Church.
The positive changes that followed the Charter were of great significance for Diocese of Bridgeport, not only because of its own abuse crisis, but because Bishop William Lori played an important role in drafting the Charter, which has guided the Church's response to the crisis across the U.S.
"The Charter incorporates appropriate standards, codes of conduct, mandatory reporting, screening, and training," says Bishop Lori. "The Catholic Church in the United States, including the Diocese of Bridgeport, has done so much to protect God's children, not just Catholic children but all children. In fact, no organization or entity in the United States has done more to ensure a Safe Environment than the Catholic Church."
In the Diocese of Bridgeport alone, the statistics are staggering. Since the establishment of a Safe Environments Office in 2003, some 90,000 people have received awareness training or materials on the prevention of sexual abuse. This includes 30,000 clergy, employees, and volunteers in diocesan departments, all 87 parishes, 39 Catholic schools, and 23 Catholic Charities locations who have undergone mandatory VIRTUS Protecting God's Children training and a background check; 14,000 students in Catholic schools; and more than 46,000 parents and, in some cases, grandparents. Over the past four years, 1,330 Safe Environment training sessions have been held in Fairfield County, in seven languages.
Three independent audits have found the diocesan Safe Environments program is fully complaint with the Charter and, in many cases, exceeds expectations. And, since 2002, there have been no reports of any new (current) cases of abuse of a minor in any Church institution in Fairfield County or, in fact, the entire state of Connecticut.
"We accepted a challenge to change, be proactive, and establish a new standard of vigilance in the diocese and our community as a whole," Bishop Lori adds. "I believe we have become an even more enlightened Church. Everyone who comes under the care and guidance of the Diocese of Bridgeport must feel safe, fulfilled, and enriched."
What is most remarkable now, five years after the worst crisis of modern Catholicism, is how much the Church has learned from the experience. Word from those who work in the Diocese of Bridgeport and other dioceses across the country is that the Safe Environment policies that were fostered by the Charter have been integrated in the day-to-day life of the Church, from volunteers serving at church fairs to young men studying for the priesthood.
While there is need for healing and the full impact of the crisis may not be known for years, the response formulated by the Charter has helped clergy and laity come to terms with an issue that was originally nearly unspeakable.
Erin Neil, M.S.W., founding director of Safe Environments for the diocese, says that since the child sexual abuse crisis came to the forefront in 2002, the diocese has taken unprecedented steps to confront the issue, assist victims, seek forgiveness, ensure the safety of minors, and restore credibility. While training within the Diocese of Bridgeport has been nearly universal and the hard work has been done, Neil says the diocese is committed to continuing education, research, reviewing and updating policies, and retaining awareness so that the safety of children remains a priority.
"The four cornerstones of our diocesan Safe Environments Policy are awareness training, background checks, open communication, and codes of conduct," Neil explains. Helping to implement the policy are the Safe Environments Office, the lay-led Diocesan Sexual Misconduct Review Board, and the Victims Assistance Coordinator. Additionally, all 87 parishes have a Safe Environments coordinator and health and safety committees that provide other safeguards for children.
Neil credits the leadership of Bishop Lori, the 87 pastors, lay volunteers, and the technical expertise of Catholic Charities with making the diocesan program a success.
"Catholic Charities has been a tremendous resource," she says, noting that Catholic Charities has coordinated the training of 14,000 children in the diocesan Catholic school system and provided mental health services to victims, clergy, and others.
Catholic Charities Vice President Bill Hoey has personally trained more than 1,000 people and also serves as Victims Assistance Counselor along with Neil. He says the diocese should be proud because it has trained more people than much larger dioceses across the country and turned a difficult situation around.
"Early VIRTUS seminars were tense," Hoey recalls. "There was much vocal opposition and anger expressed. What has been striking to me is the 180-degree turnaround in people's reactions based on the complete commitment of the program. At this point, Safe Environments training is considered a routine part of the life of the diocese. The success of the program has played a large role in producing that shift in people's opinions. People see this as a core value of the diocese, not simply compliance with a mandate."
Neil believes that resistance was worn down by the acceptance of people themselves. Early responses, such as "I am offended that you would ask for a background check," or "This is clergy problem, not a lay problem," soon changed to acceptance as the parents themselves provided eloquent testimony through parish bulletins and other sources.
Tim Dineen of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Wilton has been involved in Safe Environments since the beginning. He remembers a story in Fairfield County Catholic about a new training program and thinking, "Who would want to do that?"
But the more he thought about it, the more he felt he might be able to help. The retired Union Carbine employee was always involved in his parish and was aware that the Church was going through a difficult time. He remembers that the early sessions were quite heated, with many parishioners feeling they were being unduly put upon for a problem that was not of their making.
"I let them vent in the group and then got on with the presentation," he remembers. "Most left the training feeling positive, realizing they hadn't understood child sexual abuse or how to detect and prevent it."
Parents and Grandparents
Erlinda Zelaya, a bilingual VIRTUS trainer, has been instrumental in delivering the training to the Hispanic community in the Norwalk area. As Safe Environments coordinator for Saint Mary Parish in Norwalk, she also has seen a decrease in resistance to the training.
"Almost everyone who attends a training session is either a parent or grandparent," she says, "and they walk away from the training with their eyes opened to things they haven't thought about. Many begin to think twice about where there own children are going, who is watching them, and how best to protect them."
Liz Harakal, director of religious education at Saint Stephen Parish in Trumbull, also believes that most adults are over the upset they may have initially experienced. As a veteran public school teacher for 34 years, she welcomed the training and continues to find new ways to safeguard the 117 children who come to the parish for religious education.
"The training is really a worthwhile effort," she says. "You go away with a whole different perspective and realization. The world of today is not the one we lived in 40 years ago. We have to be proactive." Harakal makes sure doors are locked once classes begin and that children are never unattended.
Harakal believes time is healing wounds, perhaps in part because the Safe Environments program has been so successful in coming to terms with a deeply unsettling problem. She believes personal faith helped put the crisis in perspective.
"It never lessened my faith," she concludes. "We all make mistakes, and we all seek forgiveness. Our faith in Jesus Christ keeps us going, and strengthens our resolve to never let this happen again."