By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
In this week’s column I am highlighting our diocesan office for the Protection of Children to mark the 15th anniversary of the Catholic bishops’ Dallas Charter, also known as the Promise to Protect and the Pledge to Heal, promulgated in the midst of the sexual abuse crisis in 2002. This is in sync with the report to the Catholic bishops by the head of the National Review Board at our just finished conference in Indianapolis.
A summary of this report is included in this publication (see page 1) as well as the homily of Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta during the bishop’s Mass of Prayer and Penance at the Conference (see page 16). The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wrote and promulgated the Charter in 2002 in order to hold accountable all Catholic dioceses, eparchies and religious orders serving in the United States with respect to their commitment to protect children and young people. Most recently, I was appointed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ standing committee for the protection of children and young people and it is a privilege to serve this cause. During the last 15 years, the Diocese of Jackson has worked earnestly to create a culture of compliance and transparency to protect our children and young people as well as to provide the opportunity to heal for those who suffer from sexual abuse. Furthermore, all credible allegations are reported to law enforcement, whether or not the statutes of limitation have run.
What are we up against? By its very nature the demon of child sexual abuse feeds on secrecy, manipulation and lies and its deeds must be brought out of darkness into the light of truth, healing and hope. Wherever and whenever it occurs the abuse of minors is a crime and maintaining a steady state of vigilance on behalf of our children and young people is our diocesan standard. Those who have the urge to abuse minors are driven by their baser instincts and safe environments undoubtedly keep the wolf at bay. We can never become complacent. You might ask, what precisely is the Diocese of Jackson doing on a regular basis to cultivate a culture for safe environments?
The diocesan office for the protection of children, directed by Vicki Carollo, and under the auspice of our vicar general, Father Kevin Slattery, is accountable for achieving the goals of the Charter by participating in an annual audit performed by Stonebridge Business Partners. Stonebridge is contracted through the USCCB. The Diocese of Jackson has been found compliant with all articles of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People each year since 2003.
Each employee and volunteer working with children and young people receives a booklet containing the policy of the diocese with various components on the prevention of child abuse and procedures to be followed when reports of child abuse or sexual misconduct by church personnel are received.
Since October, 2002, the Diocese of Jackson has initiated criminal background screenings and safe environment training sessions for 14,647 adults. There are currently 4,934 active employees and volunteers working with children and young people in the diocese.
A criminal background screening is conducted prior to and during an applicant’s service. A criminal background rescreening is initiated every three years. All clergy, religious, employees and volunteers working with children and young people must complete the screening process and the Diocese of Jackson application. Applicants sign a form acknowledging they have read and understand the policy prior to beginning a ministry.
The Diocese of Jackson has designated that all new employees and volunteers working with children and young people participate in an initial safe environment training session facilitated by a diocesan trainer. Each new applicant is required to sign an attendance record of the training attended.
Beginning in September, the Diocese will implement VIRTUS’ Protecting God’s Children Awareness Program for new employees and volunteers. The program educates adults on how to better protect children from abuse. There are three training-the-trainer sessions scheduled in September.
All active employees and volunteers working with children and young people participate in VIRTUS’ web-based program. This online program consists of a monthly safe environment bulletin. The adult reads the bulletin, answers a multiple-choice question and submits the answer to VIRTUS. The bulletins provide invaluable knowledge and ongoing formation for the prevention of child abuse.
Children and young people in the parishes and schools are required to receive an annual age-appropriate safe environment lesson. The lesson is designed to help children keep themselves safe by providing the important skills they need to protect themselves from abuse. The lesson additionally provides dialogue between children and adults about keeping safe.
Each parish and school presents a parent information meeting annually. Parents have an opportunity to opt their children out from the safe environment lesson. Of course, we hope parents who decide to opt out will review the lesson material with their children on their own.
The Diocese of Jackson is committed to ensuring that no one being served by the church be at risk of sexual abuse or exploitation by clergy, religious or lay church personnel. The parishes and schools work very hard to stay in compliance with the Protection of Children program.
Recently, the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection included our Protection of Children Electronic Communications Policy in the new “resource toolbox.” This is certainly an accolade for our program. The resources are shared with all Catholic dioceses in the United States.
Like a finely-tuned engine the above course of action has many moving parts and is only as strong as its weakest link or non-implemented step. Complacency and/or shortcuts can put a child or young person in harm’s way and this is a violation of trust. Striving for excellence with safe environments in all church related gatherings is our goal in the Diocese of Jackson.
To achieve this high standard, it takes the full and active participation of many throughout the diocese. Thank you to all who serve on behalf of our children and young people. These are God’s children, members of the Body of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit. May they thrive as members of our church.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz