(Editor’s note: Bishop Joseph Kopacz is traveling at press time. He asked that we run this story in place of his regular column that includes his support for the Southern Baptist Conference as they begin to address the sex-abuse crisis within their denomination.)
By Joanna Puddister King and Vickie Carollo
DALLAS – In early October, eyes were on the Southern Baptist Conference (SBC) as they hosted their Caring Well Conference from Oct. 3-5 to address the sex-abuse crisis occurring within the church after public awareness peaked after the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News released an investigative series in February of this year identifying at least 700 victims over a 20-year span.
The first day of the Caring Well Conference, organized by the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, focused on hearing from abuse survivors. The overall sentiment from abuse survivors speaking was a sense of gratefulness that church leaders now seem to be taking sex-abuse seriously and not a “problem to be silenced.”
On the second and third days of the conference attendees heard from speakers on “Caring Well” for those who have experienced abuse and how Christ can restore abuse victims, as well as choosing to attend various breakout sessions that offered subjects including understanding the grooming process, what church programs can do to screen for child sex abusers and what pastors and church leaders can do to address abuse, topics that the Catholic Diocese of Jackson has been addressing since 1987, long before the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June 2002.
“I wholeheartedly affirm the commitment of the Southern Baptist Conference, stated at their recent Caring Well Conference to surface and address the crime and tragedy of child sexual abuse in the structures of their denomination. First and foremost, it is undeniably true as was stated at their conference, “that Jesus Christ can restore abuse victims,” said Bishop Joseph Kopacz.
“It becomes evident that the Lord works best through a culture of commitment and compliance to foster safe environments and to promote healing and justice for victims and their families. As the Conference progressed it was clear that the Southern Baptists are on the front end of addressing this crisis in a systematic way. It takes time and The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and its accompanying Norms, promulgated in 2002, nearly two decades ago, is living proof of what is required to get it right. The Charter with periodic revisions has transformed the landscape within the Catholic Church in the United States with the pledge to protect and promise to heal.”
Bishop Kopacz describes the approach of the Catholic Church’s charter as having four aspects: the safe environment program, victims’ assistance, cooperation with law enforcement and transparency.
Within the Catholic church, contributing to a safe environment involves the policy of conducting criminal background screenings on any diocesan employee and anyone who offers to volunteer at any parish, school or institution. More than 16,000 employees and volunteers have been vetted in this way since the Diocese of Jackson instituted background screenings in 2004.
Provided the screening is clear, the volunteer or employee participates in an initial training through VIRTUS, Protecting God’s Children program. Through the live training session with a VIRTUS facilitator participants become aware of the issues surrounding child sexual abuse, the methods and means by which offenders offend and the ways in which abuse affects victims. Participants are empowered with steps to prevent and how to best respond to child sexual abuse. Ongoing training happens monthly in the form of an email bulletin with an article about the latest research or information on fostering safe environments in the church, the home and in society.
Not only do adults receive training, but also children and young people in parish religious education programs, as well as, those in Catholic schools. In these lessons, children learn about safety and healthy boundaries and what they can do if someone tries to violate them. All lessons are organized so that each child experiences a completely different lesson plan each time the materials are presented. As a child advances to the next age group, there is a whole new set of age-appropriate lessons that explore the safety topics in greater detail.
In the Catholic church victim assistance is essential to care for those abused by clergy or church leaders. In the church once an allegation is made, a series of responses are triggered. First, if the victim is a child – even if the abuse is just a suspicion – the case is turned over to the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services and then to either Vickie Carollo, Safe Environment Coordinator or to Valerie McClellan, Victim’s Assistance Coordinator. In the case of an adult who comes forward years later after abuse, he or she is offered professional counseling at no cost.
McClellan offers counseling based out of Jackson, but if the victim is living out of state, she arranges for a counselor in the victim’s community. The goal for the Catholic church is to offer healing to the victim and his or her family.
Additionally, McClellan gathers as much information as possible about the abuse, and with the victim’s consent, turns it over to the diocese. The vicar general, through the diocesan attorney, hires a private investigator to begin to look into the case and the accused is removed from active ministry or suspended while the investigator prepares a report for the Independent Review Board, the consultative body that assesses the credibility of all allegations of sexual abuse against minors.
The review board then meets and votes on what actions to recommend to the bishop. When the allegation is judged to be credible, the abuser is removed from ministry as soon as possible.
In the Catholic church, if a case is deemed credible, the diocesan attorney’s office will inform the district attorney in the county where the abuse happened and the bishop withdraws faculties from an ordained accused abuser at this time.
At this point, the Chancellor’s office prepares a statement to be read at Masses or other parish gatherings in the communities where the alleged abuser has served and encourage other victims to come forward. This statement is also posted on the diocesan website.
Per the Catholic church’s policy, even if there are no active cases of abuse being investigated, each parish must regularly publish a statement encouraging victims to report abuse. On March 19 of this year, the diocese released a list of credibly accused clergy dating back to 1924. The ministers reported were either deceased or already removed from ministry.
Most importantly, the Catholic church’s commitment to transparency is paramount moving forward. After a group of journalists uncovered and exposed a pattern of abuse and cover-ups within the Archdiocese of Boston, the church has undergone a culture shift.
“Each Catholic Diocese anywhere in the world, and especially in the United States, has a clearly defined governance structure with the Bishop at the center surrounded by his Chancery Staff. Throughout the diocese all pastors and pastoral ministers are ultimately accountable to the Bishop. Therefore, the implementation of programs, policies and procedures can be achieved on a faster track than what is possible for other denominations, including the Southern Baptist Conference, whose congregations are far more autonomous with respect to governance,” said Bishop Kopacz.
“For us in the Catholic church the commitment to protect and to heal continues to grow because the will to do so exists at the center of governance, as well as at the grassroots in every parish and ministry. Vigilance can never weaken or grow slack with respect to the threat of the sexual abuse of children and young people because “sin is always lurking at the door, but we can overcome it.” (Genesis 4:7)
Right now, the SBC is focusing on beginning education of church leaders and pastors with the book Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused by Brad Hambrick. Released in June 2019, the book brings together trauma counselors, victim advocates, social workers, attorneys and survivors to equip church leadership for the appropriate initial responses to a variety of abuse scenarios in churches, schools or ministries. The book also pairs with a series of 12 videos to help in the understanding and implementation of best practices.
The SBC was part four of the “Caring Well Challenge,” an eight-step process of addressing the abuse crisis and learning practical ways to prevent abuse through caringwell.com. The steps include committing to the challenge; building a “Caring Well” team; launching the challenge; training at the national conference; equipping leaders through reading Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused; preparing policies, procedures and practices related to abuse; dedicating Sunday services on May 3, 2020 to address abuse; and finally, reflecting on the Caring Well Challenge at the 2020 SBC annual meeting.
Phillip Bethancourt, executive vice president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the SBC, is “praying that the Caring Well Conference will not be seen as a solution to the abuse crisis, but rather a starting point for a movement of change that will continue long into the future.”
Bethancourt recognized that “there is still much work to be done,” within the Southern Baptist Church and hoped that those who attended the conference go forward “with a greater dedication and resolve to take the steps that are needed to make our churches safe for survivors and safe from abuse.”
On an annual basis all Catholic dioceses in the United States are audited by an independent firm to assure accountability and to shed light on all areas in the diocesan network that need improvement. The Diocese of Jackson will undergo an on-site audit of compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People as instructed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Monday, Oct. 28 through Wednesday, Oct. 30.
“In the commitment to transparency, we will communicate the findings of the audit for all to examine. I am so grateful to all staff and volunteers who are vigilant with putting into practice all of our protocols and procedures that foster safe environments and accompany victims on their path to healing and wholeness,” stated Bishop Kopacz.
Anyone who has been a victim of abuse or exploitation by clergy, religious or lay church personnel and has not yet reported it is encouraged to do so. Victim assistance coordinator, Valerie McClellan (601-326-3728) and Safe Environment coordinator Vickie Carollo (601-960-8471) are available to assist in making a report.