By Joanna Puddister King WEST POINT – Carlisle Beggerly grew up Protestant, but an encounter with St. Augustine’s Confessions led him to seek out the church that the author belonged to.
“I felt called to the priesthood from the beginning of my conversion,” said Beggerly. He then spent some time with a religious order, but then left and attended law school, all the while still feeling a call to priestly life.
The next step toward ordination to the priesthood for Beggerly was his ordination into the transitional diaconate on Saturday, June 4 at his home parish of Immaculate Conception in West Point by Bishop Joseph Kopacz.
Typically, transitional deacons spend one final year in seminary before priestly ordination. Men ordained as transitional deacons do so with the intention of becoming a priest.
“During the transitional [diaconate] period, we try to place our seminarians in parishes that can give them a wide range of experiences,” said vocations director, Father Nick Adam.
“This will be the first time a seminarian can baptize a baby, witness a wedding or preside at a funeral. We want to make sure they have many opportunities to delve into parish life and walk with families along the way.”
Fellow Immaculate Conception parishioner, Barbara Elliott has known Deacon Beggerly and his family since they began attending the parish more than 10 years ago.
“He’s always been very devout … and instrumental in helping the children of the parish with the liturgy,” said Elliott. “We are so proud of him.”
Those in the transitional diaconate are tried to be placed at a parish with a school so they can be a part of the day-to-day life of kids, parents and faculty. A great place for that is at St. Francis and St. Anthony School in Madison, where Beggerly will serve through some time in October.
By Joanna Puddister King A trailer has been released by NewGroup Media and the Diocese of Jackson for the upcoming documentary on Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman.
The trailer has been making the rounds on social media and gives a glimpse into the life of the future Black Catholic saint. The documentary is entitled “Going Home Like a Shooting Star: Thea Bowman’s Journey to Sainthood” and it encompasses her life from her childhood in Canton, her rise to fame as a public speaker and evangelizer, to her death from cancer at age 52 in 1990.
The documentary features testimonies from Sister Thea’s friends, fellow sisters, former students, acquaintances and admirers. It also includes live-action reenactments from moments in her life. The reenactments were filmed in various locations around the country, including locally in Canton featuring local talent, with St. Joseph Catholic School student Madison Ware, as young Bertha Bowman.
Early reactions on social media platforms included: “These 6 minutes make me wish I had known her so much earlier! Thank you!” “She deserves this and so do the people!” “Sister Thea will hopefully one day be the first saint from Mississippi.”
By Joanna Puddister King JACKSON – Since 2020, Rachel Patterson began praying on how she could grow in service towards her Catholic faith. Late last year, Patterson followed the path she had been praying for and was offered a role in the chancery with the Office of Catholic Education as an administrative assistant.
Patterson previously served as a grant writer and executive assistant at The Little Light House, Central Mississippi, a developmental center that works with special needs children.
“Although I was in a position that I loved, serving children with special needs, I felt called to apply,” said Patterson. “The position presented similar duties … with the added bonus of serving Catholic students within my diocese.”
Working with Karla Luke, executive director of Catholic education for the diocese, was a huge draw for Patterson.
“She has such vision for the Office of Catholic Education and what the future looks like. Her background in Catholic education and strong faith helps guide all of the amazing opportunities she plans to implement … over the next few years,” said Patterson.
Luke says that Patterson is a “bright spot” in the office. “[She’s] always enthusiastic, full of her Catholic faith which is evident in her interactions with all people she encounters.”
“We are extremely lucky and blessed to have her as a part of our team.”
Patterson is married to Rooks Patterson and the couple have a one-year-old daughter, Tristen, and are expecting their second daughter in September. Patterson and her family are members of St. Richard Jackson.
By Joanna Puddister King CANTON – New Group Media out of South Bend, Indiana is working to tell the story of Sister Thea Bowman. Filming is taking place in many locations where Sister Thea Bowman lived and worked, requiring in-depth work for both crew and community members.
Writer and producer, Sister Judy Zielinski, OSF said that she wanted to touch base and operate out of the spaces that Sister Thea lived in and used. “She was a brilliant, charismatic, prophetic, outspoken woman,” said Sister Judy during an interview. “And she is a force of nature.” Spaces chosen for filming include sites in Canton, Jackson, Memphis, New Orleans and in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
The film will explore Sister Thea’s life and path to sainthood through interviews and commentary from her family, sisters in community, colleagues, friends and former students. While filming in Mississippi, the crew filmed interviews with Bishop Joseph Kopacz, and those that knew Sister Thea personally, including Sister Dorothy Kundinger, FSPA; former students, Myrtle Otto and Cornelia Johnson; and childhood friends, Mamie Chinn and Flonzie Brown-Wright.
The crew began scouting sites in April 2021 and at the end of May, they filmed in Canton, Jackson and at Sister Thea’s grave site in Memphis at Elmwood Cemetery. In addition to interviews, scenes were filmed depicting young Bertha Bowman’s life before entering the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA) in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
On hand for most of the production in Canton, Flonzie Brown-Wright, a self-described “non-crier,” was moved to tears during depictions of herself, young Bertha Bowman and friend Mamie Chinn.
“She was so special to me. This morning, … when I saw the little girls sitting on the porch, I just lost it. I just lost it because it was just so reminiscent of what actually happened during those days,” said Brown-Wright.
The crew filmed re-enactments at the Bowman family home on Hill Street in Canton, complete with a 1936 Grand Master roadster car parked out front. Scenes with Thea, Brown-Wright and Chinn eating cookies on the front steps, playing with dolls and socializing were filmed with local talent.
Eleven-year-old, Madison Ware of Canton was chosen to play young Bertha. “I was really excited to do the part of Thea,” said Ware.
In addition to scenes at Holy Child Jesus Canton and playing outside the Bowman family home, Ware also re-enacted young Bertha’s hunger strike after her parents forbade her to go off to Wisconsin to become a nun. Ware sat at the dining room table in the Bowman home with determination stating as young Bertha would – “I’m not hungry.”
Other scenes depicted in Canton include portrayals of young Thea, Brown-Wright and Chinn walking to school and playing dress up as nuns.
In Jackson, the crew sat down with Bishop Kopacz at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle to talk about the cause for Sister Thea and spoke about what he called “her first miracle,” when she addressed the U.S. Bishops Conference in June 1989 and led them to join arms and sing “We Shall Overcome.”
At Sister Thea’s grave site at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, the crew arranged for a beautiful white spray filled with gardenias, roses and magnolias to sit at her plot. Re-enactment at the grave site included prayer and a hymn led by Myrtle Otto – “I’ll Be Singing Up There.”
The final day of filming in Canton concluded at Holy Child Jesus with Mass, a performance by the church choir and solo of “On Zion’s Hill” by Wright-Brown.
Life-long friends, Brown-Wright kept in contact with Sister Thea up until her passing from cancer in 1990 traveling from her home, at the time, in Ohio just two weeks before her death. She said Sister Thea told her “what I want you to do when I’m gone … [is] to come back to play and sing the song “On Zion’s Hill.” The same song Sister Thea sang at both her father and mother’s funerals.
With Wright-Brown in an African dashiki and headdress singing there was hardly a dry-eye between the crew present, as Sister Thea’s presence was felt in the moment.
Between June 20-23, the crew filmed in LaCrosse, Wisconsin at St. Rose Convent and Viterbo University, shooting re-enactments of Sister Thea at the FSPA motherhouse. Director Chris Salvador described plans to capture Sister Thea arriving at the convent in a white pinafore dress and then using a machine to morph her. “So, it goes in 360° and she changes from her first outfit, and she eventually comes out in her African dashiki,” said Salvador.
Brown-Wright reminisced during filming in Canton about one trip to LaCrosse to visit her friend. When she got there, Brown-Wright expected to see her friend dressed in a habit, but instead found her in “a dashiki, sandals and a natural.”
“I asked her what happened, and she said, ‘Girl, those petticoats were just too hot,” laughed Brown-Wright. “What she was doing was preparing a culture for a yearning to understand our culture. That was her transformation from coming out of the habits … to her natural dress because that’s who she was,” said Brown Wright.
“She taught the world how to be a Black Catholic sister.”
In New Orleans the film crew will conduct more interviews and film at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University, where Sister Thea offered courses in African American literature and preaching.
The working title of the film is “Going Home Like a Shooting Star – Sister Thea Bowman’s Journey to Sainthood.” It is drawn from a quote attributed to Sojourner Truth. When Sister Thea was asked what she wanted said at her funeral, she answered,” Just say what Sojourner Truth said: ‘I’m not going to die, honey, I’m going home like a shooting star.’”
Production of the documentary was delayed about a year due to COVID. The film makers, with Bishop Kopacz as executive producer, hope to air the documentary nationwide in the fall of 2022 on ABC.
Through June 22-24 the Department of Vocations hosted our first ever Quo Vadis? Young Men’s retreat. As I’ve shared in previous columns this is a retreat that has been fruitful in other dioceses, and I was anxious to see how the participants responded. Well, they had a great time, and so did I!
The retreat was held at the new Our Lady of Hope Retreat Center, which is on the former site of Our Lady of the Pines in Chatawa. We first gathered for hamburgers and hotdogs grilled by Knights of Columbus Council #8054 (McComb) as men from high school up through young professionals got to visit with one another. Then I provided the opening talk, explaining our theme: Quo Vadis? or where are you going? I explained to each retreatant that the Lord was asking each of them this question, and I hoped they would respond generously to whatever call they received. Our seminarians each spoke to the group at points of the week, and they all did an excellent job. I was so proud to see each of them bring their gifts to the table throughout the retreat.
The retreat was marked by fun. We didn’t spend the entire time just talking about vocations and our need for priests, we spent time building brotherhood among young men in our diocese who need to be supported as they live their faith. I would like to thank Bishop Kopacz for supporting this effort, as well as the parents, chaperones, and young adults who either took part or supported this retreat is some way. Also, a great thanks to the Knights of Columbus for that great kickoff to the event. It was especially great that the McComb Council got to meet Will Foggo, the seminarian that they have been supporting through the RSVP program. This was a great example of how this event doesn’t just bring together discerners, but supporters of vocations from various backgrounds and parts of the diocese.
This is just the beginning. I certainly believe that we can build off the momentum of this event and I look forward to offering more opportunities for community building soon. This summer is flying by as our seminarians will be finishing up their parish assignments at the end of the month. Deacon Andrew Bowden will continue his scheduled internship at St. Mary’s in Natchez until mid-October. Please continue to pray for our seminarians and for the young men and women who are seriously discerning whether the Lord is calling them to serve with an undivided heart.
By Joanna Puddister King JACKSON – The late Bishop Emeritus Joseph N. Latino, retired bishop of Jackson, who died May 28 at the age of 83 is remembered as a gentle and humble shepherd.
A native of New Orleans, Bishop Latino was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of New Orleans at St. Louis Cathedral on May 25, 1963. During his priesthood, Bishop Latino served in parishes in New Orleans, Metairie, Houma and Thibodaux. When the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux was formed in 1977, he remained in the new diocese and served in many capacities including chancellor and vicar general. In 1983, Pope John Paul II named him a Prelate of Honor with the title of Monsignor.
He was appointed the 10th Bishop of Jackson on Jan. 3, 2003 and was installed on March 7, 2003 in the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Jackson, the place of his final resting place.
Msgr. Elvin Sunds, who served as vicar general for nine years under Bishop Latino and enjoyed his friendship for many years afterward, described him as a “humble, gentle and kind bishop.”
In his homily at a prayer vigil for Bishop Latino on June 8 at the Cathedral, Msgr. Sunds spoke about Bishop Latino’s episcopal motto – Ut Unum Sint – “that all may be one.”
The motto came from the Gospel passage of John that was read at the vigil, explained Msgr. Sunds. “In that Gospel Jesus is praying for his disciples, and he also prays, ‘For those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us.’”
“Jesus’ prayer is that through the proclaiming of the Gospel, may we all share together in the life of God as one. That was the motto and the focus of Bishop Latino’s episcopal ministry. He wanted all of us to be one in Christ Jesus. He promoted that unity in Christ,” said Msgr. Sunds.
During his years as bishop, Bishop Latino fostered Gospel-based social justice initiatives, lay leadership and vocations. During his tenure the office for the Protection of Children was established to help insure a safe environment for children in our churches, schools and communities.
Msgr. Sunds described Bishop Latino’s social justice work mentioning that he publicly addressed such issues as racism, the rights of immigrants, care for the poor, the death penalty, and the right to life of the unborn during his tenure.
Bishop Latino’s nephew and godson, Martin Joseph Latino delivered remarks about ‘Uncle Joe’ at the vigil service sharing stories of humor, of mystery and a little bit about his favorite movie “A Man for All Seasons.”
It is still as mystery to Martin Latino how his Uncle Joe was able to call him in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At the time, Latino was the chief director of safety and was with the Mandeville Fire Department. With all of the cell towers down in the area, no one was able to receive any calls, but Uncle Joe got through.
“His message to me that day was don’t lose heart. Work hard. Restore your community. Be a leader and keep everyone safe. … I still to this day do not know how he was able to get through,” said Latino.
In attendance at the Mass of Christian Burial on June 9, were bishops from around the region with Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of the Archdiocese of Mobile as celebrant, along with the priests of the Diocese of Jackson, seminarians, deacons and the people of the diocese. In his opening remarks, Archbishop Rodi extended his sympathy to Bishop Latino’s family, Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz and the people of the Diocese of Jackson.
“We gather here in sorrow over the loss of a powerful presence of a good man, a good priest, a good bishop, who in so many ways in his ministry blessed the people first in Louisiana, then in Mississippi,” said Archbishop Rodi.
During his homily at the funeral Mass, Bishop Kopacz recollected his first encounter with Bishop Latino seven and a half years ago at the Jackson airport. He recalled Bishop Latino smiling “to know he had a successor that was real,” laughed Bishop Kopacz. From that point the two grew in their friendship over the years and he shared stories of Bishop Latino’s background and interactions they had over the years through his last one hours before Bishop Latino’s death.
“My final encounter with Bishop Latino was sitting at his bedside within hours of his death, softly saying the rosary and praying … as he slowly passed from this world to the next. I spoke the words that he no longer could,” shared Bishop Kopacz.
He also gave thanks for Bishop Latino’s trustworthy service for nearly six decades, through times of strength and his experiences of accepting the changes in his health.
“In his retirement at times he grieved the physical limitations that prevented him from serving more actively in the diocese. But at the foot of the Cross, his ministry of prayer and presence was a treasure for us. And his early monastic formation served him well in his later years. He could be in that state for prayer and through it all he trusted in the Lord, who called him forth from his youth and in holy fear he grew old in God,” said Bishop Kopacz.
Diocesan chancellor, Mary Woodward also spoke at the vigil service on her special friendship with Bishop Latino, as he lifted up her talents, supported her and mentored her. The two of them, along with Bishop Houck, who passed in 2016, traveled to Rome many times. Woodward described the last trip they had to Rome for an ‘ad limina,’ where they also added a trip to Sicily to the Latino family’s ancestral hometown of Contessa Entellina.
Woodward described Bishop Latino as “energized” by the trip and said that he was excited that he would be able to celebrate a private Mass in the home church of his grandparents. “But when the doors opened the church was packed with the townspeople coming to see this bishop from America,” Woodward mused.
Bishop Latino was always there for her and she for him, making sure he was “ok” until the end of his earthly life, just as the women in the Gospel wanted to do for Jesus.
Most did not know that Bishop Latino was in constant pain for the last 40 years. “He had nerve pain in his legs and it never subsided,” said Woodward. “He bore that Cross with such grace and elegance.”
Through many surgeries over the years to help relieve the pain, Woodward often felt like a “cheerleader” who was there to “help him carry the Cross.”
“And that last day, … I felt like I went from helping him carry the Cross to being at the foot of the Cross. … It was a beautiful witness to ‘I’m in God’s hands. God’s going to take care of me. It’s ok,’” said Woodward who was with Bishop Latino up until his passing.
“I don’t ever think that I could say in a few minutes the profound impact he has had on me and on all of us.” Woodward also took great care in organizing Bishop Latino’s vigil and Mass of Christian Burial, making sure all elements he wanted were included. As an “opera aficionado,” Woodward made sure to include some opera. During the vigil, Woodward included a piece from Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni. The significance being that Bishop Latino would come in most mornings into their shared office humming that tune. She even had to step away during the vigil upon hearing it.
“The witness of his life, the witness of him carrying that pain was something that strengthens me and I feel very privileged to have been able to walk that journey with him. I will be forever changed,” said Woodward. “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
By Joanna Puddister King JACKSON – From an early age, Andrew Bowden had a heart for service. On May 15, he continued that call as he was ordained a transitional deacon at his home parish of St. Jude in Pearl. He will serve as a deacon until ordination to the priesthood next year.
“The first time that I remember him saying anything about wanting to be a priest, he was about kindergarten age,” said his mother, Rhonda Bowden, who coordinates liturgy and pastoral care at St. Jude.
Deacon Bowden recalled attending a Mass around that age, celebrated by Bishop William Houck, that sparked his interest in religious life.
“He had an incredibly powerful voice, and I was impressed by him. So impressed that the next time I saw my pastor, Father [Martin] Ruane, I announced to him that I wanted to be a bishop,” laughed Deacon Bowden.
Father Ruane, who passed in 2015, was a great influence on young Bowden. His sense of humor, humble nature and his joy were attributes that Bowden wanted to emulate. “I don’t remember exactly how he responded to the four-year-old declaring that he wanted to be bishop, but he was able to replace that idea … with the desire to become a priest,” said Deacon Bowden.
Around the same time, Bowden also started talking about wanting to be an altar server. Although Father Ruane’s policy was that alter servers must be in the fourth grade, he graciously did an abbreviated training session just for Bowden in the third grade, shortly before he left St. Jude for a new assignment.
“Altar serving then became a major part of my pre-discernment,” explained Deacon Bowden. “Through altar serving at St. Jude as I grew up, I began to love God, the church and the priesthood in a much deeper way.”
Bowden was also actively engaged in St. Jude’s youth group and enjoyed sharing his faith and teaching the younger altar servers.
His mother, Rhonda couldn’t recall any other possible vocation or career path her son ever mentioned, other than around four years old saying that he wanted to be an architect priest who would build churches and work in the church, imagining as only a child can, to also build underground tunnels to his house so that he could eat lunch with her every day.
By the end of high school, Deacon Bowden strongly felt he was being called to the priesthood. Father Jeffrey Waldrep, who was pastor at St. Jude in Bowden’s high school years inspired his interest in liturgy and was helpful to him as he entered the formal discernment process for priestly formation.
His parents were extremely supportive of his desire and after graduating from Brandon High School in the spring of 2014 he completed his application for the seminary just as Bishop Joseph Kopacz arrived in the diocese.
“We strongly encouraged Andrew to have a ‘backup-plan’ in case the new bishop was not eager to send an 18-year-old to seminary college. [But], he was adamant that God’s will would prevail, and that God would make a way for him. And God did,” said Bowden’s mother.
Bowden spent four years at St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington, Louisiana and moved on to Notre Dame Seminary, where he just completed his third year before being ordained a transitional deacon on May 15.
“During the diaconate internship we try to place our men in parishes that will give them a wide range of experiences,” said Father Nick Adam, director of vocations, who first met Bowden in high school, while he was in seminary school.
“This will be the first time a seminarian baptizes a baby, witnesses a wedding or presides at a funeral, and we want to make sure they have plenty of opportunities to dive into parish life and walk with families in this way.”
Those in the transitional diaconate are also tried to be place at a parish with a school so they can be a part of the day-to-day life of the kids and faculty. A great place for that is at St. Mary Basilica and Cathedral School in Natchez, and Bowden is looking forward to his service to the community.
“During seminary, I have greatly missed the local expression of the church that is the Diocese of Jackson. I am greatly looking forward to spending the next few months in Natchez with Father [Scott] Thomas and Father [Mark] Shoffner. … It will be so good to get to know people there and learn how I can serve them best,” said Deacon Bowden.
During his diaconate ordination, Bowden’s mother cried ‘happy tears.’ “Seeing my son so happy and knowing that he was responding to God’s call made my heart sing with joy.”
By Joanna Puddister King JACKSON – To celebrate five decades, doctors, staff and program partners gathered to celebrate St. Dominic Behavioral Health on their campus on Friday, May 14. The present facility located on St. Dominic’s north campus was built in 2013 and currently has three patient care units with a total of 77 bed adults, senior and in-patient and outpatient programs, including outreach efforts for the community. At the event, Sister Dorothea Sondgeroth, current foundation associate executive director, shared remarks about the past, explaining that the program had its beginnings in 1971 with a psychiatric unit on the sixth floor of the main hospital on the south campus. In 1992, the psychiatric unit was moved to the north campus when St. Dominic acquired the land. Also on hand at the event, was Dr. Kathy Crocket, executive director of Hinds Behavioral Health Services, who talked about the organizations shared history with St. Dominic Behavioral Health. Hinds Behavioral began in 1971 as the Jackson Mental Health Center and was attached to St. Dominic’s until 2004 when the name changed to Hinds Behavioral explained, Crocket. “I am proud to say that we continue to have a great partnership with St. Dominic’s Hospital,” said Crocket. “We look forward to continuing that partnership for many years to come.” Mental health hits home for Dr. Jared Taylor, a staff psychiatrist at the center. He explained that millions of people have been helped through mental health services. “When I think about 50 years of Behavioral Health Services, I think about the millions of people who have been positively impacted by mental health. And when I say millions of people, I am not only talking about patients, but I am also talking about family members and friends.” Taylor grew up in Jackson with a father, who suffered from schizophrenia. “Unfortunately, he did not get the help that he needed and so part of my goal as a psychiatrist is to help as many people as possible, so the same type of instance doesn’t occur again,” said Taylor.
He also talked about the increased rates of depression and anxiety that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on across the world; and that mental health is needed now more than ever. Senior director, Bonnie Moore talked about some of the “wins” in her tenure at Behavioral Health, that included working with the FBI to help a lost and confused woman find her family. “We have a great team that is always thinking outside the box,” said Moore. “Not everyday brings us uplifting experiences but here at St. Dominic’s Behavioral Health, everyday does offer a chance to show kindness to someone,” said Moore. The celebration also included a commissioned live artistry by Kerry Jackson. While panelists spoke, Jackson completed a painting that will hang in the Behavioral Health lobby. Jackson travels the world communicating the Gospel using visual arts and traveled to his hometown of Jackson from Marietta, Georgia to be a part of the celebration. Beginning with name tags with mental health disorders and symptoms, Jackson began painting various colorful shapes. It took a while, but the picture began to come together, and the crowd realized Jesus was there for comfort and support. In his blessing for the celebration, Bishop Joseph Kopacz gave thanks to God. “Loving God, we give thanks for this joyful celebration of the 50th anniversary of the St. Dominic’s Behavioral Health Center, that has been a haven of safety, healing and hope for many who have passed through these doors. We thank you for generations of dedicated staff, who have accompanied those in the need of the services of mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing.” (St. Dominic’s Behavioral Health Services strives to provide quality and compassionate treatment to individuals and their families suffering from mental illness. Their goal is to help each individual and their family achieve the best possible outcome. Assessment and referral specialists are available 24 hours/7 days a week at 1-800-632-5907.)
By Joanna Puddister King JACKSON – The Diocese of Jackson recognizes April as Child Abuse Awareness Month to spread awareness of the importance of protecting children. Child abuse is an unthinkable crime, yet it happens to hundreds of thousands of our children every year. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) states on their website “The Catholic Church is absolutely committed to the safety of children. Together we can make a Promise to Protect, and a Pledge to Heal.” The same is true for the Diocese of Jackson. Since, 1986 the diocese has had a policy to respond to credible allegations of sexual abuse, long before the USCCB released the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002. The early document was less detailed than today’s version but delineated the commitment of the diocese on responding to abuse, removing offenders, assisting victims and promoting a safe environment. The policy was revised in 1994 when an Independent Review Board of lay Catholics was established. The review board is a consultative body that assesses the credibility of all allegations of sexual abuse against minors and advises the bishop accordingly. This board remains an essential resource for Bishop Joseph Kopacz, as it was for Bishop William Houck and Bishop Joseph Latino. The current board includes one pastor, two physicians, two lawyers and one professional businessperson, one of which also serves on the National Review Board of the USCCB on the protection of children and young people. The diocese, as well as Catholic Charities, requires that all employees and volunteers working with children and young people undergo a criminal background screening and participate in a safe environment training session with a training facilitator, including clergy. Nationally, over 2.65 million background checks were conducted on those working within the Catholic church in 2019. Many of the trainings mentioned above are now virtual explained, safe environment coordinator, Vickie Carollo. “With COVID restrictions, virtual trainings have worked well,” said Carollo. “To accomodate adults who work during the day, virtual trainings can be scheduled in the evenings. Training sessions are facilitated through the local parish or school.” The diocese also provides ongoing training in a monthly safe environment bulletin format through VIRTUS, a program and service of The National Catholic Risk Retention Group. All clergy, religious, employees and volunteers having contact with children and young people are required to participate in ongoing training. The safe environment monthly bulletins provide adults the education and prevention information they need to keep our children safe. Bishop Kopacz says that the monthly bulletins are helpful in learning about the changing landscape of threats to children, especially due to our “mushrooming digital world.”
Bishop Kopacz brought the idea of using VIRTUS to the diocese in 2014 soon after being ordained and installed as the 11th bishop of Jackson. “The Diocese of Scranton, where I was a priest for 36 and a half years, incorporated the VIRTUS Safe Environment program soon after the Dallas Charter and norms were promulgated for the Catholic Church in the United States. At that time, I served as Vicar for Priests and pastor, and it was opportune for me to become a trainer in order to promote this excellent program throughout the diocese. It was evident to the leadership in the Diocese of Scranton, ordained and lay, that the VIRTUS package was excellent for fostering and maintaining safe environments in service to our children and young people, and their families,” said Bishop Kopacz. The diocese also uses VIRTUS for safety training geared to children, that includes material that is developmentally appropriate for each age group and includes content and activities that reinforce the message. Some of the topics include what to do and how to react when someone’s touch is confusing, scary, or makes the child feel uncomfortable; learning about personal boundaries and giving the self-assurance needed to speak up; learning about who to tell when something or someone makes them feel uncomfortable or confused; and how to recognize grooming by an abuser. On June 16, the diocese will be holding a “train the trainer” workshop with VIRTUS executive director, Pat Neal. “With the upcoming workshop, we look forward to reviewing with facilitators the most notable updates within the latest 4.0 version of the Protecting God’s Children program for an ease of transition in facilitating the material during awareness sessions,” says Neal. “The most fundamental update throughout the 4.0 program is an overall focus to relay the essential concept of hope that all of us work for in our various positions – that hope is an element of child protection, that healing for survivors is possible, and that all of us are part of the solution to prevent child abuse. An always-present goal of the Protecting God’s Children program is to provide every organization with the tools needed to prevent abuse, respond appropriately if it does occur, and, in this latest version, review boundaries and how to address inappropriate behavior before it can escalate.” This latest version maintains the core message of teaching caring adults about the context and prevalence of child sexual abuse, as well as equipping caring adults to follow five research-based steps to protect the vulnerable in any environment. The steps have been revitalized with clearer messaging and easy to follow protocol for any caring adults. The steps are: know the warning signs of adults; screen and select employees and volunteers; monitor all environments, including activities involving technology; be aware of children and youth; and communicate your concerns. Now, seven years after bringing VIRTUS to the diocese, Bishop Kopacz said “We can say unreservedly that our decision to transition to the VIRTUS program has been of great benefit to our diocese. It is the cornerstone for our commitment to maintain safe environments for our children and young people.” Additionally, the Protection of Children program at the diocese goes through an onsite audit process every three years, of which the diocese has been in compliance with every year. Along with the program and audits, Carollo also travels to parishes and schools monitoring their programs and loves to share how powerful the program is at protecting God’s children. “Child abuse is certainly a challenging topic to address but we keep in mind that providing education and safe environment education to our adults and children – if we can save one child from a horrific incident, we are certainly doing our job. It is a collaborative effort in our churches and in our schools in providing a safe environment for all of our children,” says Carollo. Before long, Carollo will cease her traveling and monitoring of the program as she will retire in June after working with the diocese as the safe environment coordinator since 2003. When asked why, Carollo said, “It is just time. I am convinced that the Protection of Children program is in good hands. Everyone has strengthened my faith through their work to provide a safe environment for our children. We all play a part in the eradication of child sexual abuse.”
(If you suspect abuse or are a victim of abuse, please call victim assistance coordinator, Erika Rojas, who is here to assist in making a report. Contact her at (601) 326-3760. Additional information regarding how the Diocese of Jackson addresses child abuse may be found at https://jacksondiocese.org/offices/child-protection.)