Thursday, May 17, 2007

Keeping Bishops Safe: A Review of a Diocesan Safe Environment Program

I want to preface this post with a disclaimer.

I am a faithful Catholic who appreciates the hierarchical structure of our Church. I'm thankful for our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, and also for my current bishop, who has inherited several problems from his predecessor and has been working diligently and thoughtfully to solve these issues. Further, though I lean towards a somewhat traditional Catholicism, I generally attend the Novus Ordo Mass, and tend to prefer it, provided it is not being used as a platform for liturgical experimentation.

In addition, I realize that the priest abuse scandal has done grave damage to the Church. The Scandal has cost some people their faith; it has weakened the trust of others, who, while still Catholic, distance themselves in some way or other from the institutional church. The cost to victims and their families can hardly be overstated, and in many places the steps necessary to allow deep and lasting healing have scarcely even begun to be taken.

All of that said, much of the rest of this post will be somewhat critical of current church policy regarding the Scandal, and its aftermath.

Last night, my husband and I had to attend our diocese's "Keeping Children, Youth, and Vulnerable Adults Safe" program, which is required for all volunteers. In fact, the class must be taken once every three years by all employees, volunteers, and "anyone wishing to serve the diocese in any capacity." The reality is that lots of people end up taking the classes, even if their sole contact with children is to give them Communion as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion (EMHC), or, in our case, to sing alongside a handful of children in an adult choir. (There are only six children in the choir; three of them are ours!) But even if your ministry doesn't include children at all, you have to take the class, and allow the diocese to run a background check on you before you can volunteer to do anything at all.

I fail to see how that strategy won't eventually backfire. Even at the session we attended last night, some of our fellow attendees were grumbling about the fact that it wasn't, by and large, lay volunteers who were offending against children in the first place. It smacks a little too much of ingratitude to tell people who are willingly, cheerfully devoting themselves to the ministries of the church, unpaid, under appreciated, and often overwhelmed, that they must submit to a criminal background check and attend a two to three hour training session before they will be considered to be safe around children; and when the people involved are parents, it smacks not only of ingratitude, but also of a level of unjust and defaming suspicion that many people will find intolerable. (I can't help but overhear in my imagination some mom of six or so, being told she 'must' do these things before she can deliver brownies to her daughter's religious ed. class, saying, "Fine! Make your own d*** brownies, then.")

The session we attended last night consisted principally of a video presentation prepared by this organization, which advertises itself as "The National Leader in Abuse Risk Management." How much the diocese has paid for this program I can only guess; it was a slick corporate presentation which seemed to be divided between training people to watch for the signs of abuse, and training volunteers to protect themselves from false accusation when around children by always making sure that there are at least two adults in the room any time children are around. (The levels to which this latter part was stressed during the group discussion sometimes seemed absurd, such as the EMHC who was told to lock the sacristy door rather than run the risk that an altar server might enter while he was the only adult present.)

The presentation was a good hour longer than it needed to be, as the second half was redundant, covering pretty much the same material as the first. For anyone who's ever watched an Oprah special about child molesters, the information presented by this video program was weak in the extreme. For example, the video mentioned that most abusers are known to the family, but failed to mention that most abusers look for families that are not intact, are dysfunctional, or otherwise contain parents who aren't watching out for their children. It did not mention that coming from a single-parent family doubles the risk that a child will be abused, or that most victims of child molestation come from single-parent households. There's a reason for this; the 'grooming' process molesters engage in makes them actively seek such households, where the stressed single parent is grateful for the help of another adult who wants to drive Johnny to soccer practice or who will help Jill with her math homework, and who doesn't notice the dangerous level of attachment between the child and this 'helpful' adult until it's too late. Unfortunately, the video presentation left potential volunteers with the impression that family members and even biological parents are equally a threat to children; the facts, though, are that someone "known to but unrelated to" the child is most likely to offend, while family members are about as much a risk as total strangers, and biological parents the least likely of all to offend against their children.

Which brings me to another complaint about the video. Much time was spent on the question of "appropriate vs. inappropriate" physical contact, with 'full-body hugs' and 'child on lap' being considered inappropriate. Further, attendees were warned repeatedly that while we won't see molestation taking place, we will see inappropriate contact. Not might; you understand--will. But there was never any point within the video, the discussions, the paperwork sent home, or anywhere at all, where the difference between acceptable contact between parents and their children was exempted from the "inappropriate contact" label! In other words, volunteers left with the impression that a 'full-body hug' between any adult and any child was inappropriate, even if the child was hugging his own mother or father!

This is simply unacceptable. Parents have enough problems these days with having to worry that any public discipline we must administer to our children may be misinterpreted as physical abuse; now we must also be concerned that any affection we show our children in public may be misinterpreted as sexual abuse! There is no reason for parents to have to deal with such unfounded and uncharitable suspicions on the part of members of our own parish communities, and any evidence that such situations are arising must be taken as a sign that the "Safe Environment" programs are seriously flawed.

Will such problems arise? I fail to see how they won't, considering how much time the presenter spent stressing the notion that even if something just 'feels' wrong, we should report it, to the Church and to Child Protective Services. In fact, the presenter went out of her way to explain that under Texas law, anyone making a 'good faith' report of physical or sexual abuse of a child is exempt from liability if they turn out to be wrong. That they will have put an innocent family through hell in this case was not mentioned at all, nor was any notion that Christians should not engage in slander, calumny, or detraction about each other, even if it's 'for the children.' While I have no problem at all with the idea that serious suspicions of abuse, or evidence of such, should be reported right away, I do have a problem with turning random Church volunteers into a kind of 'hug patrol' that will make people paranoid about interacting with children.

In the end, what frustrates me most about this is that everyone knows that the Scandal didn't happen because some mom on "cookie duty" was giving shoulder massages to random girls in the class. The Scandal didn't even happen solely because some priests violated their vows, disgraced their offices and betrayed the innocent children in their care. The Scandal happened because when good and faithful Catholics found out that Father was sexually assaulting their son or their daughter (but mainly their sons), and went to their bishops expecting the problem to be dealt with appropriately, the bishops became collaborators in the abuse by silencing the victims, allowing the predator-priests to continue to victimize others, and attempting to sweep the whole problem under the rectory rug. They wanted to avoid scandal, but the Scandal they caused was much worse than anything that would have resulted from swift decisive action and honesty.

And nothing in the Safe Environment program has changed any of that.


4andcounting said...

I took the class more than three years ago and am going next week to update my file or whatever. It is frustrating that things have become so complex. You are right in saying that the Scandal had far less to do with lay volunteers and the like, but unfortunately, the general public doesn't discriminate when painting the Church with the abuser brush. I hate that things have come to this. Thankfully, I think most people leave room for common sense and take what is needed from the class. It is a situation where we must go overboard to find our way to the practical solution.

Princess Blue said...

My frustrations exactly from the many similar meetings I've sat through...
I'm enjoying the blog, thanks!

Theresa said...

You hit the nail on the head, there. The Bishops need to be strong, fearless shepherds.

AnnonyMouse said...

I was under the impression that these CLASSES were created because they would not be INSURED otherwise. THey had to show they had something in place.
Thanks for writing this.
Since we homeschool, our children can not go bowling with the group from Church without having to go through a session about what is a good touch or bad touch!

One more thing, it insults me when they "say" you have to report it..when in most cases it was.

Let's pray for our Bishops!