A Safer Church: Diocese launches enhanced Safe Environment Program
Beginning Sept. 1, the Diocese of Fort Worth will implement a new, updated, more efficient educational program aimed at fulfilling Bishop Michael Olson’s commitment to protect vulnerable children, youths, and adults in the diocese.
Training for the new awareness program, Protecting God’s Children®, was launched in July and the program will be available at all parishes and Catholic schools throughout the diocese.
The program operates under the diocese’s Office of Safe Environment and offers an interactive, face-to-face approach that “fosters a deep understanding of the effects of child sexual abuse on victims, their families, and our community,” said Richard Mathews, diocesan director of Safe Environment.
MORE INTERACTIVE, MORE STREAMLINED
Previously, the diocese used training that was online, but Protecting God’s Children® uses live, face-to-face education — a major improvement over the previous program, Mathews said.
“What it lost was face-to-face contact and lost that true human interaction on an issue that is incredibly, incredibly difficult, as you can see, for some people,” Mathews said of the previous program. “Most people, unfortunately, know somebody … either themselves or in the family or in the community who has been the victim of child sexual abuse….”
“Bishop Olson really felt that the [online training] was not the best way for us to do it,” he said.
Mathews explained that the face of the Church is not a computer screen. “The Church is each one of us being out there and addressing it and having that empathy and compassion for people.”
The training will be hosted in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Korean.
Mathews said it enables and promotes prevention through five steps:
- Knowing the warning signs
- Controlling access through screening
- Monitoring all ministries and programs
- Being aware of child and youth behavior
- Communicating any concerns
Knowing these concrete steps enables parishioners to contribute to the protection of the most vulnerable not only within our Catholic community, but also to all of their communities.
Much work has been done to get the program ready for kickoff, from choosing the training program to selecting facilitators.
“We went through a selection process to compare various child abuse prevention training programs that exist and selected VIRTUS and its Protecting God’s Children® program. We felt [this program] would be engaging, interactive, and effective in raising not only the awareness of child abuse and the steps that can be taken to prevent it, but also to increase the passion of participants to prevent child sexual abuse,” Mathews said.
The Protecting God’s Children® program is used in 90 dioceses nationwide.
Improvements also include a more accurate database to help program coordinators interact with those who have taken the training, offering reminders about renewals before training certificates expire and making sure all the background checks are current.
Nancy Mitchell, assistant director of safe environment, said everyone involved with streamlining the improved program has been working relentlessly for the past year and a half.
“It’s amazing how many people in the diocese are anxious to get this right, everyone is trying so hard, and that’s really impressive,” she said.
NEW PROGRAM, NEW HELPERS
More than 250 people applied to be facilitators, Mathews said.
Kim Robinson was selected as one of 75 trained facilitators. Having undergone rigorous training on how to teach the class, Robinson is glad to have an opportunity to help.
“As a psychologist, I see patients on an individual basis and I often uncover narratives from young people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse,” she said. “I am grateful to be given this opportunity to cast a wider net by reaching a larger number of people who can be trained to either prevent child sexual abuse from happening, or stop it if it is occurring.”
Robinson lauded the Catholic Church for setting up a program to “actively address a serious problem considered taboo by our society for far too long.”
She said the problem of child sexual abuse is difficult to address.
“With the widespread use of the internet, child pornography makes it easy for predators to target and exploit our children,” Robinson said. “Child molestation is difficult to detect because it is usually shrouded in secrecy and there is usually little proof of its occurrence, so it becomes paramount that both children and adults feel empowered to act.”
The diocese will continue to address the issue of child safety.
“The Safe Environment program of the diocese will be ongoing and continuing, not only with this program, but with additional enhancements and offerings as we focus on creating, maintaining, and enhancing the knowledge, awareness, and engagement of all within the diocese in fostering a culture of safe environment and fulfilling our commitment: Promise to Protect, Pledge to Heal for all within our diocese,” Mathews said.
A HISTORY OF SAFE ENVIRONMENT
Safe Environment programs were established in 2002 when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops created a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
The Charter set up “comprehensive procedures agreed upon by the bishops to create a safe environment for children and young people that call for dioceses to provide training about child sexual abuse, procedures for prompt response to allegations, cooperation with civil authorities, and also to bring healing and reconciliation to victims and survivors,” Mathews said.
Since the programs began, they’ve has seen expeditious growth. Last year, 4.5 million children in Catholic schools and parishes in the United States received the training, and the Diocese of Fort Worth educated 26,595 children in the program, which teaches children how to stay safe from abuse.
Last year, the Diocese of Fort Worth also trained and processed criminal background checks on 27,498 volunteers, 946 educators, 942 employees, 127 priests, 75 deacons, and 41 candidates for ordination.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
The diocese’s Safe Environment Program requires that all “clergy, religious men and women, employees, and adult volunteers satisfy certain requirements before — and for as long as — they serve in the diocese,” Mathews said. Parents and adults who interact with youth are also encouraged to attend training sessions.
“Not only do we require people to go through these sessions and be aware of child sexual abuse and what to do about it, but in addition, we have an obligation to demonstrate not only to the diocese but also the USCCB that we are in compliance with our own policies, so therefore we have to audit it,” he added.
Mathews said protecting others is what Christ instructed His Church to do.
“It goes to our Catholic faith. We are our brother’s keeper. We have to love our neighbor as our self,” he said.
“This gives us the opportunity to demonstrate our faith, walk with Christ, imitate Christ, and focus on protecting the most vulnerable.”
In an April 2018 interview with the NTC, Bishop Olson said the in-depth renewal of the diocese’s program is “designed to safeguard children and young people and to protect all members of the diocesan community in parishes, schools, and ministries.”
“We share a great responsibility to understand the nature of abuse and the steps we must take to establish and maintain safe, holy, and faith-affirming environments,” the bishop said.