Committed to progress: Safe Environment audit highlights program’s efforts to build, protect community
FORT WORTH — Called to tirelessly protect the most vulnerable while extremely aware that every day provides a new opportunity to learn and improve their processes, the hardworking staff of four that lead the Diocese of Fort Worth’s Safe Environment department earned a hard-won recognition in their most recent audit.
The stipulations outlined in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People set the standard for the care and protection of the vulnerable for the 196 dioceses and archdioceses in the U.S.
“We're happy with the results because we were found to be in compliance with the USCCB charter requirements,” said Sandra Schrader-Farry, director of Safe Environment.
The auditing team, made up of two professional staffers from Stonebridge Business Partners who perform compliance auditing on the USCCB’s behalf, “looked at the different articles of the charter and made sure that we’ve maintained compliance with the training for all of the adults and children, and that we’ve conducted the background checks and vetting that's required,” Schrader-Farry said. “They checked our compliance diocese-wide, and we gave them an opportunity to choose parishes to see.”
While the chosen churches for the audit visit were given prior notice of the on-site interviews, a parish coordinator’s sudden illness called for a last-minute change in plans. Due to the circumstances, Schrader-Farry and her Safe Environment team instead brought the auditors to visit St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Keller “unexpectedly, and they did beautifully, the parish and the school. And then we went that afternoon to a cluster of parishes, including St. Mary Parish in Dublin, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in De Leon, Sacred Heart Parish in Comanche, and St. Brendan Parish in Stephenville — and they did beautifully as well.”
Schrader-Farry and her team at the Catholic Center work with about 110 local coordinators and 175 active training facilitators throughout the diocese. The coordinators primarily work with their respective parishes or schools to ensure compliance with diocesan and charter Safe Environment requirements and the availability of training sessions. The volunteer facilitators lead the live training sessions that the diocese requires every employee, ministry member, or volunteer to attend.
The director of three years was very appreciative of “our local coordinators; all of the parishes and the schools; all of our facilitators; the diocesan teams around us; catechesis; and communications — everybody worked together during the audit process.”
Schrader-Farry and her team “thank our local coordinators and our local facilitators who give of their time and their talent and their love for the ministry every single day, seven days a week, 365 days a year here in the diocese. It's amazing to me.”
She is also incredibly proud of her team as “this is the first time that the USCCB, in their audit, did a three-year look back,” Schrader-Farry remarked.
She explained how, in past audit cycles, the auditors would investigate the state of the department as it performed in real-time within the calendar year they’d visited. The new investigation period, however, required a much more intensive review for the auditors to pore through, considering the department’s extensive reach.
“In preparation for that, of course, as you might imagine, you need to make sure that you have the documentation for the last three years as if every year were a live audit. And that's where this team came together and just did a tremendous job. So, I'm very proud of them for that,” Schrader-Farry expressed.
Focused on Growth
Along with the visits to check various parish, school, and ministry processes; documentation of background checks and training regulation reports; and the coordination of the volunteers and coordinators that make up the department’s entire team, the auditors also inspected whether the team was achieving any additional policies the department developed and instated on its own account within the diocese.
“They do the audit, checking that we're doing the minimum [required by the Charter], but then they come in, and they look at what are we doing, and whether we are achieving our own standard, as well, and doing what we say we’re going to do,” added Alma Garcia, a coordinator for the Safe Environment department for about five years. “It’s a way to stay accountable.”
A few days after the auditors returned to New York to process their review, Garcia joined fellow Safe Environment assistant director Patrick McGrail and coordinator Gabriela Garcia to attend the 20th annual VIRTUS conference held in Chicago, Illinois, on September 13-15 and meet the developers and creators of the VIRTUS program, which provides the department with training materials and content.
Having met so many colleagues ranging from dioceses across the states, they each returned with a fresh perspective on their department’s continuing growth and future plans for development.
“We’ve been able to identify and adapt to some of the challenges that others are facing,” McGrail observed in his time at the conference. “We were getting pulled in different directions, and it was impressive to see that we were being pulled aside to talk with other dioceses to share our experiences.”
Overall, the assistant director of the diocese’s Safe Environment program believed “our diocese has a really good handle on what we’re doing. We strive to go above and beyond what the minimum requirements are. I think that’s key.
“We’re not doing this to check boxes… it’s very evident that with or without the Charter, we would still be in the same position because of the level of importance and support we receive from the Chancery and from our pastors.”
With that said, Schrader-Farry stressed that her team focuses on the remembering that “every day is a learning opportunity, and every day we learn something more that we can build on.”
Protecting His children
The diocese’s Safe Environment program is unique in several ways.
“The standard that the USCCB sets is that everyone that comes to engage with children or vulnerable adults has to have training and has to be background-checked,” Schrader-Farry explained. “The Charter doesn't dictate what kind of training it is… and the Charter requires it being done once.”
Notably, the local requirement within the diocese, which applies to every person who works or participates in a diocesan ministry, is to background-check every five years; participate in live training; and retrain every two years.
“Think of how things have evolved, how things have changed in the last decade… If people only had that training once, they’re not going to get legal updates… it’s important information that other people potentially are missing out on,” McGrail said, thinking of the many policy changes he encountered in his former career of 29 years in law enforcement.
In this way, all volunteers are better informed on how best to protect the most vulnerable, and no one is exempt from the process — even visitors from outside the state or country.
“We like to keep up our expectations across the board, even for those coming in, visiting, and serving,” Garcia, the go-to coordinator for all out-of-state and international visitors, explained. “This includes priests, speakers, or anyone that would be coming in to serve… we try to be as thorough as possible and make sure that everyone understands just what the expectation as far as recognizing and reporting abuse in Texas is and what it is we [as a Safe Environment department] do.”
Garcia recalled helping faithful coming from Korea, Tanzania, Ghana, Canada, and Mexico process their background checks and receive their introductory session training. The expectation set in the diocese, she said, is enforced for everyone, regardless of the length of the visit or occasion.
“Our requirement here within the diocese is based on [Bishop Michael Olson’s] desire that every single person involved in any ministry has to be trained, vetted. It makes enforcement that much easier,” Schrader-Farry said.
Removing any kind of ambivalence about whether a ministry member or visitor may encounter the vulnerable helps create the uniform expectation and opportunity to spread a much-needed cohesive awareness of the danger to the active faithful inside and out of the diocese.
“Ours is a live, interactive, participatory training. You have to be there alive, awake, and participating in order to be able to obtain credit,” Schrader-Farry enthused. “Our system lends itself to the opportunity for people with life experience and with practical experience and professional experience to be able to interact and share that wisdom with other people in their parish or with other people in the diocese.”
This interaction occurs due to the conversations born from the introductory and renewal training sessions. The objective is not only to learn signs that indicate potential abuse and how to report the cases but to internalize the content so you may then relay what you’ve learned to others. This happens, Schrader-Farry said, because “studies show that when you engage in something, you’re going to remember it a little bit differently than if you’re talked to or if you’re presented with material that flashes in front of the screen.”
While those types of teaching are valid in their own measure, the director confirmed that “what’s going on here seems to be working pretty well for the parishes and the schools and we have amazing participation from every volunteer.”
With these rules in effect, the department’s focus is always set on enhancing and protecting the safety of the faithful.
“We’re all on the same team. We’re just trying to figure out how to put our arms around the issue of abuse,” Schrader-Farry said. “The problem [of abuse] has been around as long as kids have, so how do we best go about, not just dealing with the abuse as it occurs, but preventing it from happening in the first place and then extending our arms and helping and lifting those who have been hurt?”
This mission to focus on accountability, prevention, and reconciliation is why, instead of relying on a choice few to complete online modules and undergo a background check only once, the diocese’s program continues to focus on growth in the processes, approach, and knowledge, the team collectively stated.
“We’re trying, as we learn, to stay on top of things. Pat just came back from Crimes Against Children Conference in Dallas… people from all around the world come who are fighting abuse — people from law enforcement and prosecution, professors that are training and teaching on how to deal with sexual offenders,” Schrader-Farry said. “The experts all come together to learn from one another. That’s kind of what, in essence, we’re trying to do, so we can convey the best and most useful information in our sessions. I think that’s important.”
Blessed with the bishop
The Safe Environment staff credit their endeavors and innovative approach to Bishop Olson’s dedicated support. In many dioceses around the country, coordinating any Safe Environment protocols is “just one of many hats that employees wear, so it’s hard to really dedicate as much time as they’d like to,” Assistant Director McGrail said.
“We’re able to do what we do because the bishop allows us to have our own department,” he continued. “It’s having that support and those resources which makes a huge difference… Talking to Father [Jonathan] Wallis [Vicar General] and in conversations with the bishop, it is obvious that the Safe Environment department is a priority, and they want it done in fidelity. It’s nice knowing you have that support.”
Joining the team
Each of the diocese’s 175 volunteer facilitators who host these sensitive and important conversations has undergone a careful interview and training process administered by the Safe Environment staff.
“We have all kinds of people who have a background in law enforcement, and we have all kinds of people who don’t,” Schrader-Farry said of the facilitators and coordinators, many of whom are retired or active detectives, psychiatrists, teachers, and social workers. “Really, what we’re looking for is someone who is willing to be dedicated to spend the time to learn and to share that information.”
Thanks to the extensive network of Safe Environment volunteers throughout the 92 parishes and 17 schools in the diocese, several introductory or renewal training sessions are available at multiple times and locations and in five different languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, and American Sign Language. Next summer, a new renewal program will debut so seasoned volunteers may have the opportunity to continue learning new content and building new awareness.
Schrader-Farry shared gratitude for the “dream team” made up of selfless coordinators and facilitators within the diocese that she feels blessed to work with and asks for the faithful to consider: “When you want to become a volunteer, it’s not because you only want to be involved with your parish because it’s a duty with God, but it’s also our moral responsibility as a person in this society. You could be the difference in someone’s life because of what you learn in this class.”