Recent publicity in the secular press concerning abuse situations that have taken place in the past, often in places far-removed from the Diocese of Syracuse, has prompted confusion and hurt on the part of many people. With this publicity in mind, I would like to report on our efforts in the Diocese of Syracuse to protect our children and young people over the past number of years. It seems particularly fitting to offer these remarks in April which is designated as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. This observance provides the opportunity to renew our commitment as a Church to provide safe environments where children and young people may gather in faith to study, pray and center their lives on our Lord Jesus Christ.
This commitment involves training of personnel and important updates on issues pertaining to the protection of children and young people that are provided for clergy, seminarians, vowed religious and lay leaders. Training and resources are provided through our Diocesan Office for Child and Youth Protection in cooperation with local services and parish-based safe environment teams. Other resources that promote a safe environment for children and youth are available online for inclusion in parish bulletins and faith formation programs. These resources may be accessed at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and are a supplement to those already offered through our regular onsite training and updates at parishes throughout our diocese. While it is true that some judgments have been made in the past that proved to be incorrect, it is also true that the Catholic Church has done more in recent years to protect children than almost any other organization in the U.S. Consider:
• Safe Environment training is taking place in 193 dioceses of the country. Over two million adults have been trained to recognize the behavior of offenders and what to do about it. In our own diocese, over 23,000 adults have been trained in Safe Environment Programs. Our Safe Environment Office is embarking on a series of regional meetings with parishes, schools and diocesan offices to review new materials developed to strengthen our efforts in keeping children safe and ensure it remains a part of our culture.
• Background checks are conducted on Church personnel who have contact with children. Over two million volunteers and employees, 52,000 clerics and 6,205 candidates for ordination have had their backgrounds evaluated. Figures for the Diocese of Syracuse are included in the above national statistics.
• All dioceses have codes of conduct spelling out what is acceptable behavior. This serves to let people know what can and cannot be done, as well as letting others know what behavior can be expected. It encourages the reporting of suspicious behavior.
• All dioceses have Victim Assistance Coordinators, assuring victims that they will be heard. In our own diocese, contact can be made with Mrs. Nuala Collins at (315) 470-1465.
• All dioceses have Safe Environment Coordinators who assure the ongoing compliance to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. In our diocese, Jackie Farrell is the Safe Environment Coordinator. Ms. Farrell can be reached at (315) 470-1421.
• A Healing Support Group meets monthly in our diocese for victims of sexual abuse.
• Bishops have often met with victims of sexual abuse. I have met personally with a number of victims and will continue to do so in the future.
• Since 2002 there is a Zero Tolerance Policy on abusers. If a credible accusation is made against a cleric, he is permanently removed from ministry regardless of how long ago the offense occurred.
• Dioceses require intensive background screening, as well as psychological testing for those wishing to enter the seminary.
• A Diocesan Review Board with expertise in the field meets regularly.
• Each year, the Diocese of Syracuse is audited by the Gavin Group to ensure that we are complying with the mandates of the Charter for Protection of Children and Young People. Each year, they review all of our records. Each year, including this past year, the diocese has been found to be in compliance and has been part of a report on best practices across the U.S.
The Catholic Church has worked hard to protect children. Much has been done, but more needs to be done. One child harmed is too many. Until child sexual abuse is no longer a part of society, the Church will continue its efforts to prevent it.
I extend my sincere appreciation to the priests and religious serving in our diocese, as well as the dedicated members of the laity, who serve our children and youth and exemplify our diocesan commitment to providing a safe environment. We will continue to work together to fulfill this commitment.
As we continue to safeguard our children and young people, I ask all who are reading this column to join me in prayer for those who have been harmed through abuse in the past. My prayer is that the Lord will grant each of you the gift of peace — the first gift that He gave to His disciples after the Resurrection. I pray also that Mary, Mother of the Church, who is the special patron of our Diocese under her title of the Immaculate Conception, will accompany us in our efforts to protect her, and our children and young people.
Most Rev. Robert J. Cunningham
Bishop of Syracuse