Hope for the Future

Sept. 25, 2003
VOL 122 NO. 33
Hope for the Future
By Danielle Cummings/ SUN Contributing Writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
My Dear Fellow Catholics:

This is a rare opportunity for me to write to each and every one of you through this venue. But the topic that I wish to discuss is of the utmost importance and deserves this cover of The Catholic SUN.

Allow me to introduce myself. As many of us do, I wear many hats in my life. Some may know me as the Communications Director for the Diocese of Syracuse. You may read my name in a newspaper, hear my voice on the radio or see my face on television news responding to media inquiries on behalf of Bishop Moynihan and/or the Diocese of Syracuse. Others know me personally as a friend, a wife and a mother. Today, I write to you as a wife and mother of two lovely children, Jonah and Anna Catherine, aged 4 and 5 years, who just recently began pre-k and kindergarten — the beginning of a life-long career attending one of our exceptional Catholic schools.

Why does my letter warrant space in The Catholic SUN? As both the Communications Director for the diocese and as a mother, I desperately want you to know about and get involved in a new program that will, among other things, help keep my children and your children safe from harm.

For over a year now, I have been involved in the Diocesan Safe Environment Committee, chaired by Father James P. Lang. It is a fairly new committee called together by Bishop Moynihan in response to the standards put forth by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, approved by the U.S. Catholic Bishops in 2002. The committee, made up of directors of various programs in the diocese, was charged with a monumental task of developing effective policies, procedures, training and education to address the child sexual abuse issue that has plagued our church and our society. For me personally, it was an opportunity to step beyond the hurt and the pain I have felt over the past year and half, and focus my energies towards creating mechanisms that will ensure that it never happen to my children, to your children, to any children here in the Diocese of Syracuse. And, yes, I do realize “never” is optimistic at best, but that is the standard to which we as a committee held ourselves, and it is my hope that “never” becomes the standard which we all strive to meet.

You may ask, “How do we realistically make sure that child sexual abuse never happens again?” You may also be asking, or rather stating emphatically, “I did not create this problem. Why am I now expected to help ‘clean it up’?” My response is simply this: The time for blame is over. It is now time to move forward, proactively and productively. I am not implying by any means that individuals should not be held accountable for their actions. What I am saying is, at least from my perspective as a mother and life-long Catholic, the best way to heal and again build trust, is to work toward a solution.

The solution? To create an environment in which everyone agrees they have a role in protecting our children. And, with your help, I firmly believe we are about to embark on doing just that. The diocese has designed a comprehensive child and youth protection program consisting of five elements: 1) A Child and Youth Protection Policy pertaining to all employees and volunteers who work with children, 2) ongoing education and training, 3) a mandatory criminal background check, 4) and a designated staff person for victims of abuse and a designated staff person to coordinate the safe environment program, 5) and the diocesan review board to assist the bishop with any allegation of sexual abuse and to review policy.

The Safe Environment Program for the diocese is officially being launched on Oct. 10 when the first “Protecting God’s Children” training will be held in Binghamton. Protecting God’s Children is a nationally recognized program designed by Virtus (Latin word for “trust”) of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group. This program was developed years before what has been called “the crisis” erupted in the church. It has been piloted and implemented in places around the country and best of all, it is working.

Protecting God’s Children is a facilitated training program designed specifically for Catholic audiences. It is a video-based training for adults concerning the nature and scope of child abuse, signs and symptoms, ways to communicate concern and steps to prevent abuse. The overall goal of the program is simply to make adults more aware of the issue so they are better equipped to prevent it, recognize it and deal with it. We may all think that we are aware. The reality is however, that we are not as aware as we should be and aren’t quite sure of the steps to take to deal with the issue. The majority of us need a change in attitude and eventually that change will seep into our culture. And, I am not just talking to parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. No, everyone must get involved in order to create the safety net we need – our bishops, clergy, religious, directors of religious education, teachers, youth ministers, coaches, all other diocesan employees, volunteers,— YOU and ME.

So how does this program work? Here in the diocese, a total of 80 facilitators will be trained on either Oct. 15-16 at Christ the King Retreat House or Oct. 18-19 at the Good News Foundation in Utica. These facilitators have been recommended to apply for this role by their pastor, a co-worker or a colleague. They completed a lengthy application, agreed to a criminal background check, provided five references and participated in an interview. The bishop will be sending out letters of appointment to those who are accepted within the next few days.

It may strike you that this is quite a bit of work for a volunteer position. Let me assure you, as someone who is going through the facilitator process, it does seem more like I am applying for a full-time job. But I know and those whom I have interviewed know that this is a serious commitment because we will be in charge of training hundreds of people and we want to be well qualified. Upon completion of the training, the 80 facilitators will begin working with the Diocesan Safe Environment Officer to schedule trainings in their areas.

In the meantime, principals, pastors and program directors are compiling lists of people who must be trained according to the newly adopted Diocesan Child and Youth Protection Policy. All clergy, religious, employees and volunteers who have contact with children must receive the 3-1/2 hour training. The diocese hopes that the majority of the individuals will be trained by May 2004. A number of these individuals will be trained during one of three upcoming sessions: Oct. 10, Oct. 17 and Oct. 20. At the end of each training session, copies of the Child and Youth Protection Policy will be made available, and if a person works directly with children, he/she will be asked to sign a waiver for a criminal background check. Some who work directly with children on a day-to-day basis will be asked to participate in ongoing education online. A database will be kept of each and every participant and all who successfully complete the 3-1⁄2 hour training will receive a certificate of participation.

If this sounds complicated, cumbersome or burdensome, I apologize. It really is none of those things for you or me. It honestly may be for the person who is coordinating the effort, at least in the beginning. But allow me to return to where I began this letter and ask: “Is it really too big of a commitment?” Whether you are committing to be a facilitator or simply a participant in the 3-1⁄2 hour training, isn’t that time worth keeping your loved ones safe, my loved ones safe? Isn’t that time worth getting involved in affecting change in our local church? Isn’t that time worth the healing that we all so desperately need? I pray to God your answer is a resounding YES!

Danielle E. Cummings

Mother, wife. life-long Catholic

diocesan director of communications

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