April 15-21, 2004
Protecting God’s Children
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
The Diocese Continues to Offer Safe Environment Training
April is Child Abuse Awareness month. Hundreds of advocacy groups, as well as private and public agencies, professional organizations and individuals are promoting child abuse awareness through advertising, local and national events, vigils and media coverage, just as, fittingly the Diocese of Syracuse reached the six-month mark of VIRTUS training on April 9. Since the diocese implemented the child and youth protection policy in October 2003, over 7,000 clergy, religious, employees and volunteers who come in contact with children have completed the Safe Environment Program.
“Teresa Secreti, assistance coordinator for the diocese, is the first point of contact to report an incident of suspected abuse,” said Danielle Cummings, director of communications for the Syracuse Diocese. “It doesn’t mean you have to have proof,” she said. “If someone suspects abuse or has heard a rumor of suspected abuse, they are urged to call Teresa.” Cummings said that it’s important to call Secreti to talk it through if someone has a suspicion. “There may have been other calls made about the same person,” she said.
“We have had responses as a result of the training across the diocese that range from generic questions about child sexual abuse to reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by someone representing the diocese,” said Secreti. Father James Lang, vicar for parishes, said that since the training began more people have come forward and reported suspicions. “By increasing our own awareness and changing our behavior, the abhorrent behavior of someone else will stand out,” he said.
Secreti agreed. “The most important outcome of this training is the heightened awareness of child sexual abuse as well as the information received regarding the signs and symptoms and the steps to take in reporting abuse,” said Secreti. “The program has strengthened the barrier between the potential offender and the possible victim.” Sister Katie Eiffe, CSJ, director of the Religious Education Office and VIRTUS training facilitator, said that there has been an overwhelming positive response by those who have attended the training. “The film is emotional but everyone has been engaged in the discussions,” she said. Sister Katie made it clear that the purpose of the training was not to discourage affection among adults and children. “We want there to be expressions of affection to children,” she said. “It just has to be done in an appropriate manner and setting.”
Cathy Cornue, Director of Religious Education for the Eastern Region, agreed. “We are ministers,” she said. “We shouldn’t be afraid to give a child a hug. We can’t be afraid to be ministerial.” Cornue said that she has also experienced very positive feedback from the participants. “People have been wonderful. Very few have come to the training unwillingly. Even those who were skeptical at first are glad that they came,” she said. Cornue said that the videos make it very clear that all those who work with children need to remain alert. “The part of the video that upsets people the most is the fact that children feel they can’t tell their parents about the abuse,” said Cornue. “It’s about the power adults have over children. It’s very complex.” Mike Preston, director of Lourdes Camp, co-facilitated the training with Jerry Roesch, a coach at St. Patrick’s School in Syracuse. They have trained hundreds of CYO coaches throughout the diocese. In a few weeks, Preston will begin training his staff at Lourdes Camp. “I’ll be interested to see how the staff at Lourdes Camp reacts,” said Preston. He said that most of his staff members are between 18 and 25 years old. “One story shown in the video was in a camp setting. When you watch those videos, it’s tough. They make a strong impact.” But Preston believes that the more people understand child abuse and how to look for the warning signs, the better off everyone will be. “Background checks aren’t a bad thing either,” he said. Father Lang said that the diocese is currently working to create a standard application that will be used by all agencies throughout the diocese. Potential employees and volunteers will be required to sign a waiver for a background check as part of the application process. “If we are going to build a barrier system, everyone has to do the same thing in the same way,” said Father Lang. “Everyone will fill out the same information, be screened in the same way and adhere to the same standards.”
Father Lang also said, “The Charter requires background checks be performed on all employees, all religious, all clergy and any person who has any contact with minors. These background checks meet the requirements of the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which authorizes them under specific conditions.” In the next year, upon successful completion of training all adults in the diocese who have contact with youth, the diocese will begin the next phase of the Protecting God’s Children Program. “Parents and other adults as well as children and young people will be educated on this topic that is appropriate to their age and needs,” said Secreti.
Father Lang said that he and the committee are very grateful for the positive response to Protecting God’s Children. “For any individual who has not yet had the chance to participate in a training program there are plenty of opportunities still available,” he said. “We are not alone in this battle against sexual abuse,” said Secreti. “It’s a vast problem not unique to the Catholic Church.”