Amid heightened awareness about child safety, local parishes have changed

| May 9, 2010

VERONA — On the rare occasion when the Rev. William Vernon hugs a child at St. Andrew Catholic Church, almost everything about the interaction has been carefully considered.

Since 2001, when a flurry of high-profile lawsuits against the Catholic Church reignited a child abuse scandal, Vernon has made it his personal policy not to initiate hugs with children. He encourages handshakes, high-fives and fist bumps instead.

If a child does hug him, it must occur in a public place, ideally with the child's parents watching.

"I go out of my way to make sure I'm not in a situation where my actions could be called into question," said Vernon, 48.

The sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has spurred many changes within local parishes, from the way volunteers are scrutinized to the way priests set guidelines for their behavior. Many Catholics say these reforms, instituted mostly in the last eight years, make it unlikely that a similar scandal could unfold today.

"Children are safer in the Catholic Church than probably almost anywhere else," said Mary Jane Doerr, associate director of the office of child and youth protection at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.

Critics acknowledge progress but say deep structural weaknesses within the church's hierarchy need more attention, including a culture of secrecy and a hesitancy to involve law enforcement.

"What is needed to make people really safe is prosecution," said Dan Maguire, a theology professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee and a former priest. "We've had revelations, but not prosecutions, at least not of bishops, and those were the people that had the power to move priests from place to place."

The 2001 lawsuits focused considerable attention on what critics say was a widespread practice by church leaders of covering up accusations of child sexual abuse by priests. In response, U.S. bishops meeting in Dallas in 2002 ushered in numerous policy changes, including what the church calls a zero-tolerance policy toward abusive priests.

Many of those policy changes are now on display in local Catholic churches.

Mandated training

Every week on average, at least one of the Madison Catholic Diocese's 134 churches is holding a workshop on child sexual abuse.

This training is required before any parishioner can volunteer for a program involving minors. Clergy and employees must go through the same training.

Since 2004, 21,000 people in the 11-county Madison diocese have completed the training, according to diocesan records.

"Why are we here tonight? To keep all of God's children safe," Kay Schachte said as she welcomed 12 people to a recent training at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Madison.

Schachte, a staff member, is the church's "safe environment coordinator," a position that implements anti-child abuse initiatives and reports progress back to the diocese. Every church in the Madison diocese has such a position, a local mandate not required by the national church.

At the workshop, which lasted more than two hours, participants watched videos and discussed how to spot potential abusers, the extent of the problem in society and the church's expectations for their behavior around minors.

"If there is not more than one adult present, the event simply doesn't happen," Schachte said.

Mary Emrich, who attended the training and is planning to volunteer in the church's nursery, said she liked that the training materials had a broad scope. "This obviously is a problem everywhere," she said.

Background checks

The Catholic Church also now requires background checks on all volunteers who will be around minors, as well as all clergy and staff members. The mandate doesn't specifically require a criminal background check, but this is the case in almost all dioceses, Doerr said.

In the Madison diocese, the prospective volunteer must provide his or her Social Security number for a national criminal background check, said Cheryl Splinter, director of the diocese's office of safe environment. (The diocese already was doing criminal background checks on clergy and many staff members prior to 2002. The checks are now standard for everyone.)

The diocese also does a trace on each Social Security number that brings up where the person has lived and worked — a separate step intended to expose identity theft. Since 2004, the diocese has done the combined criminal background check and identity trace on 19,822 people.

Those measures, plus credit checks and driver's license checks conducted on some volunteers and employees, have cost the diocese and its parishes $283,091 in the last six years, said Kevin Phelan, the diocese's chancellor.

Although it would seem unlikely that a convicted pedophile would fill out an application to volunteer and submit to a background check, this has happened at least once locally in the last six years, Phelan said. The person had been convicted of child sexual abuse, he said.

Other crimes — stalking, indecent exposure, disorderly conduct related to an anger issue — also result in automatic rejection, although the overall rejection rate is tiny, he said.

Also, all Catholic children receive training on skills to help them avoid becoming victims, and some churches call references for volunteers.

‘Wrong target'

These measures have helped, because it's always good to involve laypersons in solving church problems, said Peter Isely, a Milwaukee social worker and Midwest director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. But the focus should be on investigating priests and bishops, he said.

"They spent a huge amount of money on the wrong target," he said. "The problem has been bishops knowing about the abuse and covering it up."

Isely thinks the Catholic Church should set up an independent board to review the professional actions of priests, with the power to strip a priest of his title. Such a board would operate much the same as credentialing boards in other professions, such as counseling and teaching, he said.

In 2002, U.S. bishops did create sexual abuse review boards in each diocese and instituted a one-strike-and-you're-out rule for abusive priests. However, Isely largely discounts those efforts. The review boards are advisory only, and abusive priests usually get to retain their clerical title even when removed from active ministry, he said.

"That's sort of like saying to a teacher who has raped kids in class, ‘You can't teach a class anymore, but you can retain your teaching license and maybe tutor a little on the side,'" Isely said.

Isely also is critical of Wisconsin's mandatory reporting law. Although clergy members are among the occupations required to report suspected cases of child abuse to authorities, the clergy member is exempt if he or she receives the information "solely through confidential communications made to him or her privately or in a confessional setting" while carrying out his or her religious duties.

This renders the law useless, Isely said.

Phelan said the seal of confession is indeed absolute — a priest is bound to keep secret anything heard there.

But if a minor were to reveal in the confessional that he or she was being abused, the priest would encourage the child to repeat the information to him outside of the confessional, Phelan said. The child also could report the abuse to a school official or to Phelan, who handles the intake of all allegations of sexual abuse in the diocese and considers himself a mandatory reporter.

Adults who allege abuse decide for themselves on whether to involve police, "but I always and immediately offer that," Phelan said.

Safe approaches

There are still many ways for priests to be with children in safe ways, Doerr said, but one ironclad rule is for a priest never to be alone in a secluded area with a child. That's for everyone's protection, Doerr said.

"It's really about changing your behavior so that you don't mimic the behavior of an offender," she said.

Vernon, the Verona priest, said he never uses the public restrooms at St. Andrew Catholic Church, just in case a minor would be in the restroom at the same time.

His office door has a large pane of frosted glass, and he always tries to keep the door slightly ajar when meeting with people. He plans to have a carpenter cut a hole for a window in the confessional door later this year.

"I'm striving to be a good priest — bringing others closer to Jesus — and God knows that," Vernon said. "I want to assure people of that in everything they see."

 

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