By Cardinal Justin Rigali
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. As all levels of our society are called to vigilance, it is appropriate that during this month one of my topics would address the ongoing efforts in our Archdiocese to protect our young people.
A brief explanation of our programs
Many of you are familiar with The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in which, among other things, the Bishops of the United States called for the establishment of a Safe Environment Program in every Diocese. This is part of the commitment of the Bishops to create and maintain a safe environment for young people within the Church. In our own Archdiocese, we have just completed a very helpful brochure, which will soon be available for distribution. This week, as a way of introducing that brochure to the faithful of the Archdiocese, I will summarize a great deal of the information that has been gathered in it.
Since 2003, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has trained more than 60,000 employees and volunteers in child safety and the prevention of child abuse. Along with this part of our program, which concerns adults, there is also an age-appropriate personal safety program that is presented to our children and young people throughout the Archdiocese. Each year, almost 120,000 of our young people receive this information in our schools and religious education programs.
An integral part of the Safe Environment Program involves the background checks and child abuse clearances for all adults working with children. Our program goes beyond the requirements of Pennsylvania state law, which require that all school employees must have current background checks. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia requires that all employees and volunteers who have regular contact with children in any capacity to have current criminal background checks. This would include, for example, parish volunteers and CYO coaches. Our Archdiocesan program defines regular contact as that which occurs at least one time per week in the course of a person’s work or ministry. Priests, deacons, teachers, staff and volunteers who come within this definition must have a child abuse clearance and state police background check on file. A fingerprint check for those who live or who have lived outside the state of Pennsylvania within the past two years is also required.
Safe Environment Training
Hundreds of priests, deacons parish staff members, teachers, employees and volunteers within our Archdiocese have completed Safe Environment Training, in addition to their background checks. This is a program which has been developed by a national team of experts with experience in sexual abuse identification and protection.
These sessions continue to occur throughout the year in all areas of the Archdiocese in order to accommodate new employees and volunteers. These are some of the topics that are covered in these training sessions by the over 100 facilitators who have been trained to run these programs throughout the Archdiocese:
The prevalence of child sexual abuse in the United States;
How perpetrators gain access to children;
Examples of inappropriate behavior with children;
Warning signs of abuse;
The experience of child sexual abuse victims;
How adults model appropriate behavior with children;
Characteristics of safe relationships between adults and children.
Safe Environment Programs for children
It is particularly important that you know about the nature of the Safe Environment Programs that are conducted for children, concerning both their content and the fact that parents are given advance notice of their presentation and the opportunity to remove a child from the lesson. We would hope that all the children in our care would be given the opportunity to experience these very helpful presentations but parents are never deprived of their right to remove their children from a program, if they wish. Here is a brief summary of the program descriptions for children contained in the brochure:
Pre-K through 8th Grade
This age-appropriate program is called Teaching Touching Safety. It addresses good boundaries, safe and unsafe touch and encourages young children to tell an adult if someone is making them feel uncomfortable. Additional information on this program is available at www.catholicschools-phl.org/parents/safeenvironment.htm.
This program is named Called to Protect for Youth. It describes the three boundary areas that child molesters seek to violate; physical, emotional and behavioral. The program also reminds the young people that most adults in their lives care for them and want to protect them.
10th, 11th and 12th Grade
This age-appropriate program is called: The Gift of Innocence. This program was launched in each of our 20 high schools in 2008. The focus of the program’s message was determined in partnership with area law enforcement and victim assistance experts and contains the following themes:
1) sexual violence is a crime;
2) sexual violence is never the fault of the victim but always the fault of the offender; and
3) the victim’s value as a person is never diminished in the eyes of God.
Proper use of the Internet
I have previously addressed this topic in this column, especially in how it concerns the safety of children and proper use of the modern means of communication. The brochure I am writing about informs the reader that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia uses a nationally recognized program called NetSmartz Internet Safety in order to educate every student in our schools in the proper use of the Internet. The brochure summarizes points for parents in order for them to ensure Internet safety for their child. For more information and additional safety links, you can go to: www.catholicschools-phl.org/schools/Technology.htm or www.cybertipline.com.
The vulnerability of children
A section of the brochure deals with the vulnerability of children and reminds us that statistics show that one in five girls and one in ten boys will be sexually abused in their lifetime. Some signs of possible abuse are given in the brochure, although a child exhibiting these signs is not necessarily being abused. The signs are: recurring nightmares, insomnia or increased sleeping, sudden regressive behavior, fear of the dark, withdrawal from others, aggressive behavior, change in performance at school and loss of self-esteem. In adolescents, they may experience the above signs with the addition of: poor self-image, deteriorating peer relationships and a loss of interest in enjoyable activities.
Parents who may have concerns or fears in these areas and who wish to discuss them are encouraged to call the Archdiocesan Victim Assistance Program at 1-888-800-8780.
Response to possible abuse
The brochure advises parents on a proper response if their child tells them of possible abuse. This involves believing the child and assuring him or her that he or she is not being blamed for anything. Archdiocesan policy concerning our employees and volunteers is also restated in the brochure. Readers are reminded that all our employees and volunteers are mandated reporters of child abuse under the law in Pennsylvania. I would like to repeat here a summary of our policy, as mandated by the law and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is also contained in the brochure. In the case of a report of abuse, the following must occur:
The person in charge of the institution or parish must be notified.
Child Line (the statewide child abuse hotline) must be called at 1-800-932-0313 to make a formal report.
The Office of Child and Youth Protection in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia must be notified at 1-888-800-8780.
When allegations are against an employee or volunteer of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, local law enforcement authorities are notified.
I encourage as many of the faithful of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia as possible to read this brochure carefully and keep a copy of it as soon as it becomes available. It is yet another tool that we are making use of in order to fulfill the trust given to us by God, the Church and the faithful of the Archdiocese.
16 April 2009