Church Keeping Tabs on Teachers

By Luther Turmelle
New Britain Herald [Connecticut]
October 13, 2003

Catechism teachers at Roman Catholic parishes across Connecticut are undergoing a level of scrutiny that was unheard of in the church until this year.

The volunteer religious education teachers are being asked to fill out forms and provide information that will be used to do background checks.

So are other church workers in both paid and volunteer positions.

Welcome to the new reality of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

The measures that church leaders say are being taken to protect parishionerís children come in the aftermath of child sex abuse revelations that have rocked dioceses across the country for the past several years.

Church leaders say whatís being done to protect children is almost unprecedented in the United States.

"I canít think of any organization in this country that is undertaking something of this magnitude," said Joseph McAleer, a spokesman for the Diocese of Bridgeport, which serves the 87 Catholic parishes in Fairfield County. "Itís a huge undertaking and I think it shows great foresight on the part of the church."

The Bridgeport Diocese began giving sexual abuse awareness training and doing background checks on all employees, volunteers and contract workers in June as part of its Safe Environments Initiative, McAleer said. Parishioners were told of the initiative in a letter that went out in July.

McAleer said it will be several more months before all 20,000 workers and volunteers in the diocese have been trained and have received background checks.

Some church experts, however, say such a broad-based solution to prevent child sex abuse is unwarranted.

"Itís not that this is unnecessary, but I think that itís overkill and it deflects attention away from the real issue," said Paul Lakeland, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University. "I donít think the typical parishioner is concerned about their child being molested by church employees. Itís a problem that has been largely confined to the clergy."

While the Bridgeport diocese has been implementing its Safe Environments Initiative for months, a similar effort is in its early stages in parishes that are part of the Archdiocese of Hartford, said the Rev. Peter Dargan, pastor of the Holy Infant Church in Orange.

Dargan said he found two lay people in his parish who have taken the child abuse awareness training and will soon be training workers and volunteers at Catholic churches in Woodbridge, West Haven and Milford, as well as at Holy Infant.

Dargan said he thinks the anti-abuse initiative is necessary. Like many other Catholic parishes nationwide, Holy Infant has the services of dozens of local volunteers to teach religious education to youths.

"Anything that it takes to protect the kids, Iím in favor of," Dargan said. "This is the worst crisis in the churchís history. If you had told me a few years ago that this kind of activity was going on to the extent that it has been exposed, Iíd have said you were hallucinating."

Dargan said that even before the Hartford diocese launched the safety initiative, he wasnít aware of a groundswell among parishioners for more strict oversight of workers and volunteers.

"If a parish has a good pastor, they are well pleased and are not going to be clamoring for this," Dargan said.

Officials of the Archdiocese of Hartford -which serves 216 parishes in New Haven, Hartford and Litchfield counties could not be reached for comment on their version of the Safe Environments Initiative.

In Milford, news of the Archdioceseís version of the Safe Environments Initiative hadnít reached Maryann Salzillo but she said she is supportive of such efforts. Salzillo has two children who are attending St. Maryís Catholic school.

"I think thatís great," she said of the safety initiative. "Iím surprised, though. I would have thought theyíd have had that in place long ago."

McAleer said the feedback that Bridgeport diocese has gotten has from parishioner has been extremely positive.

"People are grateful," he said.

Bishop William E. Lori of the Bridgeport Diocese restructured the diocesan hierarchy as part of the initiative, creating The Office of Safe Environments, a new department. Lori also appointed a new victimís assistance coordinator, Linda Michaud, to serve as a point person in charge of fielding any new allegations of sexual abuse.

"By being in the forefront of efforts to raise awareness and create safer environments within the Church and our community as a whole, we go a long way toward restoring the confidence and trust necessary for healing to begin," Bishop Lori said, in his letter to parishioners at the time the Office of Safe Environments was announced.


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