'We Have to Regain Trust'

By Carole Carlson
News Tribune [Duluth MN]
November 17, 2003

Thousands of area Catholics who have regular contact with children are undergoing required training by the Diocese of Gary to help spot child predators and stem potential child molesting crimes in the four-county diocese.

The “safe environment” training is one of the reforms mandated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the heels of a priest sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic Church in 2002.

Bishops, including the Most Rev. Dale Melczek of the Gary diocese, heard an update on the reform initiatives at their annual fall conference last week in Washington.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops conference, warned an unprecedented study the church commissioned on 50 years of clergy sex abuse cases will “add to our own sorrow” about predatory priests.

The study will count the number of abuse claims nationwide since the 1950s and tally the costs for legal settlements with victims, attorneys' fees and therapy for victims and offenders. The report is to be released Feb. 27, during Lent.

Victim advocates came forward during the conference and said the church still has not done enough. They held a silent vigil one night outside the hotel where the bishops were meeting.

In the 185,000-member Gary diocese spanning Lake, Porter, LaPorte and Starke counties, volunteers have undergone criminal background checks in addition to the required four-hour training. They also must log on to a Web site and complete a group of lessons over the next year. Many churches, such as Nativity of Our Savior in Portage, have been doing the background checks for several years.

Rita Jastreboski of St. John said the four hours she spent delving into the psyche of a child molester was a valuable lesson.

“Everyone looks normal. I went into this thinking I was an overprotective parent. Not now,” said Jastreboski, the mother of two boys who also teaches Sunday School at St. Michael Church in Schererville.

Jastreboski was among 250 adults who attended a recent training session at St. Michael School. The participants listened to videotapes of child molesters explaining how they targeted and attracted their victims. They also heard a lecture from Paul Ashton, a psychotherapist from Manchester, N.H.

“We've got to be hypersensitive. We have to regain the trust other people have lost,” Ashton told participants.

So far, nearly 7,000 teachers, volunteers, priests and staff members in the diocese have taken the training. It was mandated for all dioceses in the nation earlier this year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The training program was created by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group Inc.

Lay volunteers aren't the only ones required to take the training. Clergy, teachers and staff members must attend.

No one is immune, including Melczek.

“Yes, I went through it. The purpose is to help us recognize signs of when a youngster is abused and also give us a kind of conduct to follow.”

Melczek said the diocese recently underwent a week-long audit covering its sexual abuse policies and procedures. “They interviewed all kinds of people,” he said. The audit was conducted by two former FBI agents.

The first national audit detailing how each diocese has responded to the reform measures is due to be completed by Friday. It will be made public in January.

Meanwhile, the training sessions are winding down throughout the diocese.

Rob Sturgeon, the father of two children at Nativity of Our Savior School, said he already attended a similar training as a Boy Scout troop leader. It's required every two years by the Boy Scouts of America.

“I think it helps people become more aware of what's going on in their environment and the world,” he said.

Sturgeon heads up the recess program at Nativity, and he's assisted by six parent volunteers. They monitor the playground and the lunch room, carrying portable radios to report any problems or trespassers.

“We keep an eye on kids and make sure nobody who's not allowed is on the playground,” said Sturgeon.

Despite the problems his church has faced in the past two years, Sturgeon said his faith isn't shaken.

“We're living on Earth with human beings. Everyone's human.”

Andrean teacher Denise Maldonado, who teaches morality, said as an educator she was already aware of many of the indicators of abuse.

“The program hit me more as a parent than as an educator. I don't think it was a waste of time. I got a lot out of it from a personal perspective,” said Maldonado, of Crown Point.

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