After Scandal, Diocese Asks School Volunteers to Sign Misconduct Policy

By Donna Porstner
The Advocate [Stamford CT]
December 16, 2003

STAMFORD -- It took more than chips and soda, clusters of preteen girls wearing makeup and mini skirts, and a disc jockey with a strobe light to pull off St. Gabriel Middle School's Snow Ball dance Friday night.

The 10 parents chaperoning the event were required to read and sign a 16-page document detailing the Bridgeport Diocese's sexual misconduct policy.

It warns that even innocent hugging, tickling or other horseplay could be misconstrued as inappropriate contact.

"Any volunteer who chaperones a dance or goes on a field trip, has any contact during the day with students, has to sign that document," Principal Robert Cavaliero said.

Chaperones who hadn't signed were asked to do so in front of him at the start of the dance.

"It's much different from when I was a kid," Cavaliero said. "Even 10 years ago, kids would come up to you and hug you, and now you almost push them away."

Disseminating the policy is part of the diocese's effort to restore parishioners' confidence in the Roman Catholic Church on the heels of recent sex abuse scandals.

Eight priests in the Bridgeport Diocese resigned or were relieved of their duties last year under accusations of sexual misconduct.

The diocese is using a three-pronged approach to prevent sexual abuse of minors, including the sexual misconduct policy, as well as background checks and a four-hour training course for employees, priests and volunteers. The course teaches participants how to detect signs of abuse and how to report it to church and civil authorities.

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the policy adopted by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops in June 2002 at the height of the abuse scandals, requires background checks for all church personnel who have regular contact with minors.

The Diocese of Bridgeport began the process last January by checking the criminal histories of diocesan employees, including Bishop William Lori.

Erin Neil, director of the diocese's Safe Environments Program, said that by next summer, the diocese hopes to complete the daunting task of conducting background checks on nearly 20,000 employees, volunteers and contractors in 87 parishes and dozens of Catholic schools, soup kitchens, cemeteries and other institutions.

"When new employees come in, there will be a process in place, so it will be a part of the standardized hiring process," Neil said.

The checks, conducted by two outside firms hired by the diocese, look only for convictions, she said.

The church has "zero tolerance" for sex crime convictions or for any crime against a minor, Neil said.

A record that includes a sex crime or crime against a child automatically would disqualify a candidate for a diocesan position. Parishes and schools may set additional hiring criteria, she said.

Neil would not release the cost of the background checks, only saying they are "very inexpensive" and paid for by the parish, school or other institution.

"Regardless of the cost, we consider it a major investment in ensuring a child's safety," Neil said.

Since recent arrests do not show up in a background check, she said, they are not a fool-proof method for weeding out people who could pose a danger to children. That's why the diocese will soon require a four-hour training course titled "Protecting God's Children for Adults" to teach staff and volunteers how to recognize sexual predators.

Participants are taught how to report suspected abuse to the diocese's victims assistance coordinator and the state Department of Children and Families, Neil said.

Since it is likely that all parents of the 330 students enrolled at St. Cecilia School on Newfield Avenue will volunteer this school year, Principal Joann Borchetta said she recommends they attend a training course scheduled for Jan. 11.

So far, she said, parents have been receptive.

"Once you explain it's for the children and their safety, there is no resistance," Borchetta said.

Like St. Gabriel, St. Cecilia School requires all parents and older siblings who volunteer to sign the diocese's sexual misconduct policy. If the person's signature is not on file, he or she cannot volunteer, Borchetta said. Staff makes sure the volunteer's signature is on file at the main office, she said.

At Holy Spirit School, a Catholic elementary school in North Stamford, Principal Alfred Liotta said the parents of all 140 pupils have read and signed the diocesan policy.

When he noticed the mother of one student was scheduled for lunch duty earlier this year but had not signed the policy, Liotta said, he told the woman she would not be allowed in the lunchroom until he had her signature.

"Nobody has been with these children even five minutes who hasn't signed," he said.

Liotta said he has to be strict because too much is at stake.

"A few people have been miffed by it, but I don't really care," he said. "I say there's nothing more valuable than a child's life."

Chaperones at the St. Gabriel School dance Friday night said they didn't think twice about signing the policy.

"You can't be too sure these days," said Tricia Cingari of Stamford, who has a son in the sixth-grade class. "We do what it takes to keep our kids safe."

Another mother of a sixth-grader, Susan Toliver of Stamford, said she has served on sexual harassment task forces at colleges and has been amazed at the behavior some professionals perceive as acceptable. She said volunteers working with children should be given guidelines because the rules are not always obvious.

"As a parent I would feel more confident if there was direction and training given to parents other than the handout form," Toliver said.

At this point, Neil said, volunteers in the diocese are asked only to read and sign the sexual misconduct policy.

The policy requires all church personnel who have "actual knowledge of" or have reason to suspect sexual misconduct against a minor by diocesan personnel to report it to the diocese's victims' assistance coordinator. The policy makes an exception for priests who learn about child sex abuse while hearing confessions.

The policy also bans church personnel involved in abuse investigations, including the diocese's Sexual Misconduct Review Board, from commenting publicly about a case.

The four-hour training course soon will be required for all volunteers, Neil said.

New church volunteers are allowed to participate once without taking the training class but must complete it before volunteering a second time, she said.

While some have questioned the time commitment, she said, parishioners seem willing to help their church rebound from the crisis.

"Most of the time people are excited to complete the training," Neil said. "The videos they see at this training are really very powerful and the feedback we are getting is that the videos make them realize how important it is that everyone is on board with this program."


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