Dioceses Train Workers to Spot Signs of Child Abuse
Oakland: Programs Adopted by Catholic Officials Do Little to Mollify Critics in Wake of Sexual Scandals

By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Contra Costa Times [California]
November 6, 2006

The Rev. Mark Weisner of the Oakland Diocese pulled a chair up to the computer in his rectory office, logged onto "Shield the Vulnerable" and scrolled through a fancifully illustrated program that teaches how to recognize and report child abuse.

The 90-minute interactive program on the Web site presents statistics, factual information and case studies, with the viewer answering true-false and multiple-choice questions about sample scenarios. There's even a crossword puzzle.

"I found it very engaging," said Weisner, the diocese's spokesman.

The interactive course for priests, employees and volunteers of the Oakland Diocese went live Aug. 14. Since then, nearly 12,000 people have clicked through the course, said Ralph Yanello, the Walnut Creek attorney who developed the program.

He runs, which advises employers on sexual harassment and other workplace compliance issues.

The course meets a requirement for training in the signs of abuse that the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops set following the pedophile priest scandal.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco and the Diocese of Santa Rosa also use "Shield." Dioceses in other areas are adopting similar programs.

In August 2005, the Oakland Diocese settled lawsuits with 56 victims -- about a third of the Northern California cases -- agreeing to pay $56 million. The cases involved 24 priests.

The program, and the bishops' mandate, have done little to calm two critics of the church over its response to the abuse scandal.

Absent the mandate, it's doubtful the church would be developing courses such as "Shield," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"It's kind of galling that each diocese puffs their chests out as if (training) was their idea when it's generally been forced upon them by a horrific sex abuse scandal," he said

Weisner didn't accept that view.

"You can't project whether people would do it or not do it" absent the mandate, the diocese spokesman said. "You can say the same thing about sexual harassment training. If it were not required by law, some people would have the interest but simply not get around to it, and some would make it a point to see it through."

Pope Benedict XVI spoke on the abuse issue at the Vatican over the weekend, the Associated Press reported. He said it is critical that the church "take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again." He also told visiting Irish clerics on Oct. 28 that the church should speak openly about the extent of the crisis and that it should pursue all routes to speed healing for victims.

Clohessy and others have questioned why "Shield the Vulnerable" bars entry by anyone not connected to the diocese.

"The implication of having an internal, secretive training is that this is an internal, secretive problem," Clohessy said. "If it's such a wonderful, innovative, helpful program, why can't anybody see it?"

It is not a matter of secrecy so much as cost, Yanello said. LawRoom charges the diocese $5 for each viewer. And restricting the pool to diocese employees and volunteers helps track who is participating, he said.

The church has also drawn brickbats from a critic who says training is a sop to insurers.

"I would be shocked if the insurance company wasn't in it up to their ears," said Jim Jenkins, a clinical psychologist, former Holy Cross brother and former chairman of the San Francisco Archdiocese Independent Review Board.

The Oakland Diocese's insurers did not compel the training, Yanello said, although in other areas, insurers have insisted on -- or designed -- such courses.

"If they don't they should, because of the liability," he said. "The first question to a mandated reporter in a deposition is, 'Did you recognize this child was at risk?' The second question is, 'Are you trained?' I can tell you most mandated reporters are not being trained."

California law designates teachers, therapists, doctors and others as "mandated reporters" who must alert authorities immediately if they suspect a child has been abused.

An insurance company, the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, designed a competing course called "Protecting God's Children." Praesidium Religious Services Inc., a risk management firm, launched another.

"Oakland has a history of trying to reach out proactively more than other dioceses, trying to get ahead of the game," Jenkins said.

"If this gets across the idea that you need to be reporting these things in a way that children are protected then it's a positive."

Most of the examples in the "Shield" course involve parents and children in the home. One asks users to consider a mother who ordered her 5-year-old to sit in a chair for hours, locked him in a dark closet overnight and cut off all the hair on one side of his head. The viewer is asked whether the behavior might result in emotional abuse.

Although little mention is made of church or clergy throughout the course, the last five pages includes a list of "thou shalt nots."

One such instruction says the sacristy door must always remain open when minors are present within. The course discourages regular or expensive gifts to children, bars profanity, vulgar humor or "comments of a sexual nature," and sets definite rules on travel accommodations.

Despite his limited praise for the course and the diocese, Jenkins said the church must become much more transparent if it wants to eliminate abuse.

An effective program must include two critical elements, he said. One is publishing the names of priests once a church tribunal has uncovered "credible allegations," which a diocese could do in its newsletter or on its Web site to alert parents and parishioners. The other is supervising errant priests once they've resigned, been discharged or, if convicted, been paroled.

The sex-abuse crisis erupted in Boston in January 2002 when a judge ordered the church to unseal documents regarding reported episodes of child sexual abuse. The files contained ample evidence that the church had taken greater pains to protect itself from scandal than to safeguard children.

Catholic dioceses across the nation had paid out more than $1 billion to victims by June 2005.

Reach Rebecca Rosen Lum at 925-977-8506 or


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