|San Mateo County's Catholic Churches Raising Awareness of Child Abuse
By Christine Morente
San Mateo County Times
March 18, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO — In a virtual world, a fourth-grade child with spiky blue hair teaches children what kind of touching is OK and what isn't.
For about 45 minutes, "Eddie Zeffer," or "EZ" as he likes to be called, hosts mini-dramas and interactive role plays to show kids how to be safe from adults, bullies and other children.
The site is shieldthevulnerable.org, and the Archdiocese of San Francisco uses it to train not only kids, but its employees and volunteers on how to recognize, report and prevent child abuse.
Awareness will be ramped up for Child Abuse Prevention Month in April, said Deacon John Norris, director of pastoral ministry at the archdiocese, which serves Roman Catholics who live in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties.
Outreach includes a four-page ad in the Catholic San Francisco newspaper, sending brochures to parishes and schools, and putting up posters.
"What we're trying to do is deterrence," Norris said recently. "We don't want abusers here. If you mess with our kids, you will be investigated, and prosecuted if necessary."
About 10,000 employees and volunteers in 90 parishes, 52 elementary schools and four high schools have been trained through LawRoom, a Walnut Creek-based parent company of shieldthevulnerable.org.
Norris said the archdiocese helped develop Teen Safety and Kid Safety, two programs for children from the fourth through 12th grades.
Kids in preschool through third grade also go through a general safety program.
Ralph Yanello, chief executive officer of LawRoom, launched an adult training program in 2006 at the request of the Diocese of Oakland.
Teen Safety was launched six months ago, while Kid Safety is going through software testing and expected to go live soon.
Today, Yanello's clients include 16 other dioceses across the country. The site has trained close to 100,000 adults nationwide, he said.
"We've always believed there are consequences for not reporting child abuse," he said. "We want to raise the awareness throughout America that child abuse is still a problem, and much of it goes unreported.
The Rev. John Ryan of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Burlingame said many people have stopped ignoring the issue because of the online training.
But the 62-year-old knows there are victims who still haven't come forward.
"The important thing is to ensure that there is no sliding or forgetting about it," said Ryan, referring to the church and allegations of child abuse by priests.
On March 10, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a report that said dioceses spent more than $23 million nationwide to prevent child sexual abuse in 2008 — an increase of $2 million from 2007.
Also, virtually all U.S. dioceses and eparchies — the dioceses of an Eastern Orthodox Church — are compliant with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted by the U.S. Bishops in 2002.
Safeguards include background checks for employees and volunteers, safe environment training for children, and a discipline plan for offenders that removes them from any public church work.
In late December, the Archdiocese of San Francisco was deemed compliant.
Dioceses across the nation received 10 new credible allegations of abuse to a person under 18 years old that occurred in 2008, according to the report.
But the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate documented that, also in 2008, approximately 620 victims made 625 allegations against 423 offenders for child abuse that happened in the early 1970s.
Despite the many allegations, Norris maintains that child abuse in the church is very rare. He said 90 percent of child abuse cases happen in the home or in public school.
Regardless, he said, if even one clergy member abuses children, that's too many.
"Our church takes a lot of grief about it," Norris said. "Those who did it were people we held in high esteem and put in positions of power and trust. It (abuse) violates everything they stand for."
Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director-secretariat for Child and Youth Protection with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said protection barriers in the church are much stronger then they once were.
"For the most part, the church has done a tremendous job," she said Tuesday. "The bishops have promised to reach out to victims and to protect children, and they're very strong in keeping that promise."
Staff writer Christine Morente covers faith, families, Burlingame and North County. She can be reached at 650-348-4333 or email@example.com
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