Church Emerges with Widespread Reforms

By Tracy Manzer
Daily Bulletin
January 26, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 06: Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is seen on April 6, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. Pope named Jose Gomez of San Antonio,Texas as next archbishop of Los Angeles. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

It's been more than 10 years since the Catholic Church faced the pinnacle of its sex abuse scandal, one which many refer to as the church's greatest crisis since the Reformation.

In this last decade, church leaders and members say, they have had to come to terms with feelings of anger, confusion and shame over the dark history of child molestation and the cover-up.

But they take comfort, they say, in the knowledge their church is not the same organization it once was. There has been not only a change in policy, but a change in culture.

"When you look at our past and compare where we are today you see a progression, you see a different response to these issues, and you see, I think, a completely different church," said Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

One outgrowth of that change is an overhaul of how Los Angeles churches treat reports of abuse, including new extensive education for clergy, parishioners and children. There are also background checks and training for those connected with a church who may come into regular contact with children.

"We have grandparents who want to help on a field trip who come in and get fingerprinted," said Jeff Candill, a church committee member from St.

Dominic Savio Parish in Bellflower who volunteers to help train others to work with their parishes on abuse issues.

Candill, who is also a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, was among a group of about 200 people representing some 50 parishes who gathered for facilitator training at a conference room at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Friday.

They were there to help in a two-day training session of new facilitators — regular people like themselves who volunteer to teach their parishes about how to identify, respond and even prevent abuse.

The approach is the result of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which was adopted in 2002 and serves as policy for the church and all its members, Tamberg said.

The charter was a massive undertaking, which saw the church for the first time admit its violations and reach out to experts in psychology and criminology to establish sweeping reform. Among those who continue to work with the bishops are former federal investigators and those who conduct regular studies of sexual abuse and perpetrators.

The charter and its policy are also now being looked at by private and public organizations from throughout the country to adapt to their needs, Tamberg said.

Included in the 2002 charter is the Safeguard the Children Committee, which implements and monitors the policies. The committee is led by the regular parishioners who oversee yearly audits of every parish to ensure anyone who supervises or is in charge of children, be it a priest or an usher who might be asked to watch kids briefly, submits to fingerprinting, background checks and regular training, Tamberg said.

The committee also works with an independent firm hired by the Conference of Bishops to conduct even more in-depth audits of every diocese in the nation, about every two years.

"We've passed all our audits since they were implemented ... in 2003," Tamberg said, estimating the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has undergone more than half a dozen of the major reviews.

In addition to training for the adults, programs have been developed for children and tailored to age groups, from kindergarten through high school.

"We have high school seniors who have grown up in this program for the last 11 years," Tamberg said.

Training for the adults is handled differently. The first session is three hours and it must be followed up every four years with a 1 ½ hour refresher course. However monthly online check ins and updates must be completed by every church staff member and volunteer. If those updates are not completed, the individual is not allowed any access to children, program leaders said.

Abuse reporting forms are now front and center in every parish, school and religious education office in the archdiocese. They include instructions on how to handle someone who comes in for help, and phone numbers and online links to child abuse authorities and law enforcement with instructions to make a report immediately.

As part of the training Friday, committee members and veteran facilitators gave firsthand accounts of what they have dealt with and what the new facilitators should expect. They were told to prepare themselves for negative reactions from parents and other volunteers resentful of the new requirements.

They were counseled on the emotionally draining aspects of the training — which includes an 11-minute video of interviews with abuse survivors and perpetrators — and they were instructed on how to handle situations when someone in training comes forward with their own history of abuse.

Then there are the members who still struggle to acknowledge how pervasive child abuse is and who can become argumentative and even heckle facilitators.

"There's usually a few people grumbling in the beginning, but by the end they are all thankful," Candill said. "Everyone who goes through the training fills out an evaluation form, and I've never had a negative response yet."

Added Don Montoya, a committee member from St. Thomas Aquinas in Ojai: "Usually the only complaint is that three hours is too short."

Other topics repeatedly covered Friday included the role of mandated reporters, those who by state law must report cases of abuse, sexual or physical, to law enforcement. Committee members broke down which volunteers are considered supervisors of children, noting it's anyone who regularly or even occasionally works with or watches children at a school or parish.

A demonstration of the new attitudes within the church came with the recent arrest, prosecution and conviction of Father Luis Cuevas in Long Beach.

Cuevas was accused of inappropriate touching by two young women at St. Anthanasius in April 2012, according to the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

Though many in Cuevas' parish insisted their beloved priest would never do such a thing, the report was taken seriously by archdiocese officials and quickly forwarded to Long Beach police and the District Attorney's Office.

By July, the priest had been relieved of his parish duties and an investigation was under way. Another victim, a 17-year-old girl, came forward after the church pastor read a statement to the parish about Cuevas' removal and asked other possible victims to report any additional incidents.

With the second incident reported, and involving a minor, the church acted swiftly and aggressively, Tamberg said.

The revelation was reported to authorities that day and the victim and one of her parents were accompanied by an archdiocese official to the police station. Cuevas was immediately removed from all ministry and ordered to live privately, Tamberg said.

After his arrest a few days later and eventual plea of no contest to three charges of sexual battery, he was sentenced last week to five years formal probation, and ordered to register as a sex offender for life.


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