How to Idiot Proof Your Parish and Diocese against the Sexual Abuse Crisis

By Jennifer Fitz
Sticking the Corners
June 15, 2015

The idiots in question are ordinary people like yourself, busy, overwhelmed with responsibilities, always trying to figure out which situations are the most desperate and which are okay enough to leave be for the moment. Elizabeth Scalia and others report on the latest round of resigning bishops, and here’s the thing you need to understand: That diocese is just like yours, and by that I mean it is filled with people like you.

–> In the unlikely event that you’re one of those people who has it completely together, and never ever makes a bad judgment call, never ever drops the ball, never ever says, “But I didn’t think that would happen!” believe you me, the rest of the slouches in your parish, ministry, or organization are complete idiots. That’s just how it is. What this means is that in order to keep our children safe from sexual abuse, we have to idiot-proof our work.

Fortunately, it’s doable. Here are the basics:

1. Learn to dial 911.

In reading the harrowing account of how a serial abuser was left in office for years, one fact stands out: Bunches of people knew the abuse was going on, and not a single one called the police. Not one.

You don’t need permission to pick up the telephone.

It doesn’t matter what your boss says. It doesn’t matter what your job description is, or that you haven’t got one. The police are so easy to contact even a kindergartner can do it, and that means you can, too. If you suspect a crime is taking place, pick up the phone and call the police. You can talk to the competent church authorities after.

To put your mind at ease:

You can talk to an officer at your local police station and describe the situation first before naming the perpetrator, if you are unsure whether a crime is actually taking place.

The police have the job of conducting investigations and sorting out guilt from innocence, not you. Your parish priest knows an awful lot of stuff, but he’s probably not a cop specializing in investigating this type of crime. Pull in the pro’s ASAP, and let them help your parish figure out if there’s really a problem or not.

It does no one any favors to “keep things quiet.” Once the possibility of abuse has reared its head, the most healing thing to do is confront the problem head-on, charitably but thoroughly.

I’ve seen lots of cases in the news where people suspected abuse was taking place and wrung their hands and said, “Oh me oh my, what shall we DO??” I can assure you, the police were on this job, investigating sexual abusers and bringing them to trial back in the ’80?s when everyone says people “just didn’t know,” and they still keep their hand practiced at it. If you know about a possible crime in your parish and it doesn’t get reported, it’s because you did not report it.

2. Be a Pest About Following Policy

Sometimes you’re the pest, sometimes you’re the one being pestered. That’s how it works when we mere mortals help each other. Your parish or diocese has policies in place to help prevent child abuse, but they only work if people follow them.

I’ve heard harrowing tales of places where people simply don’t follow the basic precautions set in place by their diocese. When that happens, those who witness the violations must stand up and refuse to let the negligence continue.

I’ve known cases where people follow a policy in a dubious just-meeting-the-letter-of-the-law way, and in that case you have to apply a bit of moral force. Don’t expect it to be pleasant. Are you really going to explain to a child who’s been abused, “Well, I knew that Mrs. Johnson wasn’t really creating a safe environment, but I didn’t want to upset anybody.” No.

And I’ve also seen what I hope is the most common case, which is that we humans sometimes overlook the obvious. We misread a policy, we don’t realize that we’ve got the conditions that we do, we think we’ve got everything in order, but really we don’t. So when your realize an oversight is taking place, just say, “Hey, aren’t we supposed to be doing _____?” Or “Doesn’t _______ policy apply in this situation?” Any honest administrator (and I’ve been this administrator) would much rather rectify a situation before it causes a problem.

When I’m in charge, I want to know about a policy-compliance problem the minute it happens, not three months from now when you get around to mentioning it. I also need to know if my attempted fix has failed: Just because I think I’ve addressed a safety concern doesn’t mean what I tried really worked. Like all the other humans I work with, I’m not omniscient.

–> It is normal for humans to make honest mistakes. Therefore it needs to be normal to identify and correct them without throwing around blame or casting aspersions. Just get the situation corrected.

The reality is that your parish is far safer if it is run by goofballs who are grateful when you speak up about potential problems than if it’s run by someone who does everything “perfectly” all the time, and therefore refuses to admit that there could ever be the slightest improvement.

3. Use Your Head for Something Other Than a Decoration

You have to think through conditions on the ground. No policy or procedure can be written in enough detail to answer every scenario. A room full of high school students is different than a room full of two-year-olds. A parish nursery in a separate building is different than a parish nursery with glass windows and doors looking out on a constantly-trafficked hallway. A single-person bathroom is different from a multi-user bathroom is different from a bathroom used by the general public and not just the kids in your program.

Is it a pain the butt trying to run a preschool program when you have to have two background-checked adults take any child down the hall to the bathroom? Yeah it is. But it’s a pain in the butt doesn’t trump “adults don’t get to be alone in a bathroom with other people’s kids.”

Anytime you try something new, you have to deal with a fresh set of conditions. Sometimes it’s obvious how to make changes, other times it’s not. Sometimes problems crop up that you weren’t expecting. Sometimes it takes a while to train parishioners (or yourself) out of habits that might be fine in one situation, but aren’t in another. Sometimes you think everything’s running smoothly, and then someone comes up with a fresh new way to make you want to pound your head against a brick wall.

You have to keep at it. You keep assessing, you keep listening to your advisers (collect as many as you can), you keep looking for solutions.


Evil’s around, and fighting it gets tiring. When we look at the egregious cases in the news, it’s tempting to say, “What idiot let this happen?” But the reality is that it takes a lot of idiots working together to prevent problems and rectify them when they occur.

“Safety” isn’t the perfect document, nor is it one person doing everything right. We create a safe environment when everyone is committed to a no-nonsense stance against child abuse, and all of us are willing to use our heads and our mouths to keep each other on the right path.








Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.