OpEd: Policies aren't enough to protect children from abuse, churches must take action
By Richard Mathews
September 8, 2018
The Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth is attacking the evil of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults with increased rigor and intensity.
Organizations and institutions, including religious organizations, have historically focused on protecting children in their care from sexual victimization on the basis of "external threats," such as "stranger danger," breaches of facility security, and intercepting children traveling to or from locations or supervised activities. Yet, as we consider the increasing revelations of abuse among youth-serving organizations and religious institutions over the past two decades, attention must also turn necessarily to the victimization of children by those working inside, or affiliated with, these organizations.
In 2002 the Diocese of Fort Worth created its Office of Safe Environment to take specific action in response to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (commonly referred to as the Dallas Charter). The Dallas Charter addressed the church's commitment to deal appropriately and effectively with cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests and deacons. The diocese extended that commitment for accountability to include all other church personnel, employees and volunteers, including the bishop.
Policies are not enough to make and maintain the safest environment for children, youth and vulnerable adults. The Diocese of Fort Worth took it a step further and instituted specific actions to protect youth and to bring healing to those who have suffered from abuse.
Protecting others from sexual abuse requires an ongoing commitment to avoid complacency and to constantly improve policies, practices and awareness. To challenge the risk of complacency, Bishop Michael Olson consistently and publicly proclaims that we have zero tolerance for sexual abuse of minors and consistently focuses on enhancing our program to protect.
Bishop Olson and I firmly believe that face-to-face learning and dialogue is essential to protecting children from sexual abuse. Through live, participatory three-hour awareness sessions, the diocese is increasing the focus, vigilance, clarity, engagement and commitment of all clergy, teachers, employees, volunteers and parents of Catholic school students.
These in-person sessions not only identify the steps to protect children from abuse, but also engage in dialogue to help eliminate any reluctance to report warning signs of grooming or abuse.
Our program focuses on:
Adhering to the diocese's code of conduct, by which all are called to hold themselves and others accountable.
Knowing the warning signs of potentially predatory adult behavior, which includes understanding how perpetrators act and how they manipulate situations and persons to prey upon others.
Controlling access to children through screening, which includes standardized applications for everyone; extensive criminal background checks and reference checks; face-to-face interviews; and mandatory training or awareness sessions before someone begins volunteering or working, including clergy.
Monitoring all programs and ministries to ensure safe procedures are followed, such as requiring that any interaction with children be open and public and that all doors have windows.
Knowing and understanding child behavior and recognizing changes that may indicate symptoms of grooming, sexual abuse or other problems in their lives.
Communicating and documenting to the diocese any concerns that result in someone being uncomfortable with another's behavior to facilitate appropriate action, even if abuse is not suspected or occurring. Any individual who suspects or is aware of abuse is required to personally report it to law enforcement and Child Protective Services, in addition to the diocese.
Any allegations of abuse are always brought to the attention of law enforcement and the civil authorities, and the diocese fully cooperates in their independent investigation. We are transparent when clergy, employees or volunteers are removed due to allegations of acts of sexual abuse against minors. Since 2007, all clergy with credible allegations of sexual abuse against minors have been removed from the ministry, and their names have been published on the diocese's website, fwdioc.org/victims-assistance.
It is equally important that individuals feel comfortable discussing and facing the unfortunate reality of abuse. By discussing reactions, concerns and precautionary steps to protect others, we more keenly understand and are empowered to protect.
Of the hundreds of priests who have served in the diocese since its establishment in 1969, 15 have had credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor lodged against them. Additionally, whenever allegations are made, Olson or his representative visits those parishes where the accused served to speak at all weekend Masses and specifically request anybody who has been abused or has knowledge of abuse to contact law enforcement officials and the diocese, both to assist the church in protecting others from abuse and to bring healing to those who have been abused.
Last year, the Diocese of Fort Worth trained and processed criminal background checks on 27,498 volunteers, 946 educators, 942 employees, 127 priests, 75 deacons and 41 candidates for ordination. But protecting others from abuse involves not just checking the box. We are continually focusing on the quality and depth of awareness to engage everyone to embrace a culture of protection.
The safe environment program of the Diocese of Fort Worth can be implemented with positive results in every organization and church within the United States.