Diocese of Amarillo implements a new safe environment program

By Morgan Burrell
August 23, 2019

[with video]

Since the formation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002, the Catholic Church has been responsible for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' website.

The Charter incorporated instruction on reconciliation, healing and the prevention of future acts of abuse, the Conference site states.

Along with the establishment of the Charter, the Diocese of Amarillo began utilizing a safe environment program.

"Initially, when we started this in 2002, we sort of had our own program we had to work with, with what we had available because it was brand new thing throughout the United States, it was required," said Deacon Blaine Westlake, the director of the safe environment program for Diocese of Amarillo. "As time went on, we found better and better programs. Bishop (Patrick J.) Zurek just recently authorized us to implement the new 'Circle of Grace,' which is the title of the program, throughout the diocese."

The Circle of Grace program was created in 2005 by the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb.

The program is an interactive dialogue between a catechist and students from prekindergarten through 12th grade, where lessons focus on safe environment principles.

"Each class has a particular emphasis on safe environment," Westlake said. "Now you realize with kindergarten, you talk to a kindergarten child different than you would eighth grade or fourth-grader. but each program is designed specifically for that age group. The advantage that we have is, this program has taken several years to put into development."

Experts in child care, along with clergy members, mental health professionals, educators and law enforcement officials developed the program to teach children to identify and manage appropriate physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual boundaries.

"We have the people that put this together have studied this, and they've thought about it, and they've tried it out," Westlake said. "They determined that in fact, it does work. It's age appropriate. In addition to that, these materials will be provided to any parent that wants to have access to them and parents are invited to attend the sessions as well."

Circle of Grace is recognized as the primary safe environment training program for more than 40 Catholic dioceses across the country.

Bishop Patrick J. Zurek declared October 2019 as safe environment month.

The new safety program will be made available to all teachers and those who train children and youth.

"The abuse of children has taken place in many institutions, not just the Catholic Church, but in our public schools, you name it, it takes place," Westlake said. "In addition, it's more often in families. What we're trying to do now with this program, is to train our young people, our children, to recognize those signs so that when those signs crop up, they recognize it, and they know what to do."

In January, the Catholic Diocese of Amarillo and others across Texas released the names of clergy involved in sexual abuses cases with minors.


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