By RENEE WEBB
Development of detailed and comprehensive programs to ensure the safety of children and young people in Catholic schools and parishes in dioceses was among the components that came out of the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
In the Diocese of Sioux City, those programs and practices will now be overseen by Dan Ellis, who was hired in March to serve as the diocese’s safe environment coordinator. These duties were previously held by Colleen Sulsberger, who retired after serving in that position since 2011.
“My primary responsibilities are maintaining the database of all the people who are registered with VIRTUS, helping coordinate the trainings that are held throughout the diocese, assisting the local coordinators and the parishes and schools that are maintaining their own databases for their volunteers, teachers, staff members and employees,” said Ellis, a native of Kansas.
Each parish, he noted, has a designated coordinator who ensures the volunteers and employees are up-to-date on their training. While various safety training programs are available, VIRTUS is the program used in the Diocese of Sioux City.
“The main objective is protecting our children from being exposed to any kind of abuse,” Ellis said. This includes educating parishioners, volunteers, staff members and clergy “on how to recognize children who might be at risk, spotting someone who might be in a subtle way grooming a child for eventual abuse and it also involves teaching children about what is safe touch.”
He acknowledged there is room to further develop educational programming for the children.
“The USCCB (United States Council of Catholic Bishops) would like to see all dioceses have a strong program for children,” Ellis said.
For the last 25 years Ellis has worked as a hospital administrator in Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa, including facilities in Primghar and Ida Grove. Prior to that he worked in the counseling and education field for 20 years, including work as a therapist for Catholic Social Services in Omaha and teaching courses on counseling at the University of Nebraska.
He earned a bachelor’s and master’s in psychology from Northern Arizona University, a master’s in health care administration from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate in adult education from Union Graduate School in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Ellis and his wife Ruth have seven children. Their youngest, Emma, will be a freshman at Bishop Heelan High School next year. They are members of Blessed Sacrament Parish.
In addition to monitoring the entire diocesan database that is made up of about 6,000 people, Ellis must ensure there are adequate numbers of facilitators to conduct VIRTUS training sessions several times a year in various diocesan locations.
“People come and go, relocate, retire and so we have to regenerate the facilitators as time goes by,” Ellis explained.
Setting up the training sessions, he noted, was a collaborative effort between himself and the local coordinators as well as facilitators. Once a session has been set, Ellis will usually make those dates public because most trainings are open to anyone in the diocese who needs to go through the VIRTUS education.
“There is a desire and we often receive requests for this training to be offered online. VIRTUS does have an online curriculum and we are in the process of exploring how to make that available and in what circumstances it would be offered,” he said. “Sometimes there are circumstances in which one just cannot get to one of the scheduled trainings in a timely enough manner. Sometimes there are waits of weeks or months that fits their schedule.”
That being said, he noted, the direct face-to-face training is preferred.
Along with ensuring safe environment training is kept up for diocesan volunteers employees, part of Ellis’ tasks include keeping records for national audits, doing background checks and ensuring people follow a code of ethical conduct. He reports to Father Brad Pelzel, who is co-vicar general and moderator of the Diocesan Review Board.
Ellis retired as a hospital CEO in 2014, but has continued to teach college-level courses in health care administration and psychology while working part-time for the diocese.