Diocese updates Electronic Communications Policy to suit changing technology

By KATIE BORKOWSKI
katieb@catholicglobe.org

After receiving a request from Hiedi Touney, parish life coordinator at Holy Trinity Parish in Fort Dodge, diocesan officials decided to update the Electronic Communications Policy for the Diocese of Sioux City.

“There was a request for more clarity and specificity regarding what was written in the 2014 version of the code of conduct,” said Dan Ellis, Ph.D., the coordinator for the Office of Safe Environment.

Touney reached out to Ellis, the vicar generals (Father Brad Pelzel and Msgr. Kevin McCoy) and Bishop Walker Nickless on behalf of Holy Trinity and St. Edmond School. She requested clarification on section 9 of the Code of Conduct, specifically regarding the areas of electronic communications – social media, e-mail and texting.

“Then, with many others, I gave feedback as the diocesan offices worked to provide a policy that helps meet the needs of the youth, pastoral ministry and is in keeping with protection of children,” said Touney. “They – youth – love to text. They e-mail during the school year for those at St. Edmond and then social media to some degree, but by far, text is their preference.”

Father Pelzel explained since the reality of sexual abuse “having taken place within the church, and even the Diocese of Sioux City, became publicly known in the early 2000s, the goal of the Sioux City Diocese has been that we never have another case where a child or vulnerable adult is abused.”

He continued, “As time has progressed and our computers, phones and other communication and media devices have become more capable and sophisticated. There are a lot of websites, video games, phone apps and other new means of sharing that allow the exchange of pictures, comments and messages.”

The priest acknowledged the various means of communication, how they work and what they can facilitate “don’t always fit within our original policies related to text messaging and e-mail. We were receiving questions that made it clear that we needed to expand our policy.”

Updated policy

The updates to the Electronic Communication Policy will take effect July 1.

“Dan Ellis and myself were tasked by the Diocesan Review Board to address the issue and produce a policy update,” said Father Pelzel. “We contacted other dioceses and school systems and obtained copies of their policies. Drawing from their material, we wrote up a proposed policy that was then shared with diocesan DRE’s, school chaplains, principals and other school administrators, human resource directors and people with expertise with computers and internet communications.”

With the feedback from these individuals, the proposed policy was amended, shared again for another round of review and finally presented it to the Diocesan Review Board for approval, Father Pelzel reported.

“While the principles regarding how and what we communicate haven’t changed, the application of those principles to these new formats and apps isn’t always clear, so there has been substantial updating,” he said. “New to the policy is definitions of terms, specifically prohibited actions or content, best practices, monitoring responsibilities, restrictions, authorizations and the protection and use of photos and trademarked material.”

Touney noted the update is “certainly an improvement in regard to clarifying.”

“I believe that those in administrative positions in parishes and Catholic schools will need to review, on a yearly basis, these guidelines along with others in the Code of Conduct,” she said. “I would also encourage taking it a step further and reviewing the policy, along with others in the Code of Conduct with parents and high school students as appropriate.”

“I think the amended document provides the reader an opportunity to think through a number of different scenarios and then reach a conclusion on how best to act given the guidelines provided in the document,” said Ellis.

He acknowledged it is not possible “to establish firm rules for every situation. This document provides some guidance and allows the individual to in the end apply their best judgement and make an informed decision.”

As electronic communication technology continues to change, Touney pointed out, she believes “we’ll likely be revisiting our diocesan electronic communications policy. It’s simply the reality we live in.”

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