By RENEE WEBB
It was in 2002 when the scope of the child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church came to light in the United States.
According to Dan Ellis, safe environment coordinator for the Diocese of Sioux City, that same year the U.S. bishops drafted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The document, often referred to as the Dallas Charter, outlined several things dioceses needed to do in order to create safe environments for children.
“All dioceses are required by the charter to do criminal background checks on volunteers, employees, educators and clergy before they have any contact with children or before they are hired,” he explained.
Since this policy has been put in place, 14,059 background checks have been completed in the diocese.
The Diocese of Sioux City adopted a Code of Ethical Standards in December of 2003 for employees and volunteers involved in church ministry. Ellis pointed out the code was revised in 2014.
New employees and volunteers, he noted, are required to register at virtus.org where they will read the code of conduct online and answer questions as well as sign up for safe environment training.
While several safe environment training programs are available, the diocese from the very beginning went with VIRTUS: “Protecting God’s Children.” This education program teaches how to recognize child sexual abuse and potential abusers as well as how to report child sexual abuse.
“The content of the training modules has changed over time, been updated because technology has changed in terms of what technology is used by children for social media,” Ellis said. “There is also new information related to how perpetrators may go about grooming children – new things to watch out for.”
In addition, most employees and volunteers are required to participate in continuing education through on-line bulletins to stay informed. Presently, there are 5,739 current employees and volunteers active in the VIRTUS database. Through the years, thousands more have gone through the training.
“Training sessions are offered in several locations to make it convenient,” said Ellis, who noted there are about 15 facilitators throughout the diocese. “The busiest times of the year are summer and fall because you have new hires for teachers and catechists coming on board, but we do have them scheduled throughout the year.”
From time-to-time someone asks Ellis why they must take part in the training. It’s not that the diocese is fearful that these individuals will commit abuse, it is about having more eyes and ears that can recognize inappropriate behavior, he explained.
One of the biggest benefits of VIRTUS, Ellis pointed out, is having the database through which to document and monitor safe environment compliance of parishes, schools and clergy at the individual level, parish level and diocesan level.
Along with training for adults, the safe environment coordinator pointed out students enrolled in Catholic schools receive a safe touch curriculum called “Teaching Boundaries and Safety” that is grade specific. Each year about 6,000 school students receive the training in the diocese.
What had been lacking, noted Ellis, was education for students enrolled in religious education programs. That need was met earlier this year when an educational resource was created and distributed to parents when they registered their children for classes in the parish.
“It gives the parents information about how to talk to their children about safe touch,” said Ellis, noting it also provides information on how to report abuse.
He stressed the importance of diocesan youth being trained as part of the safe environment program because “they need to be able to identify inappropriate touch and know how to protect themselves in terms of saying no or reporting it to someone right away no matter who it is – a priest, teacher or another adult. Years ago, people didn’t report it, they just kept it to themselves. There was no encouragement, no training, no education or mechanism to report they had been abused.”
The reason youth do not report abuse at the time it happened, Ellis said, are often similar to reasons why now adults often do not want to report abuse from 30 years ago: shame, fear that no one will believe them or thoughts that they did something to cause it.
The diocese requires parishes to display posters in every church and school outlining how to report child sexual abuse. To report child sexual abuse, in Iowa, call the hotline at (800) 362-2178. If you suffered abuse by a member or the clergy or someone who works for the church, call the victims assistance coordinator at (866) 435-4397 or (712) 279-5610.
“The Diocesan Review Board monitors that the safe environment program is following those standards,” Ellis said. “It’s my role to report to them the extent to which we are compliant to those standards.”
On a yearly basis, the diocese must complete a report about its safe environment program. In addition, the United States Council Catholic Bishops requires that every three years an external independent auditing firm come to the diocese for an audit to check records related to safe environment compliance and look over information published about the program be it online or in the newspaper.
“I do go out and do periodic onsite audits in the parishes and schools to see how they are complying with the standards,” Ellis said. “It’s more of an instructive thing, not punitive. It’s designed to help instruct them on improvements they need to make.”
Various resources about helping to protect children, can be found on the diocesan website – scdiocese.org – look for the Safe Environment icon.
“We can never become complacent,” Ellis insisted. “Just because the incidents of reports of abuse with children and youth have dramatically dropped since 2002, that is not a good reason to become complacent. That means the program is probably effective, so keep at it.”