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To protect children and vulnerable adults, every diocese in Michigan has established a safe environment program for its parishes and schools. The dioceses employ safe environment coordinators who oversee training and background checks for clergy, employees, and volunteers across the diocese. Parishes and schools have locally-appointed safe environment coordinators who carry out these tasks at a local level and report to the diocesan coordinator.
The Importance of Safe Environment Training
Dioceses ensure that persons who regularly interact with children in Catholic facilities are properly vetted. But the key piece is the mandatory safe environment training for lay and clergy employees and volunteers to understand proper boundaries and how to recognize and report signs of abuse.
Due to the requirements of the Charter, together with efforts from the seven dioceses in Michigan, an estimated 230,000 people in the state have been trained in these safe environment practices, “creating an army of individuals with the ability to spot dangerous or suspicious situations and to respond quickly and correctly,” as a Detroit Catholic article put it.
By the Numbers:
– Estimated number of Michigan residents trained on how to recognize and immediately report any sign of abuse or activity that may be harmful to children or others through safe environment programs launched by Catholic dioceses in Michigan: 230,000
(Source: Diocesan statistics compiled by MCC)
The training creates awareness to spot problematic behavior and to speak up about it, said Martha Tomasi, the coordinator of the safe environment program for the Diocese of Marquette. The goal is to cultivate a community of people who look out for one another, making it “the responsibility of our parish as a whole to be a safe space for our children,” said Marina Hentz, associate director of the Office of Safe Environment for the Diocese of Kalamazoo.
Empowering Employees and Volunteers
The Church’s training has helped create a culture for employees and volunteers to feel “confident and empowered” to not only report abuse allegations but also “suspicions of red flag behavior,” said Kathleen McChesney, who oversaw the USCCB’s child protection office. She adds that the training represents a “remarkable change over time.” In the past, there was a culture of fear within the Church where people did not feel like they could report wrongdoing, particularly if it involved a well-respected priest, McChesney said.
That culture has now reversed to where children and adults are encouraged to report instances of abuse or even red flag behavior from anyone in the community, including clergy.
“It’s not just a check-a-box type of thing with safe environment … we very much want to protect our kids.” Marina Hentz, associate director of the Office of Safe Environment, Diocese of Kalamazoo
Training Children Themselves
The children themselves are trained too. In the Diocese of Lansing, for instance, children in Catholic schools and religious education programs are offered training at multiple points from kindergarten through 12th grade, and it is required that parishes at least offer parents training, said Reba Sommer, safe environment director for the diocese.
Professor Terry of John Jay College said limiting opportunities for abuse to occur helps prevent it. This is evident in the policies implemented to create appropriate boundaries between adults and children.
“We don’t see priests going on camping trips, for instance, with an individual teenage boy like we might have seen in the past,” she said.
Reporting Abuse to Law Enforcement
Every Catholic diocese in Michigan—and those across the country—is required to report all abuse allegations it receives directly to law enforcement, regardless of the amount of time that has passed since the abuse occurred. Ensuring allegations are handled by civil authorities takes precedent. For instance, the Detroit Archdiocese internal review process does not start until the civil authorities allow them to do so.
“We’re not going to be the primary investigator. We’re going to turn it over to the police department right away.” Steve Lynott, victim assistance coordinator, Diocese of Marquette
When the abuse scandal broke in 2002, the Archdiocese entered voluntary partnerships with the county prosecutors within its borders to share all existing case files of clergy accused of sexual misconduct, some of which dated back to the 1940s. As part of these agreements, the Archdiocese has also shared every subsequent complaint with law enforcement, regardless of source, contents, or date of the alleged activity. Similarly, the Diocese of Gaylord has conducted a review of all priest files dating back to the diocese’s establishment and reported their efforts to county prosecutors.
Cooperative efforts have been ongoing between the Michigan dioceses and the state Attorney General’s office since an investigation of abuse cases began in 2018. The Attorney General told a legislative committee in March 2022 that “we’ve seen great cooperation with the dioceses.”
When allegations are made against a clergy member, there is also an internal Church investigation. The facts are gathered by an independent investigator, who typically has a law enforcement background, said Steve Kin, chair of the review board for the Diocese of Saginaw.
That investigation is then reviewed by the diocesan review board, a panel required in every diocese. The review boards are made up mostly of lay people—who are often experts in law enforcement, medicine, or social work—and are tasked with reviewing the facts of each case to make a recommendation to the bishop on the credibility of an allegation.
“The review boards are one way of making sure that it’s not just the clergy” reviewing allegations of child sex abuse, Kin said. “It is to provide, I think, some credibility to how the Church is addressing this issue now.”
While the definition can differ by diocese, a credible allegation is sometimes defined as one that could have some semblance of truth—that it appears to be or could even possibly be true. If a member of the clergy is found to have a credible allegation against him, he is required to be immediately removed from ministry by his bishop. Any further canonical penalties for the offending clergy are determined by the Vatican. The Vatican has also established formal processes for the reporting and investigation of a bishop if an allegation of abuse comes forward against him.
The dioceses receive and process all reports of abuse, regardless of the status of the priest. Bush, the victim assistance coordinator in the Grand Rapids diocese, said she has spoken to individuals who had made reports of alleged abuse on behalf of their relatives who had long since passed away. Bush said the same process was still followed with those reports as with any other.
“Anybody is welcome to make that call,” she said.
The Church’s Abuse Prevention Practices
The reforms initiated by the Dallas Charter and carried out by the dioceses are considered best practices for child protection, so much so that many other youth-serving organizations have adopted similar protections, said McChesney, the former FBI and USCCB official.
Not only that, but experts both inside and outside the Church believe the practices are working to protect children. Data collected in annual reviews and surveys show that almost all new reports of abuse are from instances dating back decades, and most were reported to have occurred prior to the Charter.
“Other organizations have looked to the Church for examples and model practices of how to prevent and respond to these cases.” Kathleen McChesney, former executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection for the USCCB
“Looking at the metrics, you can tell that the number of cases has gone down significantly,” McChesney said.
But the work is never over, as those who serve the Church in child abuse prevention are continually improving and updating their practices. The Dioceses of Grand Rapids and Lansing, for example, recently teamed up in 2022 to host a national conference for Church officials working in child protection ministries.
McChesney says the individuals who are safe environment or victim assistance coordinators are “really dynamic, energetic … an experienced professional cadre of men and women throughout the country.”
It is important for Catholics to learn that there are dedicated people working in and for the Church to ensure children are safe—and that the Church wants to minister to those who were abused, including anyone who was harmed by persons representing the Church. Hentz, the safe environment coordinator for the Kalamazoo diocese, said many Catholics don’t know how much the Church has done in child protection in the past two decades.
“We really are at the forefront of the safe environment type programs in the United States,” she said.