Tightened abuse policies kick in - Catholic Courier

Tightened abuse policies kick in

From now on, April Pettingill will function differently as youth minister for St. Mary’s Parish in Waterloo.
No longer will Pettingill deal one-on-one with a youth behind a closed door, she said. She will be more cautious about hugging teens. And she’ll think twice about transporting a youth-group member when no one else is in the car.

Pettingill recently agreed to submit to criminal record checks. Adult volunteers in the parish, on whom she relies heavily to conduct such events as overnight retreats, must do the same.

It’s not that Pettingill, who has been the youth minister at St. Mary’s for two years, has committed some grave offense and can no longer be trusted. These standards now apply to all diocesan employees, as well as any volunteers who work with youths and vulnerable adults.

These new regulations are spelled out in the diocesan Code of Pastoral Conduct, which enhances existing diocesan policies for preventing sexual abuse. The 10-page code (which can be viewed at www.dor.org) was announced May 30 by Bishop Matthew H. Clark in response to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The charter and accompanying norms — prompted by the issue of priestly abuse of children — were developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and approved by the USCCB in late 2002.

Mandatory 2-1/2-hour training workshops about the Code of Pastoral Conduct are currently being presented for diocesan employees, with similar training being conducted by the Department of Catholic Schools and diocesan Catholic Charities. This process affects approximately 5,000 employees, as well as many more volunteers who are undergoing training over the next few months.

In addition to signing statements saying they have read and understood the code, staff and volunteers also must consent to checks for criminal offenses and whether they are listed in a state’s sex-offender registry, plus verification of their Social Security numbers. Refusing to give such consent will result in termination of employment or denial of volunteer duty.

Pettingill acknowledged that such a strict policy is necessary in this day and age. “It forces people to confront the fact that sexual abuse is real,” she said. “People think things like this can’t happen — that it’s out of sight and out of mind, and doesn’t apply to me and my children. But it happens every day.”

Nevertheless, she worries that the new requirements will affect her volunteer base, especially if she needs to recruit help on short notice but can’t find people who already have gone through the screening process.
“It’s hard to get volunteers to begin with, and now I’m having to go with these stricter guidelines. I’m very torn,” Pettingill remarked. “If you lose your volunteers you lose your lifelines.”

Detailed process

Training sessions for diocesan employees are being conducted by Barbara Pedeville, diocesan director of management and staff relations, and Father Robert Ring, pastor of Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community in the Finger Lakes. Since 1993, Pedeville and Father Ring have also served as the diocesan-appointed sexual-abuse victims’ assistance coordinators.
The training sessions further define policies and procedures presented since 1993 to diocesan employees during mandatory six-hour workshops — also conducted by Pedeville and Father Ring — on sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation. The new sessions address procedure modifications based on the Code of Pastoral Conduct in such areas as minimizing situations in which an adult is alone with a child; making physical contact only in appropriate public situations; and avoiding such forms of harassment as physical and mental abuse, and unwelcome sexual advances or comments.

Criminal background checks also are being explained to employees at the new training sessions. Employees are obligated to authorize an outside agency, the Rochester Business Alliance, to verify the accuracy of the Social Security numbers they have provided to the diocese.

According to diocesan policy on screening of employees, all background checks are done confidentially, with an appointed diocesan human-resources person acting as a liaison between an employee and the screening agency. If the screenings reveal information that could affect the individual’s employment, that person has a legal right to respond. The diocese also will conduct random checks in the future in an effort to protect against offenses that might occur after an employee has been screened.
Obviously, people with clean records have little cause for concern. And even when a violation surfaces, it does not automatically mean termination of employment. “It depends on the circumstance and the offense,” Pedeville said, although she emphasized that people listed on a state sex-offender registry cannot work for the church.

Although they are conducting their own staff and volunteer training, the Department of Catholic Schools and diocesan Catholic Charities also are adhering to the requirements of the new Code of Pastoral Conduct.

“Each school is looking at its own processes and procedures,” said Sister of St. Joseph Patricia Carroll, the diocesan assistant superintendent for government services and administration.

Sister Carroll, who oversees orientation and training for school personnel, noted that the seven Catholic high schools in the diocese — although privately operated — still fall under Bishop Clark’s jurisdiction and also must comply with the diocesan Code of Pastoral Conduct.

For diocesan Catholic Charities, the code primarily affects employees and volunteers working directly with special-needs people who have such conditions as developmental disabilities, AIDS and traumatic brain injuries. Barb Poling, human resources director for Catholic Charities Community Services, noted that she lobbied to have the term “vulnerable adults” included as the diocesan Code of Pastoral Conduct was being developed, even though the U.S. bishops’ charter only mentions protection of children and young people. Most clients of Community Services are adults, she explained.

“I think the entire definition of who needs to be protected needs to be explained,” Poling said. “I appreciate the fact that Bishop Clark understands it’s a bigger picture than just children and youth.”

Based on the effort that’s gone into developing the Code of Pastoral Conduct, Pedeville said she’s confident the Rochester Diocese has met the requirements of the USCCB’s charter and norms, and that this will be reflected in a Sept. 15-19 audit by the National Review Board. All U.S. dioceses are subject to audit by the board to gauge their compliance with the charter and norms.

Pedeville noted that this diocese had taken decisive steps to address sexual abuse long before the U.S. bishops’ charter was developed. In 1993 the diocese enhanced its existing policy on sexual abuse of children by establishing the six-hour mandatory sexual-misconduct workshops for employees; creating an advisory board to Bishop Clark on sexual-abuse allegations; and appointing Pedeville and Father Ring as victims’ advocates.
These measures have helped to establish healthy boundaries between adults and children in the diocese. Hugging is a common practice during diocesan teen retreats, for example — but not in private settings or in other ways that could lead to the appearance or possibility of sexual misconduct.

“You don’t have to lose the dynamic of the personal experience. People know an appropriate hug and what’s not,” said Michael Theisen, diocesan director of youth ministry.

Safe environment

Yet the new Code of Pastoral Conduct and its tighter requirements especially regarding employee and volunteer background checks has raised the bar, for many, to an uncomfortable level.

“Because it is new, folks have had a fair number of questions about the process,” Father Ring said.

One area of confusion has involved the requirement that employees and volunteers agree to have their Social Security numbers verified. The forms required to legally authorize the release of Social Security numbers to the outside agency performing the check explain that the procedure is governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Pedeville said the appearance of the word “credit” on these forms has led many employees to mistakenly believe the diocese would access their credit histories. In fact, Pedeville said, no actual credit checking will be done.

Father Ring said people may also resent the fact they must fill out forms. But he said this level of detail all relates back to creating the safest possible environment.

“Think of what you would want for your children or grandchildren,” he said. “It stands to reason if someone is driving my children, I’d like to know they haven’t been convicted of a felony.”

Father Ring added that questions about the Code of Pastoral Conduct, as well as the time spent on orienting people to it, should trail off significantly as the year goes on. He said future training sessions will only apply to new hires and volunteers, as opposed to the current challenge of orienting all existing employees and volunteers. “Once we come up to speed this should be much, much easier, when we’ll just be dealing with a few people at a time,” Father Ring said.

Although the priest sexual-abuse scandal prompted the U.S. bishops to implement such far-reaching policies, ironically it is now the Catholic Church that stands to take a lead in addressing the broader issue of sexual abuse in society. For instance, the Rochester Diocese’s Code of Pastoral Conduct requires all church employees to report any knowledge of an allegation of sexual abuse to their supervisors or the diocese.

“I now know the prevalence of sexual abuse is greater than I had ever imagined. We have an opportunity to address it,” said Maribeth Mancini, who oversees such youth-oriented programs as religious education and youth ministry in her position as diocesan director of evangelization and catechesis.

“For society in general, this is an opportunity for parents and young people to know what the boundaries are,” Pedeville added.

Implementing the Code of Pastoral Conduct also draws attention to an area that Sister Carroll feels has been overlooked — sexual abuse in the home.

“It’s an opportunity to stop and look at the broader question of sexual abuse in society. Over 90 percent of abuse is by a family member and it is the silent issue,” Sister Carroll said.

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