Volunteers begin training - Catholic Courier

Volunteers begin training

Sister of St. Joseph Patricia Carroll estimates that 5,000 to 15,000
adults in the Rochester Diocese volunteer to work with children, teens
and vulnerable adults in parishes, schools and related organizations.
The range in the estimated number of diocesan volunteers is noticeably
broad because “we’ve never really had to stop to survey or do an
assessment,” said Sister Carroll, assistant superintendent for
government services and administration in the diocesan Department of
Catholic Schools.

Volunteer accountability will rise substantially beginning this
year, in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the U.S.
church for the past two years. In order to begin or continue
volunteering through any agency of the Diocese of Rochester, adults now
must agree to abide by a code of conduct and submit to criminal
background checks.

Among those affected by the new requirements are volunteers for
Catholic schools; catechists in faith-formation classes; chaperons at
youth-group events; those who train altar servers; baby-sitters during
Sunday Masses; coaches for Catholic Youth Organization sports; and
adult leaders in Scouting programs sponsored by the diocese. The
guidelines also apply to volunteers working with such “vulnerable
adults” as nursing-home residents, homebound individuals and the
developmentally disabled.

According to diocesan policy, anyone who does not accept the
conditions cannot serve as a volunteer. This requirement applies to all
volunteers — from those who have performed a service for decades to
those who will first volunteer at some future date; from those who help
out regularly to those who will serve on one occasion only; and from
those who assist with overnight events to those who work for just one
hour at a time.

The new requirements arose from the Charter for the Protection of
Children and Young People, approved in late 2002 by the U.S. Conference
of Catholic Bishops in response to the sex-abuse scandal. In May 2003
Bishop Matthew H. Clark instituted a Code of Pastoral Conduct that
enhanced existing diocesan policies for preventing sexual abuse. He
also decreed that all diocesan employees — as well as all volunteers
— who work with children, young people and vulnerable adults must
undergo training; agree to abide by a code of pastoral conduct; and
consent to criminal background checks.

The diocese conducted employee training over the summer; a similar
process for volunteers is currently under way through “Creating a Safe
Environment” workshops. Volunteers have until May 31, 2004, to fulfill
diocesan requirements. Individuals who have not yet completed the
requirements may continue volunteering in the interim — except for
those volunteering for such overnight events as the National Catholic
Youth Conference taking place Nov. 13-16 in Houston.

In August the diocese began conducting numerous “train the trainers”
sessions for designated parish and school staff members who will, in
turn, train their local volunteers. The bulk of the trainer training —
which was more than 90 percent completed as of late October — has been
done by Sister Carroll and Maribeth Mancini, diocesan director of
evangelization and catechesis.

Ellen Keough, director of faith formation for Blessed Trinity/St.
Patrick’s Parish in the Southern Tier, is one of five trainers for her
region. She said more than 100 volunteers — mostly in faith formation,
youth ministry and at St. Patrick’s School in Owego — already have
attended training sessions and signed codes of conduct as well as
releases for background checks.

“We took this effort on the part of the diocese very seriously,”
Keough said.

Thorough procedures


As a cornerstone of their training, volunteers must view a
diocesan-produced video featuring opening and closing statements by
Bishop Clark. The video and accompanying written materials cover
various aspects of sexual abuse — including warning signs of an abuser
or that someone has been abused, and what to do when a volunteer learns
of a situation involving sexual abuse.

The training also explains the code of conduct, which binds
volunteers to numerous conditions. Among these are prohibitions against
being alone and out of view with children, youth or vulnerable adults;
giving or receiving expensive gifts; and using inappropriate language
or physical contact.

In addition to taking mandatory training and promising in writing to
abide by the conduct code, volunteers also must authorize criminal
records checks. The checks are being run only on volunteers age 18 or
over. These confidential checks allow the diocese, through outside
agencies, to verify Social Security numbers and to determine whether
volunteers have any criminal offenses or are listed on the state’s
sex-offender registry. Volunteers have a legal right to protest any
adverse findings.

Depending on the nature of their offenses, the diocese may still
grant permission to volunteer to individuals whose records reveal
adverse findings. Random checks also will be done in the future for
offenses that may occur after a volunteer has been screened.

Mancini said that previous to the tightened policies, volunteers
were expected to fill out applications and provide references. The new
requirements, she said, will provide an even better safeguard against
the possibility of sexual abuse — both in parish ministry and in
society at large. Mancini and Sister Carroll noted that more than 90
percent of sexual abuse occurs in the home, and that one in every four
females as well as one in every six males are sexually abused.

Keough said the training serves to make employees and volunteers
“more aware of what is around us. Different behaviors we take for
granted — it doesn’t hurt to be more watchful,” she said.

One of the parishes Keough serves is St. Patrick’s in Owego, which
was named as a defendant along with the Diocese of Rochester in several
lawsuits filed in late 2002 and early 2003. The suits alleged sexual
abuse by Albert H. Cason, who was St. Patrick’s co-pastor for 12 years
before being removed from priestly ministry in 1985 due to allegations
of sexual misconduct. All these lawsuits since have been dismissed,
according to Father Daniel Condon, diocesan chancellor.

Acknowledging that her region has been affected by the subject of
sexual abuse, Keough said she hopes volunteer training will enable
parish programs to thrive, rather than cause people to be overly
concerned that sexual predators are lurking.

“We don’t want children to be afraid of their own shadows, and
neither do we (employees and volunteers),” Keough remarked.

Strengthen, not hinder

The new diocesan policy has gone over well, Keough said: “People
seem to be responding well. They’re more than willing to sign (the
consent forms),” she said. “For the most part they understand that it’s
for the children, and they’ve been willing to err on the side of
caution.”

At Irondequoit’s Church of Christ the King, the 15 adult chaperons
recruited for the upcoming National Catholic Youth Conference were “on
the whole satisfied with the training,” according to Paul Anastasi,
youth minister. “They think it’s very important.”

Yet the need to authorize background checks is apparently causing
the same discomfort among volunteers it has created for some diocesan
employees. Once again the chief sticking point is the release of Social
Security numbers to an outside agency, the Rochester Business Alliance.
Although this action is governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the
diocese has emphasized the process does not involve accessing
individuals’ credit histories. Instead, the process is intended only to
verify that a person has provided the diocese with his or her true
identity.

Keough reported questions from some volunteers about authorizing
background checks, whereas Anastasi said many of his NCYC volunteers
have strongly considered not signing the consent forms due to the
potential for identity theft and of exposing their credit histories.
Some adults signed the forms against their will, he said, because they
had already committed to the NCYC before the new volunteer requirements
were introduced.

“The parents have shared with me that — had they had this
information about mandatory checks before — they may have reconsidered
being chaperons,” Anastasi said. “But to give that up now would be a
tremendous disappointment.”

Asked whether some of the adults might be concerned about
revelations stemming from a criminal background, Anastasi said he
doubted it, but that “anything is possible.”

Mancini and Sister Carroll acknowledged that the rush to train NCYC
volunteers was unfortunate but necessary. Although a background check
may be uncomfortable for somebody who’s never undergone one previously,
they said, such measures are becoming more commonplace in society. The
end result, Mancini said, is “intended to help us minister more
effectively, not hinder us.”

Mancini and Sister Carroll also emphasized that these procedures are
being done not to erode the volunteer base, but to strengthen it.

“Volunteers are the heart of our ministry. The church depends on
their goodness,” Mancini said.

“Our reliance on volunteers is essential,” Sister Carroll added.

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