Church is leading the way: In providing safe environment for children Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, May. 26, 2011 -- 12:00 AM

Editor's View by Mary C. Uhler

Although we lament the horrible instances of sexual abuse of minors by clergy, we can be proud that the Catholic Church in the United States is doing all it can to understand the causes of such abuse and try to prevent it from happening in the future.

The new report released May 18 on the causes and context of sexual abuse should help further that understanding and strengthen the many efforts underway to provide a safe environment for children in the Catholic Church.

Back in 2004, I wrote an editorial about the problem of sexual abuse in our country and what the Church is doing to protect children. What I wrote then has been proven to be true today as outlined in the new study.

Abuse of minors is a national problem

In 2004, Robert S. Bennett, a Washington attorney who headed the U. S. Bishops’ National Review Board Research Committee, emphasized that “abuse of minors is a national problem.” He said that the children of America are in deep pain. “No one wants to talk about this problem. This is a national health problem,” he said.

Although not excusing what has happened in the Catholic Church, Bennett insisted that most abuse occurs in the home. In 2001 alone, more than 90,000 children were abused. "As a nation we must be ashamed," he said.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that family, friends, and acquaintances accounted for the largest group of perpetrators. Only four percent of abusers were strangers.

“It is obvious that children are much more likely to be sexually abused by family members and friends than by anyone else,” said a Catholic League report. “This suggests that if preventative measures are to work, they must begin in the home, and not someplace else.”

Church seeks to protect children

The Catholic Church in the United States has put protection of children at the top of its priorities. In their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People issued in the summer of 2002, the Catholic bishops said:

“As bishops, we acknowledge our mistakes and our role in that suffering, and we apologize and take responsibility for too often failing victims and our people in the past. We also take responsibility for dealing with this problem strongly, consistently, and effectively in the future."

As part of the Charter, bishops have required all dioceses to establish “safe environment” programs. Dioceses must provide education and training for children, youth, parents, ministers, educators, and others about ways to make and maintain a safe environment for children.

The Diocese of Madison contracted with the VIRTUS Protecting God’s Children Program. This program teaches diocesan and parish staff, volunteers, and parents to better understand and to recognize the warning signs of child sexual abuse and how to respond appropriately.

Diocese of Madison in compliance

In the fall of 2010, the Diocese of Madison reported that it had successfully completed an in-depth on-site audit for the 2009 to 2010 audit period. The Diocese of Madison is in full compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Cheryl Splinter, director of the diocesan Office of Safe Environment, said that implementation of the Charter Norms can be a very labor-intensive endeavor for all of the parish and school communities within our diocese, and the diocesan offices that guide and support the various aspects of “creating safe environments.”

“Yet, ensuring that all those who have regular access to minors are properly cleared, trained, and supervised is without a doubt well worth the time and energy required to meet this goal to the best of our ability. In addition, educational opportunities and resources are provided to support parents, and help their children develop age-appropriate safety skills,” said Splinter.

Church is leading the way

The Catholic Church has apologized for its past sins. It has removed perpetrators from active ministry and is dealing with victims and their families. It is providing safe environment program to help prevent abuse in the future.

Since so much sexual abuse happens in the home, it is also critical for families to become educated about this issue: to learn about the warning signs, to be vigilant for possible abuse, and to know how to respond.

The Catholic Church is now leading the way. We must all work to provide a safe environment in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and churches. Hopefully, with our help the number of children sexually abused will be much lower in the years ahead as awareness increases.