Archdiocese of New Orleans credits ‘Safe Environment’ program for reducing clergy abuse | Crime / Police


They number in the tens of thousands and include people from all walks of life. Teachers, doctors, workers, judges, students, clergy, police – even a Roman Catholic archbishop – are part of the flock.

When it comes to the Archdiocese of New Orleans Safe Environment Training Program, no one gets a pass. The program, which includes a background check and a course that teaches adults how to properly interact with children, is mandatory for anyone in contact with minors at a Catholic church or school event. Over the past year, more than 16,000 adults in the metropolitan area have participated in the program.

Meanwhile, another component of the Safe Environment program targets young people, teaching them what to do if they are inappropriately touched by an adult and how to recognize predator efforts to “prepare” them for sexual abuse. In the past year, 43,550 children have received training, archdiocese officials said.

With the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal raging at the forefront of public consciousness, church leaders have highlighted what they say is the success of the large-scale security initiative, saying the program is largely responsible for a drastic drop in abuse cases in the past. decade.

“It has been very effective,” said Sister Mary Ellen Wheelahan, who coordinates the program for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. “We’re raising a different generation now. “

Archbishop Gregory Aymond said in recent interviews that while recent revelations of clergy abuse in the Catholic Church have revealed terrible sins, preventative measures such as Safe Environment put in place by the State Bishops’ Conference- United in 2002 has helped church leaders address the problem and move towards renewal. He said there had been no credible reports of clergy abuse in the Archdiocese of New Orleans for more than a decade.

In a move that could help support this statement, Aymond said he plans to release the names of clergy who have been “credibly accused” of abusing minors over the past five decades, once the files closely examined. He didn’t say exactly when it would be, although he did say it would be as soon as possible.

Wheelahan said all archdiocesan clergy, parish school teachers, school volunteers, and anyone dealing with minors should undergo a background check and take the course. This includes people who may interact with children only sporadically, such as parents who volunteer to chaperone school groups that parade in Mardi Gras parades. Anyone who is required to take the training must repeat it and re-pass a background check every three years.

No one is exempt. Even public school teachers who undergo similar training must participate before they are allowed to volunteer. Aymond himself had a background check and completed the training session.

To be or not to be Catholic

Wheelahan said attendees learned that the program grew out of the abuse scandal, which exploded in early 2002 when the Boston Globe published an investigation that led to criminal charges against five Roman Catholic priests and raised the issue. sexual abuse of minors by the Catholic clergy in the national spotlight. Following this revelation, the United States Conference of Bishops established the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth”. The charter, which has been updated three times since 2002, requires all dioceses in the United States to establish programs for a safe environment.

In August, a Pennsylvania grand jury report identified more than 300 priests credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 child victims over seven decades. This report detailed the pervasive sexual abuse of minors by members of the Roman Catholic clergy and the systematic cover-up by church officials, sending shock waves through the church.

Aymond said the problem of clergy abuse and the church’s efforts to cover it up was a crisis that caused anger, disappointment, outrage and grief. However, he pointed out that only a handful of the incidents described in the Pennsylvania grand jury report occurred after 2002, which he said is a testament to the impact of the Safe Environment program.

“I am convinced that we have a safe environment,” Aymond said in a recent interview.

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Archdiocesan communications director Sarah McDonald said the program, which includes training on how to recognize the signs that a young person is being abused, has served as a model for other organizations that have created initiatives similar.

Wheelahan said much of what is taught to adults seems to be common sense issues, but it’s easy for some to get carried away by the time they are working with playful children.

“We don’t tickle the kids, we don’t fight with the kids,” she said. “We don’t touch a child’s torso or legs unless it is a medical emergency. “

The child component of the child safety program begins in preschool. From this point on, young people learn that adults must respect limits. Working with children aged 4 to 10, Wheelahan said she asks them to extend their arms to establish the “limit” or distance adults should keep from the child under most circumstances.

“They are taught that adults should respect your space,” Wheelahan said. “They (the kids) know no means no and they know they should contact a parent or trusted adult if they feel uncomfortable with someone.”

The program is age-appropriate, with lessons changing as students get older. Young people eventually learn to spot potential predators, officials said.

A few weeks ago, Wheelahan said a child saw a man at a church fair act suspiciously and take pictures of other children. The director was alerted and the police summoned, resulting in an arrest. The suspect was not a member of the clergy.

While the Safe Environment program is a consequence of the clergy abuse scandal, Archdiocese officials have said it has proven to be a useful tool to help address all facets of child abuse, including cases within families.

“Invariably when we teach a class a child shows up and tells us something is going on (in their family),” she said.

Tim Lennon, chairman of the board of the Priest Abused Survivors Network, said he thinks Safe Environment is a good program, but he alone cannot eliminate the problem of Priest Abused. abuse of the clergy. He said there had been reports of clergy abuse since the inception of the program.

“These child protection policies are good, they are necessary,” Lennon said. “But it’s a mixed bag. There are still questions about the bishops covering things up. “

In addition to Safe Environment, the Archdiocese is also part of a pilot program to incorporate “high reliability organizing” practices into the Catholic Church to strengthen its commitment to eliminating sexual abuse. Sponsored by the Office of Child and Youth Protection of the United States Bishops’ Conference, the program incorporates principles used by the military, airlines, and medical industries to deal with incidents that may have profound impacts.

It is based on the theory that organizations that are concerned about failure tend to better dissect operational flaws to see what went wrong in order to avoid recurrence. In the medical and aviation sectors, an incident could result in casualties.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans is one of the seven Catholic dioceses in the country participating in the program.

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