Thursday, July 15, 2010

Can Child Protection Efforts Go Too Far?

I got that question last week from a reporter in Las Vegas who was writing about a new church policy in the Diocese of Las Vegas that requires anyone volunteering in a parish to be fingerprinted. The policy applied not just to Scout leaders and religious education teachers, who work closely with children, but also to bazaar volunteers, ushers and even the people who read the Scriptures at Mass.

The policy might be overbroad, I opined to the reporter, but in today’s world I’d rather go too far to guarantee safety than not far enough. Indeed, I’ve since heard of other dioceses that require all staff and volunteers to go through background checks. Child sexual molestation exists – there’s plenty of evidence of that on the evening news, recently the account (this time, with a happy ending for the child) of a four-year-old girl snatched by a registered sex offender from her front yard in Missouri.

Polling by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) suggests most Catholics think the church should do more to protect youth from abuse. Asked if they believe the church’s policies to deal with allegations and prevent abuse “do enough” to protect children, only three in ten Catholics nationally say the church is doing enough. Seventy percent say the policies should go further.

Part of the problem is that most Catholics have no idea how much the Church has done. For example, CARA notes that “less than three in ten Catholics are aware of” all the Church is doing to prevent child sexual abuse.

More than 1.8 million adult employees and volunteers in the church have had training in how to identify and report suspicious activity by an adult with a child, but only 29 percent of adult Catholics know that.

Dioceses report annually on their adherence to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, but only 18 percent know that.

The Church has an independent organization that conducts audits to determine whether each diocese and its bishop are enforcing the new sexual abuse policies yet only 16 percent of adult Catholics know it.

The Church has commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to conduct a scientific study of the causes and context of abuse, yet a mere 11 percent of adult Catholics know that.

Yet even when people have such information, I imagine many people will want the church to do even more to guarantee that children are safe from sexual predators.

Sexual abuse of children is a problem well beyond the Catholic Church. There’s data galore on that.

Safe environment programs have much more to offer than many realize. People who participate in them not only are cleared to be with children through fingerprinting and background checks, they also learn how to recognize steps leading to child sexual abuse and how to protect children from it.

It’s unfortunate that we need such education, but we do. We drive slowly around schools and parks and hit the brakes when a ball rolls into the road because children need more than the usual protection. Going through fingerprinting may be just one more thing we do as part of a commitment to keep youngsters safe. The church in Las Vegas wisely bets that it is.


BD said...

We are involved with our parish in various ways and were pleased to see all the policies that are in place to make sure the children of our parish are as safe as possible. We took a class, agreed to a background investigation, and we don't even work directly with youth! Our children are our future and we cannot protect them too much.

Unknown said...

I think fingerprinting is going too far for unpaid volunteers. I subject myself to the background checks that my diocese (Austin) requires, just to be a Eucharistic Minister which is not a "children and at-risk adult" ministry specifically. My parents had to do the exact same checks and "Protecting God's Children" class just to sell tickets at our annual church festival. I agree that protecting those vulnerable is important, but I think it's being done to the level of absurdity. If my church wants to treat me like a criminal when I offer to use the gifts and talents God has given me, I'd just as soon not offer. Honestly, it's an insult and a "guilty until proven otherwise" attitude which is NOT the Church that I grew up understanding. If you want my fingerprints, put me on payroll.

Jack said...

Wonderful article Sr. Walsh but it leaves me with a lingering question. What is the Conference doing to educate the church about the steps it has taken to protect our children?

You presented polling data that says an overwhelming majority of Catholics do not know what steps the church is taking, and imply that the lack of understanding is a failure on the part of Catholics and not the Church's administration.

I believe that the data you gathered from the CARA poll, run through a statistical analysis, would provide the Conference a starting point for developing an outreach campaign focused on increasing awareness among Catholics about how the Church is protecting its children. It is an opportunity for the Conference to say "This is what Catholics believe to be true about the Church right now, and we can do something to correct that.” One way the Conference could address this is by periodically profiling a parish or diocese, like the one in Las Vegas, that is taking extra steps to prevent abuses.

Now this is not to say all the blame is with the Conference. As active members of the Church, all Catholics have a responsibility to learn all we can about those issues that concern us, and short blog posts like this are great ways to spread awareness. Something short and sweet that covers the basic precautions the Church is taking, but that also provides links for more in depth understanding.

I just think that the Church, especially in our response to the sexual abuse of children, has often played the victim when it could be proactive and say this is what we are doing to be better.

Victoria said...

In the last 50 years how many ushers, readers or volunteers have been convicted of abusing children and adolescents?

The public needs to know how the Church is protecting the vulnerable from those who have had credible allegations of abuse laid against them.

The public needs to know what the Church is doing/has done to discipline those who permitted abusers to continue abusing.

The public needs to know what the Church is doing/has done to clean up the seminaries from which the abusers came and what has been done to discipline the heads of those seminaries.

If the Church does not make this information public the uninformed public will get their "facts" from the media which has a bias against the Church and so it is not surprising that a large majority of the people feel that the Church hasn't done enough because that is exactly what the media is telling them.

Moon Mullen said...

The best marketing program for the Church's stance against sexual abuse and the protection of our children is the elimination of sexual abuse and the endless news reports that follow. A militancy, or guilty before innocent approach, in risk management is necessary because of the horrible sins committed by a few and allowed by many in our church. Catholic - universal - we're in this thing together. Unfortunately with the sexual abuse crisis, we need to clean it up together, even those who didn't make the mess.

Glenna said...

The answer to your (apparently rhetorical) question is: YES, child protection efforts can go too far...not by fingerprinting, for heaven's sake. I'm a nurse & I have to be fingerprinted before I take any new job.

That's not the issue. But I have 3 family members (2 brothers & a son) who are priests. As far as I know, they belong to the ONLY group in this country who are presumed guilty until proven innocent. As it stands now, all that has to happen is for any one person in their congregations to have a grudge against any of them & file a complaint. They are IMMEDIATELY relieved of their pastoral positions. No hearing. Nothing.

If, as was the case with a priest in our diocese, the charges against them are proven false, they STILL are not allowed to return to pastoral work but, like this priest, end up in the diocesan archives or some such exile.

So yes, the bishops are apparently so frightened at this point that they've painted themselves into a corner & left their priests out on the front lines to take the hit.