Saturday, July 24, 2010

Catholic Archdiocese of Portland reports on child abuse prevention procedures

Catholic Archdiocese of Portland reports on child abuse prevention procedures
Published: Friday, July 23, 2010, 9:20 PM Updated: Friday, July 23, 2010, 9:34 PM
Nancy Haught, The Oregonian

Every year, Bridget Becker rounds up parents and children from St. Juan Diego Catholic Parish to reflect on boundaries and what to do if someone breaches them. Age-appropriate videos and lesson plans spark discussions about physical, emotional and behavioral lines that no one should cross.

Starkly put, the subject is sexual abuse, and the goal is to prevent it within the parish and the broader Catholic Church. The prompt was a devastating scandal that rattled the American church and the Archdiocese of Portland eight years ago.

Becker's on staff as faith formation director at St. Juan Diego in Northwest Portland, but she's also safe environment coordinator. She organizes and presides over parish training sessions and makes sure employees and volunteers -- anyone older than 18 who expects to help out even once in any parish program or activity -- submit to and pass background checks and renew them every three years. Becker's job requires patience, persistence and painstaking records. And it's one she takes seriously.

"If something were to happen on my watch, it would kill me," she says.

Since 2002, the Archdiocese of Portland has taken steps to comply with the U.S. Catholic bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The archdiocese requires all employees -- including priests -- to submit to criminal background checks, complete safe environment training and agree to a code of conduct for ministry with children and young people. All volunteers must submit to a criminal background check. If they work more than four times a year with minors, volunteers must complete the safe environment training and agree to the code of conduct.

So far, the archdiocese has trained more than 25,500 adults in how to recognize and prevent sexual abuse and processed almost 60,000 background checks, according to a report sent to parishes last weekend. Some pastors distributed the letter and report last weekend; others plan to do so this weekend.

The three-page document says archdiocesan personnel are required to report suspected child abuse "in accordance with Oregon law." An employee, including a priest or deacon, accused of sexual abuse would be placed on administrative leave while the archbishop conducts an investigation, the report says. A brief letter from Archbishop John G. Vlazny accompanied the report.

"Over the past decade, we have been shamed over the revelations of sinful behavior on the part of clergy, religious and even some laity in this archdiocese," he wrote. He said the report was suggested by leaders of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, who asked that he "inform you once again about what we, as a church, are doing in order to assist victims and protect children now and in the future."

No one is sure how many Catholics have left the Archdiocese of Portland over the issue of clerical abuse. Nationally, a 2009 Pew Research Center study found that fewer than a third of Catholics who had left the church since the scandal said clerical sex abuse was a factor in their decision.

U.S. abuse claims down

As the Vatican grapples with a recent wave of sex abuse allegations in Europe, American dioceses report that abuse claims are declining. A 2009 audit by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, at Georgetown University found that nationally, 398 allegations were filed against 286 offenders, the lowest numbers since 2004. Most of the cases involve alleged behavior from 1960-84.

The Archdiocese of Portland report said the number of complaints has declined "from several years ago," but did not cite specific figures. Vlazny would not make himself available for an interview. Mary Jo Tully, archdiocesan chancellor, said the archdiocese could not provide a specific number because some cases have been ongoing for years. In 2004, Portland's archdiocese was the first in the country to file for bankruptcy protection from priest sex-abuse lawsuits.

Dioceses across the country have spent more than $21 million on child protection efforts, including training, background checks and staff salaries, according to the CARA report. Tully declined to say how much the Archdiocese of Portland had spent.

"To measure this in dollars and cents diminishes the true costs of these efforts," she said. "There is simply no way to calculate the hours or the emotion that staff members and volunteers have given to preventing child abuse or to put a value on the personal costs -- the programs set aside, the energy, the emotion and the grief all of us have felt."

The archdiocese's three-page document reports that about 40,000 adults -- parents and family members -- and 18,000 minors have received abuse prevention training. More than 1,700 priests from outside the archdiocese have "Testimonials of Suitability" on file at the archdiocese. The testimonials are required as evidence that visiting priests are in good standing in their home dioceses or within their respective religious orders.

The archdiocese also requires its "personnel to report suspected child abuse in accordance with Oregon law." The report directs calls about past or present child abuse by church personnel to the Archdiocesan Office of Child Protection and Victim Assistance at 503-416-8810.

Fulfilling a promise

At St. Juan Diego, the Rev. John Kerns, a priest for 25 years, says he spends about three hours a year updating his own child protection training. He says he also routinely asks the archdiocese to write letters to other dioceses he plans to visit -- whether it's to participate in a funeral in Vancouver, Wash., or say Mass at his family reunion in Kansas.

"I gladly do that," he says. "It's a way to make sure that abusive priests aren't moving around." It's also a way to fulfill a promise that he believes the church has made to victims of clerical sex abuse. "One man said to me, 'Just make sure it never happens again.' That's been a motivation for me. Everybody is going through the training. We're not going to allow an adult to be alone with a child."

Nancy Nofziger, a parish volunteer at St. Juan Diego, grew up in the Catholic Church back in the days before girls could be altar servers and, as far as she knew, priests didn't abuse children.

"My parents would never have thought a priest would have done that," she says. "We thought they were all good and up on a pedestal. Now we see they are more human than we used to think they were. We all sin, no matter who we are."

She says that living through the scandal and submitting now to periodic background checks has not affected her Catholic faith.

"It wasn't the whole church who did it," she said. "It was some individual human beings. It's sad that they covered it up. That's what they used to do in the old days, and that wasn't a great decision."

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