Priests, deacons help diocese provide safe environment

By | July 7, 2010

PromiseToProtectLogo-web2Promise to Protect

Part I: Department upholds church’s promise to protect

Part II: Safe Environment training can be an eye-opener

Part III: Youth football program plays it safe

Part IV: Clergy help diocese provide safe environment

“I just felt, in light of the clergy abuse crisis, this gave us the opportunity to address it; not just from a church standpoint but a societal standpoint,” said Fr. Kabat, judicial vicar for the diocesan tribunal and pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Seymour. “I felt that, as a priest, I should be involved with it. It’s been a good experience for me. I learn as much from people (at the training sessions) as they learn from me.”

Fr. Kabat is not the only clergy member who chose to take an active role in the prevention of sexual abuse. Several other diocesan priests and deacons serve as Virtus awareness training facilitators and local safe environment coordinators. The local coordinators, called LoSECs, are in charge of ensuring that safe environment policies are being followed by parish staff and volunteers.

According to Ann Fox, Safe Environment Program coordinator, all diocesan employees — including priests and deacons — are required to participate in the Virtus training. In addition, volunteers who work with children, youth and vulnerable adults attend a three-hour training session. Clergy, employees and volunteers also submit to a background check and agree to a code of conduct.

“All clergy, as well as (diocesan employees) in administrative positions, have to read monthly bulletins,” said Fox, “and if they are a Virtus facilitator like Fr. Bob, they have two bulletins a month.” The online Virtus bulletins offer continuing education and ongoing awareness, she added.

Fr. Kabat said attending a Virtus session helped him see how churches could make their facilities safer for children. He recalled that during the training he attended, a video showed how classroom doors should have windows to allow people to see inside. At the time, Fr. Kabat was pastor of St. Mary Parish in Greenleaf (now part of St. Clare Parish).

“We had classrooms that didn’t have windows on the doors,” he said. So Fr. Kabat had seven doors replaced in meeting rooms at the church. “That was just a simple thing for the good of everybody using those rooms.”

Fr. Kabat often teams up with Fox to present the Virtus training sessions. He said what gives him the most satisfaction is seeing the interest attendees have in the subject.

“They’re the solution to the issues we are facing,” he said. “The program has been a wonderful education for those in attendance. A lot of them are parents (and the training) makes them better parents.”

Fr. Dave Schmidt, pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Parish in Lakewood, with stations at Crooked Lake and Silver Cliff, is also a Virtus facilitator. He said he was motivated to get involved with the Safe Environment Program to show others that the church can be part of the solution to sexual abuse.

“I hear a lot of people say, ‘The church isn’t doing anything,’ and I can say, ‘Yes it is, the church is doing something and this is a result of what the church is doing,'” he said.

As a Virtus presenter, Fr. Schmidt said he is on the church’s front lines of educating others about preventing sexual abuse. It is gratifying to “help people involved in the parish (to know that) if they see something happening, they know what action to take. They feel more empowered, in a sense.”

When he attended the Virtus workshop, Fr. Schmidt said what he learned was “not so much facts and figures.”

“I learned peoples’ willingness to be aware of things happening around them,” he said. “People are concerned about what’s happened to our kids and vulnerable adults and they want to do something. They want to be active in their faith and (protecting children and vulnerable adults is) part of being active in their faith.”

Deacon Paul Kieffer, along with Deacon Ken Neleson, is a Virtus facilitator and safe environment coordinator at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Manitowoc. Deacon Kieffer said he was asked by his pastor to serve as a safe environment coordinator. “After that, I kind of liked what was going on and felt there was a need for it here in Manitowoc,” he said.

Presenting the Virtus workshops is an opportunity for Deacon Kieffer to give people accurate information about abusers and how they target victims.

“We are there to help people understand what (perpetrators) are looking for,” he said. “When it comes to perpetrators, they don’t walk around with big signs on their foreheads. … I would like to see every parent go through this program. There’s a need for everyone to go through it. What’s three hours (attending a workshop) in protecting a child’s future life?”

Deacon Kieffer, 76, said he continues to learn new information as a Virtus facilitator.

“With the changing of times, the electronic things that are going on (such as Internet and cell phone technology), we have to be more observant than we were before,” he said. “I was a volunteer myself as Cub Scout leader and coach and what you could do then (such as physical contact), you don’t do now. That was one of the biggest things I learned. I guess you just find another way of saying thank you for doing a good job.”

The ordained minister said he gets satisfaction knowing that “if people take to heart what we give them in the sessions, we will protect the children, God’s children, whether they are 86 years old or 6 years old.”

Fr. Jerry Pastors, pastor of St. Katherine Drexel Parish in Kaukauna, is the Local Safe Environment Coordinator for his parish. The position requires a lot of time ensuring that the parish’s 22 employees and some 100 volunteers have received Virtus training, background checks and are following the diocesan code of conduct. It’s a labor of love.

“I’m dealing with all the employees as well as volunteers, so there’s a lot of adults who go to visit nursing homes” and the homes of the elderly, he said. “If we didn’t do (safe environment training), we really wouldn’t be serving those people in a responsible and dignified way. It’s very rewarding knowing that you are creating a safe environment and trying to be proactive.”

Fr. Pastors said the clergy abuse scandal did not motivate him to get involved with the safe environment program. “I just saw it as something that was very important. Part of the call of the Gospel message is to care for one another and to (provide) a safe environment,” he explained. This happens by “making people aware of various signs that they should be looking for.”

Fr. Kabat noted that, while it was regrettable that a sexual abuse crisis moved the U.S. church into enforcing a safe environment policy, the outcome gives all church members confidence that opportunities to abuse — and hesitancy to report abuse — will no longer prevail.

“When we first started out with the (safe environment) program, you felt forced to do it because that’s part of the (U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People),” he said. “But as you get into it, you realize it’s something that should have been done years ago, with or without the abuse crisis.”

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