New Safe Environment Department leaders continue protection of youth, others

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | April 26, 2017

ALLOUEZ —Since 2003, when Bishop Robert Banks appointed the late Sr. Mary Bride Grubbs as its first victim assistance coordinator, the Green Bay Diocese has offered a compassionate face and a listening ear to victims of sexual abuse, especially children and vulnerable adults.

Today, the faces of the Safe Environment department belong to Deacon Dan Wagnitz, John Flannery, Deb Knaus, as well as counselors in Catholic Charities, those on the diocesan Independent Review Board, outside counselors and advocates with various organizations around the diocese, as well as special personnel at every parish in the diocese and parish VIRTUS trainers.

Deacon Wagnitz

“The main goal is to prevent child sexual abuse and also sexual abuse of individuals at risk,” explained Deacon Dan Wagnitz, who has served as the diocesan Safe Environment Coordinator since December, succeeding Jayne Stefanic, Diocesan Assistance Coordinator. “So (this department) encompasses how we do that — we make sure all of our ministries are populated by people who are aware of all of the warning signs.”

Deacon Wagnitz and Knaus are the first faces anyone contacting the diocese with concerns about abuse will meet. However, as the deacon noted, “We have dozens of people out in the field.” And all are trained in first response and safety through VIRTUS, the best practices’ programs used by the Green Bay Diocese to train staff and volunteers in awareness regarding sexual abuse. At parishes, LoSECs (Locations Safe Environment Coordinators) oversee volunteers and employees, assuring proper procedures are followed, reviewing annual codes of conduct, offering VIRTUS training and handling background checks.

When anyone voices concerns or reports abuse, the first step is always the safety for children and vulnerable adults, Deacon Wagnitz explained. So if there is any issue of immediate safety, the diocese directs that civil authorities be contacted first.

“Following that,” Deacon Wagnitz said, “I take the initial calls from anybody who reports abuse and I get the appropriate resources involved. I serve as a resource in the investigation and whatever steps we are going to take. This often involves getting counselors on the case.”

Debra Knaus

All this is to ensure safe environments. That safety is very important to Bishop David Ricken, as John Flannery, diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator, knows. When Flannery was first offered his position late last year, he met with Bishop Ricken.

“He told me,” Flannery said, “in clear terms, ‘We are committed to protecting our children and to making the people who do these things accountable for that. Are you willing to come on board for that?’”

Flannery, who has worked more than 20 years in law enforcement, found that talk “really refreshing” and he came on board.

While his diocesan position is part time, Flannery is also associate dean of Public Safety Administration at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. While his position with the diocese is new, he has been a member of the diocese’s Independent Review Board since 2005. (He will take on a different role with the IRB in his new position.) His background in law enforcement includes service with the Brown County Sheriff’s Department and Allouez Public Safety. He is now the person Deacon Wagnitz turns to if there is any need for investigation.

If allegations involve clergy, Fr. Tom Long, vicar for priests, also offers expertise in his role as supervisor of the Safe Environment Department. And, of course, Bishop Ricken and Fr. Dan Felton, vicar general, are kept informed.

John Flannery

Deacon Wagnitz, who is also assigned as deacon to the Quad Parishes in Green Bay, has more than 30 years of background in the area of human resources.

“The key to human resources,” he said, “is the same key to this current position, and that is to appreciate the dignity and worth of every individual.”

He added this is especially important to keep in mind when dealing with “individuals who are at risk and with children, who sometimes don’t have a voice unless someone is looking out for them.”

His business background serves him well, Deacon Wagnitz added. “Even in the business world, you have sexual harassment investigations. … You have to have an ability to sit down empathetically, be a good listener, take good notes and be able to figure out how you take positive steps forward in a situation like that and bring it to a conclusion.”

That listening skill is especially important today, when the Safe Environment Department has two men serving among its first contacts; previously, women headed the department. While Flannery understands the concern, he said that people should be mindful that not all sexual abuse survivors are women.

“That’s not the case. There are men who are victimized,” he said.

“What I find is that the gender doesn’t make the difference,” Flannery added, referring to the Safe Environment team. “What makes a difference is the person being compassionate and willing to listen to the person who’s making the allegation.”

Fr. Felton also stressed that the diocese has many women available in the field — from counselors and social workers to advocates — who can be called on at a moment’s notice.

“If a woman needs to speak with a woman,” Fr. Felton said, “we would have them available.”

The Safe Environment Department is kept busy, even when there are not active allegations. People may call them about events that happened 40 or more years ago, or about a perpetrator who may now be deceased, but that doesn’t mean the victims don’t need healing and help.

“What’s important is that they are believed,” said Flannery. “It takes such courage to come forward.”

Other calls come from people concerned about something that seems “suspicious” or “not quite right,” but they aren’t certain whether to say anything.

Flannery knows people can be afraid that they “might get sued or be accused of overreacting.”

“I’d rather,” he said, “be able to come out (and talk with them), then to have the situation where they don’t call and we find out later that people knew what was going on and they chose not to say anything.”

Protecting children and adults at risk can be a stressful ministry. Flannery, a husband and father, as well as a member of Resurrection Parish in Allouez, said it can even test a person’s faith. He admitted it’s challenged his.

“Quite frankly,” he said, “I don’t believe that God causes bad things to happen. Some people say, ‘Why does God allow it to happen?’ I think life happens. What I do think is that God brings good things out of it. I don’t understand why people go through some of the horrific things that they do, but I also believe that, afterwards, God finds some way of bringing something good.”

Deacon Wagnitz is a father of four and grandfather of nine. He points to a simple bracelet of red and clear beads by his office window.

“One of my granddaughters, Mallory, made this for me,” he said, “and she gave this to me right as I took this job at Christmastime. ‘I just knew these were the colors you wanted,’ she told me. I have a big devotion to Divine Mercy and it’s the same colors.

“Having that (bracelet) there helps me keep a face on this. These aren’t victims, these aren’t individuals at risk, these are people and you need to keep their humanity in mind. Mallory helps me keep a face to it.”

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