You have been chosen to love, protect all of God’s children
The archdiocese sponsored a day for priests last week to discuss issues relating to safe environment, which means protecting children in the care of our churches and schools from abuse or neglect. Can you talk about that?
In the archdiocese, we have a comprehensive safe environment program that centers on training adults – priests, deacons, church and school personnel and any church volunteers who have regular contact with children – about what we must do to keep children safe. Catholics throughout the United States recall the great tragedy concerning the sexual abuse of minors by clergy that came to light beginning in 2001. As a bishop and church leader, I am deeply sorry for that sin and to those who have suffered from that abuse. The sad reality is that in various dioceses around the country, priests responsible for the abuse may have been transferred to other parishes or not dealt with properly. There is no justification for that. Pope Francis has formed a commission in Rome to oversee bishops’ actions. If a bishop is accused of not being responsible in this area, there is now a process in Rome for an investigation that will lead to accountability. We as a church have owned our sin, and I believe we have taken bold steps to repent of that sin. The priests’ study day was a chance to look at the safe environment policies we have put into place over the last 15 years to protect our children. For even one child to be abused is one child too many.
What kind of training must adult volunteers go through if they have regular contact with children?
Anyone in our archdiocese who works with children – clergy, religious, laity, parents and volunteers, staff – must go through regular training in what constitutes a “safe environment.” We reiterated that at the workshop for priests. We had an incredibly insightful presentation from Stacie LeBlanc, who leads two nonprofit programs for Children’s Hospital in New Orleans – the Children’s Advocacy Center and the Audrey Hepburn CARE Center. These programs help more than 1,000 children every year. Stacie has a law degree from Loyola University and began her legal career as a child abuse prosecutor. She also has a master’s degree in early childhood education. Stacie explained what we as priests should be looking for when it comes to spotting potential signs of abuse or neglect of children. She talked about not only sexual abuse but also physical abuse, emotional abuse and verbal abuse. She helped us become aware of the signs of abuse and how to deal with them on the pastoral level and also our responsibility to report signs of abuse to the proper authorities. We as priests are mandatory reporters of abuse. While the seal of confession cannot be broken – if that abuse is confessed during the sacrament of confession – we must do our very best to encourage the person to report the abuse to another adult or to law enforcement authorities in order for it to be dealt with.
Do you ever get resistance from volunteers who may not want to go through the safe environment training?
Sometimes we do get resistance from people about having to go through the workshops, but that resistance is lessening over the years. I’ve made it very clear that whoever chooses not to go through the training cannot be involved in ministry with children in the Catholic Church. I can’t fathom a reason why someone wouldn’t be willing to do that in order to help prevent sex abuse or to help recognize the signs of the sexual or physical abuse of a child. We’re not going to bend the rules because people don’t want to attend the workshops.
What did your three years as head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People in the early 2000s mean to you in terms of your knowledge of sexual abuse?
This had been an ad hoc committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops before that time, and then it became a standing committee. I learned so much because I had the opportunity to meet with victims, and I heard what was happening in various dioceses. The bad news was that people had been abused. But the good news now is that we have put into place safe environment programs that will prevent abuse in the future. We also know that in the midst of our pain and embarrassment, we now have an awareness of sexual abuse and safe environment programs that many other religions and Christian denominations and youth organizations have utilized in their own dealings with children. They are using the materials we have designed to keep children safe. We can’t relive the past, but we can look to the future and say this can never happen again.
What does the current research tell you about sexual abuse of children?
All the recent studies show that most sexual abuse is perpetrated either by family members or by people known to the family. During our workshop last week, Stacie helped us learn the ways an adult can “groom” a child for abuse. We also learned what a child may say if he or she has been sexually abused. Stacie helped us look at the physical abuse that all-too-often happens if a child is hit or paddled. The studies show that corporal punishment encourages a child to become more aggressive. That’s why we as a church strongly encourage parents not to engage in physical punishment of a child. We’ve all heard of tragic cases where a baby is shaken to stop crying and that has resulted in the infant’s death. That can never happen in a family.
What does all this mean to you?
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. People may have noticed the 2,000 blue pinwheels that have been planted in Audubon Park to commemorate the children who have been abused. I have blue pinwheels in front of my house, as well. We as the church, the people of God, reach out to those who have been abused. We promise to pray for them and do whatever we can to assist them in their healing and to accompany them in the dark moments of their lives. We have an victims’ assistance hotline – (504) 522-5019 – for anyone to call if a member of the clergy or someone within the archdiocese has abused them as a child. We will continue to do our very best to prevent abuse and to be able to say that our ministries in our churches, schools and programs are abuse-free.