Keeping children safe is goal of Safe Environment
Protecting children against abuse and neglect is what the Safe Environment Office of the Archdiocese of New Orleans strives to do every day. “In the Catholic Church, we are very trusting,” said Sister of Mount Carmel Mary Ellen Wheelahan, Safe Environment coordinator for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. “We’ve had to learn we have to be more careful and specific about who is volunteering for our children. If you are going to work with our children, we are going to have rules, and you are going to have training.”
“(That’s) to make sure you know what to look for and watch out for our children,” added attorney Mary Widmann, who works with Sister Mary Ellen.
What coordinator does
A typical day for Sister Mary Ellen could include talking to students about bullying, working with a family dealing with the trauma of their daughter being raped or discussing with senior volunteers the appropriate way to work with children. It’s all to keep in compliance with the archdiocese’s zero-tolerance for abuse and violence to minors and the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted in 2002 by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“If you are a grammy or an auntie, that child may be more comfortable coming to talk to you (than their parents) if something is wrong,” Widmann recently told members of the Young at Heart group at St. Philip Neri in Metairie. “We need you to know who to call so experts can look into it. We need everybody to help keep our kids safe.”
April is special month
April is recognized nationally as Child Abuse Prevention month. Since Sister Mary Ellen Wheelahan and Widmann work with the Department of Children and Family Services, local police agencies and the New Orleans Children’s Advocacy Center, a program of Children’s Hospital, they were involved with New Orleans Children’s Advocacy Center’s annual Trees for Life event April 22. Trees in honor of each Louisiana child who died as a result of abuse or neglect were distributed, and they accepted a tree on behalf of Archbishop Gregory Aymond. He now has four trees planted in front of his residence as part of this effort.
They also made usual rounds providing resources and training for adult teachers, laity (including volunteers and employees of schools and parishes), parents, clergy and religious who have contact with minors know how to prevent and recognize child abuse.
“We give them the ‘who, how, what, where and when to report,’” Widmann said.
What’s been emphasized in their training has been the new mandatory reporting laws in Louisiana and other states and the stiffer penalties imposed not only for the abuser but for those who witness and suspect abuse but don’t report it.
Penn State case has impact
It is a direct result of the Penn State sex abuse scandal that was revealed in 2011, Sister Mary Ellen said. Louisiana law states that a person could go to jail from six months to 10 years if they are a mandatory reporter and don’t report abuse to law enforcement or Children and Family Services, she said.
“People understand better now their moral responsibility to report it,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “People don’t have to witness it, but if they suspect something might be happening (to a child) just call it in and let the experts investigate it.”
“It’s a lot of common sense,” Widmann said. “But you don’t interfere or put yourself in danger.”
Background screenings of all in contact with minors is also conducted before anyone associated with the archdiocese begins their work. Background checks include Social Security Number verification, civil parish to civil parish record checks, sex offender registry, and a national criminal file search.
“I was afraid we would run some of our volunteers off, but we did not,” Widmann said about background checks.
Part of Sister Mary Ellen’s and Widmann’s instruction to teachers is emphasizing the Catholic teaching that children are created in the image of God and how to get children to respect their bodies and those of others (by teaching developmentally appropriate boundaries) and to identify a trusted person (such as a teacher or even grandparents) they can talk to, so child abuse can be lessened and stopped.
“Children learn to respect their bodies, to respect the bodies of others and act in a way that other people know how they must respond,” Sister Mary Ellen said.
“Sex abuse is on the way down,” Widmann said. “And, physical abuse is on the way up. Part of it is the work Sister (Mary Ellen) and I do before it happens.”
Even with concerted efforts, Louisiana had 42 children reported dead as a result of abuse or neglect.
“42 is too many children,” Sister Mary Ellen said.
“If you can stop that in a child’s life, pick up the phone and call,” Widmann told the Young at Heart group.
The duo asked those gathered at the Young at Heart meeting to role play with young children to teach them to practice saying no if they ever encounter being touched inappropriately. They said the archdiocese is not going to stand for abuse of anyone, whether young or elderly.
“The archdiocese is here and can help,” Sister Mary Ellen said.
The Safe Environment office also is developing new training programs for Christopher Homes on the abuse of the elderly and disabled; and programs for teens targeting sexting (texting sexually explicit messages and photos), date rape, cyber-bullying and human trafficking.