In response to the sexual abuse crisis by clergy and other Church personnel, the Diocese of Burlington has joined with its fellow Dioceses to condemn these past abhorrent behaviors and to take effective action to prevent such abuses from occurring in the future. To guide this nationwide effort, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) established the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in June 2002. The charter is a comprehensive document comprised of 17 articles that outline the Church’s commitment to:
- mandatory reporting of all abuse allegations to civil authorities;
- cooperation with civil authorities;
- removal of clerics from active ministry;
- promotion of healing and reconciliation;
- accountability in procedures; and
- protection of children and young people by establishing “safe environments” in the present and future.
To fulfill the requirements set forth by the charter, each Diocese and Archdiocese has dedicated office personnel who are tasked with the duty of implementing it, and in the Diocese of Burlington this duty falls to the Office of Safe Environment Programs, in conjunction with the vicar general.
Dioceses, Archdioceses and Eparchies in the United States are audited annually by an independent auditing firm to assess compliance with each of the articles of the charter. During the most recent audit in 2017, the Diocese of Burlington was found compliant with all articles of the charter.
Beyond the requirements of the charter, the Diocese of Burlington has its own unique set of policies that are designed to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are protected from harm while under the care of the Catholic Church in Vermont. The policies are referred to as the Policies on Ethics and Integrity in Ministry. The Office of Safe Environment Programs is tasked with enforcing these policies throughout the Diocese and teaching Church representatives about proper implementation.
In summary, the Office of Safe Environment Programs was established to ensure national and local child safety standards are always adhered to with the highest level of integrity. Numerous smaller tasks make up this larger effort, and everyone at each parish and Catholic school has a distinct role to play in child abuse prevention in the Diocese. These tasks are delegated, coordinated, organized and led by the committed staff of the Office of Safe Environment Programs.
Each year (a year spanning from July 1 to June 30 of the following year), U.S. Dioceses and Archdioceses are audited by an auditor to assess whether they are compliant with the guidelines of the charter. The audit is conducted by an independent national auditing firm contracted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
Currently, the USCCB has chosen StoneBridge Business Partners from Rochester, New York, as the primary auditor for all Dioceses, Archdioceses and Eparchies in the United States. In preparation for our annual audit, the Diocese of Burlington gathers all its child safety training, victim outreach, clergy, staff and volunteer information from parishes and Catholic schools from that particular audit year. This collected information stands as the culmination of our efforts to establish safe environments throughout the Diocese of Burlington, and it exemplifies the efforts of the parishes and Catholic schools who contribute to the sacred mission of child safety. All our collected documents are submitted to our auditors each year, and they determine if our Diocese is compliant with the charter. Some of the information we submit on an annual basis includes the total number of children and adults trained on ways to identify, prevent and report abuse and the total number of adults who have been background checked. By submitting to an annual audit, US bishops continue to hold themselves accountable to fulfilling the mission of protecting God’s children.
The Diocese of Burlington has been found compliant with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People since 2007. During our most recent audit in September 2017, the Diocese of Burlington again was found to be compliant by StoneBridge Business Partners.
Since these new policies have been enacted, there has been only one credible and substantiated claim of abuse with an 18-year-old who formed an emotional relationship that began when the victim was a minor. There are no priests in ministry who have had a credible and substantiated allegation made against them.
In 2002-2003, priest files containing a credible allegation of clergy between 1950 and 2000 were turned over to the state attorney general. The allegations of sexual abuse by diocesan priests currently in the news involve abuse occurring decades ago and before the Church adopted its current protection policies in 2003.
As part of the effort to protect children and youth from abuse in the present and onward, the USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People mandates that all adults who work with minors undergo a background check. Article 13 of the charter specifically covers this background check requirement by stating:
“Dioceses/eparchies are to evaluate the background of all incardinated and non-incardinated priests and deacons who are engaged in ecclesiastical ministry in the diocese/eparchy and of all diocesan/eparchial and parish/school or other paid personnel and volunteers whose duties include ongoing, unsupervised contact with minors. Specifically, that are to utilize the resources of law enforcement and other community agencies. …”
Therefore, to fulfill our obligation to the charter, the Diocese of Burlington has policies in place that require that all adults who work with minors undergo a background check BEFORE engaging in ministry. Beyond the requirements of the Charter, the Diocese of Burlington has gone a step further in our background-check efforts by stating that all background checks must be renewed every five years to adequately reassess suitability for ministry on a regular basis.
The Diocese reruns all background checks on a five-year basis to track any changes in an individual’s criminal record since the last time he or she underwent a background check. If the Diocese only ran one single background check for each person, it would have no way of knowing whether the person has been convicted of any criminal activity since being hired or starting as a volunteer.
The safe environment training for adults is mandated by the USCCB’s Charter for Protection of Children and Young People under Article 12. Article 12 of the charter states:
“Dioceses/eparchies are to maintain ‘safe environment programs’ which the diocesan/eparchial bishop deems to be in accord with Catholic moral principles. They are to be conducted cooperatively with parents, civil authorities, educators, and community organizations to provide education and training for children, youth, parents, ministers, educators, volunteers and others about ways to make and maintain a safe environment for children and young people. Dioceses/eparchies are to make clear to clergy and all members of the community the standards of conduct for clergy and other persons in positions of trust with regard to children.”
Therefore, to fulfill our obligation to the charter, the Diocese of Burlington is presently using the Safe and Sacred program by Proud to Protect Inc. to serve as the primary program used to educate adults who serve minors. The Safe and Sacred program teaches adults how to build healthy relationships with children, and it teaches them how to assist a child who has been harmed by abuse, neglect, bullying or some other form of harassment/intimidation. Based on Catholic moral principles, courses offered through the Safe and Sacred program cover a variety of issues in child safety including child abuse prevention, the practices of professionalism and Internet safety. By completing the program, adults will learn how to interact with youth appropriately, and they will learn how to provide help to a young person who is struggling with a difficult situation.
To provide safe environments for the children and youth entrusted to our care, the Diocese of Burlington requires that all adults who serve minors complete annual training through the Safe and Sacred program. While a simple, one-time training may seem convenient, it would fail to cover the vast range of child safety issues in our society today. There is an abundance of topics to cover in child safety, and there is new research being published all the time, and one training would not be enough to cover all of this important information. By offering annual trainings, we can cover a wider variety of child safety issues beyond abuse and neglect including bullying, cyberbullying and Internet safety. As new research is published, we can also incorporate the findings into our annual trainings by editing our courses to make them as up-to-date as possible. One-time training would not be able to provide users with the same quantity of material or keep them updated with the latest findings.
Additionally, a one-time training would not be enough to keep us engaged in the welfare of children over the long term. By requiring training annually, we avoid complacency by always keeping child safety on the forefront of everyone’s mind. Through these annual trainings we also are reminded of the importance of being vigilant and trusting our instincts when something doesn’t look or feel right. Without these annual trainings, our knowledge of child protection would become outdated and eventually forgotten. In summary, the more educated we are in child protection issues, the safer children will be under our watch and care. Our children are precious gifts from God, and we cannot afford to shortcut child protection education for mere convenience.
The safe environment training for children and youth is mandated by the USCCB’s Charter for Protection of Children and Young People under Article 12. Article 12 of the Charter states:
“Dioceses/eparchies are to maintain ‘safe environment programs’ which the diocesan/eparchial bishop deems to be in accord with Catholic moral principles. They are to be conducted cooperatively with parents, civil authorities, educators and community organizations to provide education and training for children, youth, parents, ministers, educators, volunteers and others about ways to make and maintain a safe environment for children and young people. Dioceses/eparchies are to make clear to clergy and all members of the community the standards of conduct for clergy and other persons in positions of trust with regard to children.”
Therefore, to fulfill our obligation to the charter, the Diocese of Burlington has chosen the Circle of Grace program as the primary program used teach children and youth about healthy relationships and boundaries. However, parishes and Catholic schools may choose to use other additional programs promulgated by the bishop as well. The Circle of Grace curriculum is designed to teach children about appropriate boundaries and to help them feel comfortable communicating with their parents or other trusted adults when something isn’t right. In summary, we want to give children the tools to help prevent abuse before it has occurred or to report abuse if they’ve experienced it. The curriculum of the program accomplishes this goal by underscoring God’s love for all of us and by focusing on the Catholic teachings regarding the dignity of the human person. We hope the lessons learned from the curriculum equip children with the tools to cultivate healthy, abuse-free relationships throughout their lives.
Circle of Grace is a safe environment program for children and youth that is designed for use both in Catholic schools and in parish religious education programs. The program follows a traditional lesson-plan format, and it fits in best to a classroom-style learning format. Developed by the Archdiocese of Omaha, the Circle of Grace is the fruit of collaboration among clergy, principals, teachers, school counselors, directors of religious education, catechists, youth ministers and mental health professionals. Sound in content and methodology, the program is designed for kindergarten through grade 12.
Circle of Grace’s curriculum is steeped in the truths of the Catholic faith and provides a holistic approach to the safety, wellbeing and spiritual formation of children and youth. It was introduced in the Diocese of Burlington in the 2013-2014 academic and catechetical year, and it is used annually as the primary safe-environment curriculum for children and youth in the Diocese.