By Ashley Fox – Special to the Florida Catholic
Recent events continue to underscore the importance of protecting children, young people and adults from sexual abuse and supporting victims/survivors as they bravely come forward with their reports. All forms of sexual abuse are intrinsically evil, especially those that occur within the Catholic Church. It is the commitment of the Diocese to provide an environment which is safe and nurturing.
The mission of the Safe Environment Program is:
- To provide required education for all employees (clergy, religious and laity), those volunteers and others regularly involved with minors, and parents, as to the issue of abuse of children including the detection, prevention and reporting of child abuse.
- To provide required training programs for children and young people in our Catholic schools and religious education programs. This includes age appropriate materials pertaining to personal safety and information about improper touching and relationships. Children are not expected to be fully knowledgeable about child abuse or of the laws governing care of children but they need to know when they should seek assistance from a trusted adult.
- To thoroughly screen and evaluate the background of all employees at the parishes, Catholic schools, and other diocesan entities – clergy, religious and laity – and those volunteers who work with children, young people, and vulnerable adults.
- To hold those who minister in the Diocese of Venice – all employees (clergy, religious and laity) at the parishes, Catholic schools, and other diocesan entities and those volunteers who work with children, young people, and vulnerable adults – to Christ-centered and professional codes of conduct.
Since 2002, the Diocese has engaged a professional company to conduct background screening through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation with results available to the Diocesan Safe Environment Coordinator within 24-48 hours. There have been over 35,541 background screenings and 33,700 persons trained in safe environment. In the last five years alone, 13,494 were background screened and 11,257 trained in safe environment.
There are 48 safe environment lay men and women trainers currently active. These trainers teach the safe environment training sessions held in the parishes, Catholic schools, and other diocesan locations. The trainings are offered throughout the year and the list can be found on the Diocesan Safe Environment Website under “Training Schedule,” accessible at www.dioceseofvenice.org. Since January of this year alone, 141 trainings were offered in multiple locations around the Diocese.
Employees (clergy, religious and laity) and volunteers become certified in safe environment after completing a training session. During the sessions, attendees are trained: in the detection of grooming techniques by a potential sex offender; in the detection and prevention of abuse on a child or vulnerable adult; and in the detection of labor and sex trafficking. Additional training includes learning about National Hotline contacts for child, elder, labor or sex trafficking abuse, anti-cyber-bullying and anti-sexting resources, and procedures for reporting grooming techniques and abuse. The training also provides location-specific sex offender registries within a two-mile radius of each Catholic school in the Diocese.
Attendees are also trained in Diocesan Procedures, especially the Code of Pastoral Conduct, the Code of Conduct for Volunteers Working with Minors, the Policy and Procedural Guidelines for the Diocese of Venice in Florida relating to the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults, and Electronic Fingerprinting Procedures. These codes, policies and procedures are accessible to the public on the Diocesan Safe Environment Website.
It is the duty of all persons to report abuse. The following are the mandatory steps regarding reporting:
- An allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by anyone should be reported immediately to the Florida Department of Children and Families Child Abuse Hotline (800-96Abuse) and/or any Law enforcement agency.
- An allegation of elder abuse by anyone should be reported immediately to the Elder Abuse Hotline (800-96Elder) and/or any Law enforcement agency.
- An allegation of labor or sex trafficking abuse by anyone should be reported immediately to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) and/or any Law enforcement agency.
- If the alleged abuser is a Diocesan employee or volunteer, including clergy, also notify Victim Assistance Coordinator at 941-416-6114.
Once a report is made to the Victim Assistance Coordinator, the Diocesan Review Board is notified, primarily compromised of non-Diocesan-employed lay professionals, is notified. The board meets promptly to review the allegation, investigate the case, and make recommendations to the Bishop.
As part of the Safe Environment Program in each Parish and Catholic school, there are 105 Safe Environment Coordinators who coordinate the compliance that persons employed or volunteering with children, young people, and/or vulnerable adults are background screened and safe environment trained prior to their employment or volunteering.
Every five years, employees and volunteers are background rescreened and employees are recertified in safe environment. The Diocese is informed by the State of Florida within 24 hours of the arrest of any of its employees, including clergy.
Every priest or deacon must be background screened at two levels – the State of Florida and the Federal Bureau of Investigation – and become certified in safe environment in order to minister in the Diocese of Venice. These requirements are in addition to a reference check and a letter of good standing from their bishop or provincial superior for religious order priests.
In the 2017-2018 academic year, 14,865 children and youth in parish religious education programs and Catholic schools were safe environment trained. Each Parish and Catholic school is yearly audited on its safe environment training for children and youth by the Diocese, and the information in the Diocesan Safe Environment Program is subject to national audits.
Parishes and Catholic schools are also required to publish information on proper reporting to the Department of Children and Families by posters and other forms of communication. The Diocese of Venice works hard to maintain safe environments and to bring awareness about abuse and how to properly report.
The Diocese is committed to providing a comprehensive Safe Environment Program in an effort to protect the most vulnerable from all types of abuse. An important part of this program is prayer. Each year, Bishop Dewane invites all faithful to join him in prayer for the victims/survivors at two special Masses held in April, National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
We must always endeavor to improve and move forward. An organizational change involves creating a vigilant culture of protection and healing. Anyone interested can become certified in safe environment and aide in maintaining safe environments in every parish, Catholic school, and diocesan entity. For more detailed information about what the Diocese of Venice does to prevent abuse or to register for the nearest training, please visit the Diocesan Safe Environment Website or contact the Office of Safe Environment Awareness and Certification at 941-484-9543.
Ashley Fox is Diocese of Venice Director of Safe Environment Awareness and Certification as well as Director of Religious Education. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 941-484-9543.