SEATTLE – Catholic leaders must move beyond an attitude of simple compliance with safe environment initiatives and instead join in “a ministry of conversion” that will lead to a broader societal effort to end the sexual abuse of children, Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett of Seattle said April 8.
“If the primary focus and direction of our efforts is to pass the USCCB (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) audit, then we are engaged in the work of compliance,” the archbishop said as he opened the National Safe Environment Leadership Conference in Seattle. “If, however, the focus of our efforts is to eradicate child sexual abuse in the church and in society, that is a ministry of conversion.”
The April 8-11 conference was the third annual gathering of safe environment coordinators from U.S. dioceses and archdioceses. Nearly 90 coordinators from around the country participated in the gathering.
Safe environment programs were mandated for all dioceses by the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” approved by the U.S. bishops at their Dallas meeting in June 2002. They involve “education and training for children, youth, parents, ministers, educators and others about ways to make and maintain a safe environment for children,” according to the charter.
Archbishop Brunett said different studies have concluded that “at least 20 percent of our children are victims of some form of sexual abuse by the age of 18.”
“What would our society do if 20 percent of our children were stricken with a terrible disease that carried lifelong, potentially traumatic and devastating results?” he asked. “Every politician would be under pressure to provide the funding necessary to address such an unacceptable level of destruction. … And, without a doubt, we would make every effort to assure that our children were informed and educated about ways to protect themselves from the disease, and what to do if they were exposed to it.”
Archbishop Brunett said he found it “absolutely astounding that the public hue and cry, and political pressure, that would erupt in the event of a devastating disease affecting 20 percent of our children is largely absent in the face of the tragedy of child sexual abuse.”
“The evil of sexual abuse is present on our streets, in the Catholic Church, in our schools, in other child-serving organizations, in families and on the Internet,” he said. “It knows no racial, socioeconomic or religious boundaries. It is a major societal dilemma and a major societal tragedy.”
But he also said there is “some very good news in the fight against child sexual abuse,” especially about the effectiveness of safe environmental programs in helping children to protect themselves and disclose victimization.
“We know that the frequency of child sexual abuse is declining, and we know that child prevention education has some positive effects on victims and potential victims,” Archbishop Brunett said.
He urged the diocesan safe environment coordinators to adopt “three concrete ways for you to strengthen your ministry as pioneers, prophets and people of prayer.”
“Modeling your ministry after pioneers and prophets will strengthen and support your daily work, and will yield results that may unfold very slowly, only over time,” the archbishop said. “You will have the patience, perseverance and persistence to continue these efforts only if your ministry is rooted in prayer.”
As for the pioneers, “there are no road maps to guide” the work of safe environment coordinators, he said. They endured “incredible hardships” but kept their minds and hearts focused on their goal of reaching their new home.
“You face adversity, whether from parish personnel that object to training, volunteers who are upset because they believe their integrity is being questioned when a background check is required, or parents who are concerned that the prevention education may be harmful to their children,” Archbishop Brunett said.
“You will be able to work through this adversity if you, like the pioneers, keep your vision set on the goal of reducing the 20 percent incidence of child sexual abuse to zero percent,” he said.
He also called the safe environment coordinators “prophets in our modern times” who both demonstrate God’s love for the vulnerable and challenge “our political leaders and secular organizations to take action against the evil of child sexual abuse.”
“We must challenge all those we encounter to speak out about the evil of child sexual abuse, to be vigilant to its signs, and to end the silence,” the archbishop said. “Like the early prophets, our voices may be met with disbelief or even ridicule. And like the early prophets, we can make a real difference both within the church and in the broader society.”