As Catholic schoolchildren count down the remaining days of summer vacation, their parents are being reminded to ensure their own compliance with the diocese’s updated policies for protecting children and young people.
Effective this new school year, the parents or guardians of all kindergarten through eighth-grade students in Catholic schools in the Jefferson City diocese must complete an online or in-person training module on recognizing and reporting signs of the abuse of minors.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight announced the requirement last October, following a yearlong reevaluation of the diocese’s safe environment policies.
“Full cooperation among caring, trusted adults is our most effective line of defense against abuse and exploitation of young people,” the bishop stated in an article in the Oct. 29, 2020, edition of The Catholic Missourian.
“We need every adult to be able to recognize the signs of abuse and follow appropriate protocols when ministering to young people,” he said.
Compliance for Catholic-school parents includes participation in a VIRTUS “Protecting God’s Children” training workshop, available in person or online.
The online workshop takes about an hour and a half to complete. The in-person version takes about two hours.
Under the revised policy, volunteers who work with minors must also consent to a background check, and sign an affirmation of the Diocesan Code of Pastoral Conduct.
These changes went into effect Oct. 31 for priests, deacons, religious, volunteers, seminarians, deacon candidates and adult diocesan employees.
Parents of Catholic grade-school students who are not currently serving as volunteers or employees of the Church must complete the requirements of volunteers who work with minors before the start of school.
“This policy will not impact all of our parents — many are already trained and able to volunteer freely in our schools,” Dr. Erin Vader, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Jefferson City diocese, noted in a March 5, 2021, letter to parents.
“Please know this is not an arbitrary requirement,” Dr. Vader wrote. “It is actually tied fundamentally to who we are as stewardship-model Catholic schools.”
She said requiring Catholic school parents to complete the safe environment training is part of the diocese’s move toward a stewardship model in which all parishioners and school families pledge time, talent and treasure toward advancing the mission of the Church.
“We all appreciate the level of commitment our parents make to our Catholic schools,” Dr. Vader wrote. “We have done everything we can to make this process as convenient and easy as possible.”
“We do it together”
Bishop McKnight worked for over a year with diocesan staff and various advisory groups before updating the policy.
Among them were the Presbyteral Council, with priest representatives from each region; the Diocesan Review Board, a group of mostly laypeople that review allegations of abuse of a minor by an agent of the Church; the Hispanic Advisory Committee; and the members of his cabinet.
Connie Schepers, diocesan chancellor and director of child and youth protection, emphasized that united vigilance among all the faithful is an essential part of keeping children safe.
“Many parents simply don’t know how to recognize the behavior patterns of people who are seeking to abuse children,” she stated. “The training we provide helps them identify that.”
Mrs. Schepers noted that when everyone agrees to learn and abide by a clear set of sensible rules, the people who think the rules do not apply to them tend to stand out.
“It’s up to all of us to identify the people who continue to do things that put children at risk,” she said. “We do it together.”
Cathedral of St. Joseph parishioner Edith Vogel recently attended a “VIRTUS: Protecting God’s Children” workshop.
She said she was upset at first about having to attend the workshop in order to continue serving as a lector or cantor at the parish.
“I thought I knew everything I needed to know,” she stated.
She changed her mind after watching the two videos and recognizing behavior she had seen out in public.
“I learned a lot today,” she said. “I don’t have children, but I have plenty of nieces and nephews.
“It turned on a lightbulb for me,” she said. “This is important. Anytime you can make people aware of something dangerous out there, I’m on board with it.”
Participants in another “Protecting God’s Children” workshop in the diocese wrote that the videos and discussions were helpful.
“I felt the entire workshop was eye-opening,” one participant stated, adding that the most helpful part was “insight into how abusers plan and exploit.”
“Very relevant,” another participant wrote, “as children of volunteers are often present” while their parents are volunteering.
Another said the most useful part of the workshop was “help in protecting our children’s future.”
“I really don’t deal with children, but the information is very helpful,” another stated.
A door to grace
The “Protecting God’s Children” workshop helps adults recognize inappropriate behavior whenever they see it, making them not just better parishioners but also better overall members of society.
The revelations can be difficult, even jarring, but are a necessary part of building up and strengthening a network of safety for children and young people.
Monsignor Marion Makarewicz, pastor of Mary Immaculate Parish in Kirksville and the Mission of St. Rose of Lima in Novinger, recently referred to the taking of these extra steps as a discipline and “a penitential practice that the Church has introduced to fight the evil of abuse.”
“We must develop the habits and dispositions of self-denial that create the best possible environment for our children to grow and flourish, free from abuse and neglect,” Msgr. Makarewicz recently wrote to his parishioners. “It is central to a personal and social response to hearing the Gospel.”
Such penance and discipline presents an opening to grace, through which God helps people achieve good in the face of sin and evil, the priest wrote.
“No one can be exempt from the responsibility of caring for the safety and security of others,” he stated. “The Catholic Church is committed to protecting God’s children. As members of the Body of Christ, we, too, are called to embrace the wounds that sin has caused.”
Well worth it
Bishop McKnight said the People of God can settle for nothing less than the safest environments for children and young people.
“Any sacrifice or inconvenience we as adults accept together is worth it,” he stated. “Jesus Himself identified with the least among us. In doing so, He held us to the absolute highest standard for youth protection.
“Only by knowing what to look for and speaking up when we see the warning signs of abuse can we create a truly safe environment for our children and young people to thrive in and grow in their knowledge of Christ,” he said.
The full text of the diocese’s updated Policy on the Protection of Children and Young People can be found online at: diojeffcity.org/safe-environment.