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For Diocese, Keeping Children Safe from Abuse Is a Priority

By Aida Bustos

SAN DIEGO — Preventing child sexual abuse is part of the culture of the San Diego Diocese, with every department participating in that effort. Further, the diocese immediately reports to law enforcement any credible accusation, regardless of whether the alleged incident took place when the victim was a minor.

In 2002, the U.S. bishops issued a sweeping “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” in response to the revelations of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests and other clergy across the country, including locally.

The San Diego Diocese settled claims of sexual abuse for $198 million in September of 2007.

The charter is once more in the spotlight in light of revelations from a grand jury report in Pennsylvania released in August detailing the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by at least 300 priests.

The U.S. bishops’ charter is the foundation for diocesan programs aimed at two groups: children and young people who attend diocesan K-12 schools or have regular contact with parish staff; and the adults who serve the youngsters, including volunteers.

A program called “No-Go-Tell” instructs children in grade-appropriate language what to do if “anyone touches my body in a way that makes me feel weird, or uncomfortable or worried or scared.”  The program tells them how to say “No,” where to “Go” to be safe and to “Tell” what happened to a trusted adult as soon as possible.

Youngsters participating in religious education at parishes also participate in this program, where it’s rolled out by catechetical ministers.

Posters and brochures promoting it are displayed prominently at all schools and parishes.

Another program, called “Protecting Our Children,” focuses on all the adults at the diocese who have or can have ongoing, unsupervised contact with children and young people. These adults are required to undergo a background check that includes LiveScan fingerprinting.

This group includes all priests, deacons, seminarians, school teachers and staff, and diocesan and parish employees. Volunteers who work with youngsters must also undergo this level of screening.

Those fingerprinted are monitored using FBI and U.S. Department of Justice databases. Any contact with law enforcement — such as a DUI or domestic violence charge — is reported to diocesan administrators. They, in turn, determine swiftly what disciplinary action to take, including dismissal.

The diocese requires all of its priests, deacons and seminarians to sign a Code of Ethical Standards for Church Ministers. It clearly states what they should do and not do in their work. For instance, it calls for them, “to avoid any physical contact that can be misconstrued by either minors or adults.” The clergy are told that these principles extend to online conduct, including email communication and texting.

Any credible accusation of sex abuse of a minor is immediately reported to Child Protective Services and/or law enforcement. This includes allegations where the person is now an adult but the alleged incident took place when he or she was a minor. In all cases, the diocese urges the accuser to contact law enforcement directly.

In some situations, too much time has elapsed between when the alleged incident took place and when it is reported to law enforcement to make a criminal case. In those situations, any allegation of sexual misconduct is investigated by a private investigator whose findings are submitted to the bishop and a review board to determine culpability and potential discipline.

Rodrigo Valdivia, the vice-moderator of the curia, oversees compliance with the charter provisions. He’s unequivocal about their implementation.

“Any priest found to have committed sexual misconduct with a minor is automatically barred from ministry for life,” says Valdivia. “The Catholic Church’s position is unequivocal when it comes to this offense — we are not going to tolerate it.”

The Southern Cross

How to Report Sexual Abuse

To report sexual abuse by clergy or Church personnel, please contact the nearest law enforcement authority.

Individuals may also contact Lisa Petronis at (858) 490-8353. She is an independent, licensed clinical psychologist who can help people who believe they have been abused to obtain counseling and therapy.

More bilingual information and forms are available on the diocesan Web site, sdcatholic.org.

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