By JORDAN MCMORROUGH
CHARLESTON — The first in a series of statewide educational sessions for child abuse awareness and the new screening policy for church personnel was held at St. Joseph Parish June 23, in which the rationale for the new procedures and their implementation was explained.
Before presenting information concerning child abuse and neglect, Gay Rowzie, Ph.D., secretary of education and evangelization for the Diocese of Charleston and superintendent of schools, asked attendees to close their eyes and take two words — child abuse — and draw a picture in their minds.
Following this introductory exercise, she then spelled out definitions of child abuse and neglect as stated by the Children’s Code Reform Act of 1996.
A child is defined as anyone under age 18, with abuse and neglect encompassing the infliction of physical or mental injury; committing sexual offenses; failing to supply food, clothing, shelter or medical care; abandoning the child; and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
The term sexual offense was a broad one, ranging from inappropriate touching to rape and pornography.
Answering the question “How prevalent is this problem?” Rowzie cited statistics provided by various law enforcement and social service agencies showing that in the United States more than 2 million cases of physical abuse or neglect are reported each year, which averages out to one every six seconds.
Annually, 2,000 children die of child abuse or neglect, which averages out to a child dying every four-and-a-half hours.
At least one in three girls and one in seven boys are sexually molested or abused during their childhood. Most of the victims are 11 years of age when the sexual abuse is discovered.
In addition, there are no cultural barriers which foreshadow child abuse victims or their perpetrators, said Rowzie. The child sexual offender is usually known to the victim and come from all economic, ethnic, racial and educational backgrounds and religious traditions.
“There is no single characteristic that defines a child sexual offender,” she said. “They can be respected members of the community, church or synagogue.”
A list was reviewed containing indicators of possible child abuse. It gave potential clues to physical abuse, physical neglect, sexual abuse and emotional maltreatment.
Any person who has a reason to believe that a child is being abused or neglected may make a child abuse report to the Department of Social Services.
Teachers and other members of the educational community are mandated by law to report if they have reason to believe that a child’s physical or mental health or welfare has been or may be adversely affected by abuse or neglect.
Callers may remain anonymous and, when acting in good faith, are immune from civil or criminal liability. Any mandated reporter who fails to report a suspected case of child abuse or neglect may be fined up to $500 or be imprisoned for up to six months under provisions of the Child Protection Reform Act of 1996.
Rowzie told listeners that if they suspect sexual abuse has been perpetrated by diocesan church personnel the procedures to be followed are listed in the “Policy of the Diocese of Charleston Concerning Child Sexual Abuse by Church Personnel.”
“The investigation of suspected abuse is not your responsibility,” Rowzie said. “If doubt exists, resolve that doubt in favor of the child by making a report.”
She said that goals should be to protect the child from further abuse, stop the offender’s abuse and heal the victims.
A “disclosure” handout was examined, which contained the following suggestions: don’t panic or overreact to the information disclosed by the child, don’t promise to keep the information a secret, don’t criticize the child, do reassure the child that you are concerned, do suggest that the child talk to his/her parent(s), do report the information to the appropriate authorities, and do keep the information confidential.
On the flip side, diocesan employees were also given information on how to safeguard themselves against possible accusations of sexual abuse. Some of these included: no one-on-one contact, respect for privacy, appropriate attire, constructive discipline, and all functions and activities open to observation by parents and church/school leaders.
Sister Susan Schorsten, assistant to the vicar general for the Diocese of Charleston, addressed the question, “What are we doing to protect our children from abuse and neglect?”
Sister Schorsten discussed the “Policy and Procedures for Screening and Background Checks.”
For many years, the diocese has recommended that screening methods such as letters of reference, verification of previous employment, and verification of educational qualifications be used for all employees hired by the diocese, parishes, schools and other church-related ministries. In the case of candidates for the priesthood and the diaconate, additional screening has been done.
Now, the diocese will begin to use additional screens. These are dependent on the individual’s responsibility in the diocese or parish. Checks may include: criminal background, credit report, social security number trace, driver history, and child abuse and neglect central registry information search.
Required background screens
A criminal record search will be done for all clergy, seminarians, religious brothers and sisters, employees, covered volunteers, and independent contractors providing services to the diocese.
The search may be by county or by state depending on the person’s residence(s) during the past three years.
More than one verification screen may apply:
A) Driver history search is required if an individual drives his/her own vehicle or a diocesan/parish/school vehicle as a part of their function.
B) Credit report is required for all individuals who have access to money, financial records or fiscal decisions.
C) Social Security Number trace is required for all other persons who do not fit into categories A or B.
A child abuse and neglect central registry information search is also required for individuals who have contact with children in a supervised or unsupervised capacity as part of their paid or unpaid work or ministry in the diocese/school/parish. This search will be done through the S.C. Department of Social Services.
Each participant at the educational session completed an Inquiry Release Form and a separate consent form for the Department of Social Services (if applicable) in order to initiate the background investigations.
These forms will be processed through Fidelifacts, an outside agency, for the criminal records searches and the verification screens and through the Department of Social Services for child abuse and neglect central registry information.
Next issue: An interview with William Sharp of Fidelifacts and review on the implementation of the new policy.