Diocese receives commendations

I am happy to be able to inform the faithful of South Carolina that the Diocese of Charleston is in full compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People according to national audit results released by the Office for Child and Youth Protection Jan. 6.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned the annual review as part of the charter, which was adopted during its meeting held in Dallas in June 2002.

Though the charter was approved in 2002, our diocese has had a sexual abuse policy in place since 1994, thanks to the dedication of my predecessor, Bishop David B. Thompson. The Diocese of Charleston is committed to protecting children, and the result of the audit reiterates that commitment and moral obligation.

Between June and October 2003, representatives of the Gavin Group of Boston conducted on-site audits to evaluate whether individual dioceses were in compliance with the standards of the charter. Those standards included promoting healing and reconciliation with victims, guaranteeing effective response to allegations of abuse of minors,  ensuring accountability of procedures, and protecting children and young people in the future.

Auditors, who were former FBI personnel, evaluated the Diocese of Charleston the week of Aug. 25, 2003. The audit consisted of assessing the diocese’s updated sexual abuse policy and interviewing diocesan staff, victims, lay people, and me. Based on their work, the auditors found the Diocese of Charleston in compliance with every aspect of the charter.

In addition, they awarded the diocese commendations in three areas for exceeding their expectations. The commendations were for the diocese’s sexual abuse prevention training, its creation of flow charts to explain the process of reporting an allegation, and its pastoral response team.

The diocese’s sexual abuse prevention training includes presentations by Father Ray Chase, director of spiritual development for the Children’s Continuum of Catholic Charities in Baltimore, Md.; Deacon Al Payne, assistant to the vicar general; and Louisa Storen, the diocese’s victim assistance minister.

In their commendation the auditors stated that the “Diocese of Charleston has developed an exceptional program relating to the safe environment programs. An educational program is presented quarterly wherein every new employee is required to attend one session prior to having personal contact with any minor. All current employees are required to attend one of the sessions at least every three years.”

The auditors continue, “each session includes a presentation by Father Chase. His presentation introduces a series of paintings by a young man who was abused and who subsequently committed suicide. The paintings reportedly are of high quality and communicate pictorially the agony suffered by the abused child. The presentation is said to cause a very thoughtful and empathetic response from all who attend.

“A second presentation is entitled ‘Facts and Myths about Child Sexual Abuse’ by Deborah Donovan Rice, director of outreach and programming for Darkness to Light. This organization presents seven practical steps to protecting children from sexual abuse, and provides the information needed by adults to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.”

Louisa Storen, a licensed social worker, presents the diocesan policy relating to the response and outreach to victims, their families, and to the offender. She presents the requirements and procedures of referring those needing emotional assistance to professionals for counseling at the expense of the diocese.

Deacon Al Payne presents an overview of the policy regarding the screening of employees, potential employees and volunteers. The auditors stated that Payne “explains that the charter of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops mandates these requirements and considers them essential to the protection of children. He emphasizes that the diocese is enthusiastically supporting all the articles of the charter.

“Together these sessions clearly put forth the policy on child abuse and emphasize its importance. The program also has the added value of highlighting the bishop’s sincerity and commitment in implementing the charter and all its mandates.”

The flow charts, which received a commendation, explain the process for reporting an allegation.

On Aug. 19, 2003, the Diocese of Charleston distributed a lengthy updated policy regarding allegations of sexual misconduct or abuse of a minor. The policy was distributed to all diocesan personnel, including all parishes, schools, and other church-sponsored ministries. All employees and volunteers are required to sign that they have read and agree to follow the policy. Every new employee and/or volunteer must sign prior to having any contact with minors.

The auditors reported, “Msgr. James Carter, Vicar General for Administration, recognized that a person connected with the diocese who receives an allegation might not recall, or fail to immediately refer to, the 50-page document. He recommended that a flow chart be developed that would accompany the distribution of the policy. A flow chart was drafted and circulated which describes and simplifies the step-by-step actions to be taken upon the receipt of an allegation through the subsequent processes. Each step follows the canonical process and complies with the charter.

“The flow chart is further separated into three sections; allegations related to a member of the clergy, allegations related to a brother or religious woman, and allegations related to lay church personnel/volunteer. There are many of the same instructions in the flow chart that are identical for each section, but since there are somewhat different sequences for each session, a separate flow chart was developed.

“The Diocese of Charleston is to be commended for recognizing the complexity of its own policies addressing the mandates of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and for its efforts to create an instrument which simplifies the procedures to be followed subsequent to allegations of sexual abuse of children.”

The diocesan pastoral response team, which is the group that works with alleged victims and faith communities to foster healing and reconciliation, was also commended.

The Charter for Protection of Children and Young People requires the diocese to reach out to victims and families and to demonstrate a sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being. In order to effectively and efficiently address this requirement, the diocese has designated a pastoral team consisting of the coordinator, victim assistance minister, director of communications, superintendent of schools, and other diocesan staff, as designated by the bishop or vicar general for administration.

The pastoral team is not involved in the factual investigation or validity of any allegation. They are to reach out to the victims and faith communities in order to foster healing and reconciliation. The pastoral team can and will offer counseling, spiritual assistance, support groups, and listening sessions for members of the affected parish.

The coordinator described that the pastoral team can be quickly dispatched to an affected parish, respond to questions regarding allegations of misconduct, and attempt to mediate the pain resulting from the circumstances of the allegation. Professional counseling services are offered to all those in need.

The auditors stated, “in conclusion, the audit found that the Bishop of Charleston through the creation of the pastoral team has significantly promoted the healing and reconciliation required by the charter. He has addressed the needs of his parishioners with an assemblage of professional and exceptionally well-trained personnel that understand and know how to address deep-seated feelings of those affected by the issues. The bishop is to be commended for his actions in the area of outreach.”

The audit results clearly indicate the Diocese of Charleston is fully committed to protecting children from any form of abuse.  The audit involved an outside group looking into what the diocese has done to implement the charter since it was passed in June 2002.

We are happy to be open with the public by sharing the results of this study. I’ve also established an Office of Child Protection Services headed by Deacon Al Payne, a former police officer. The new office is another step to ensure our children are protected.  The office will oversee the protection elements for all children related to services provided by the diocese.

I am extremely proud of the men and women who worked so hard on updating the diocese’s sexual abuse prevention policy and on implementing all aspects of the charter. As we begin 2004, let us renew our pledge to protect children from any form of abuse and continue to pray for all victims of sexual misconduct.

Published Jan. 8, 2004