Multi-faceted approach key for creating safe environments
By Katrina Genereux, Associate Editor, OND
A recent onsite audit of diocesan Safe Environment practices was conducted by Stonebridge Business Partners of Rochester, New York. The firm found that the Diocese of Crookston is compliant with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People for the audit period of July 2017-June 2018. The Charter was drafted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002. Dioceses around the country are audited each year to determine adherence to the Charter.
An onsite audit occurs every three years. Members from the Stonebridge audit team come to the diocese, interview individuals involved with safe environment administration, check records and processes and visit parishes. Between onsite audits, data audits are conducted. During a data audit, the diocese sends required information to auditors for review.
One area scrutinized by auditors is the training offered to students in Catholic schools and religious education programs. The Charter mandates that children be trained for their safety. Since 2015, Catholic schools and religious education programs throughout the diocese have been using a curriculum called Circle of Grace. During the 2018 audit period, 4,389 youth were trained in the Diocese of Crookston.
“We train children and youth on how to recognize and report abuse,” said Renee Tate, Safe Environment Coordinator for the Diocese of Crookston. “This program not only teaches safety and well-being, it also teaches children and young people to understand their own sacredness and the sacredness of others and how to get help through trusted adults.”
The curriculum is based on the idea that the space around a person is their “circle of grace.” It helps children understand – in an age-appropriate way – what does or does not belong in their circle. A variety of lesson plans are provided for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Margaret Rasmussen is the Director of Religious Education at St. Bernard, Thief River Falls, and the parish Safe Environment Coordinator. Coordinators keep records of adult and youth training and report them to the diocese. She also teaches Circle of Grace lessons in the school and religious education program.
“It teaches that God is present in their lives and surrounds them with his grace and wants them to be safe. It also teaches that the Holy Spirit will nudge us and to listen to what he is trying to tell us if it is not a safe situation,” Rasmussen said. “I like how each grade is a little different in the lessons so that as the child grows, they get a little something new each year.”
Kari Rath is a teacher at St. Bernard’s School. Her 9-year-old son, Samuel, has received Circle of Grace training.
He said, “The Circle of Grace training has taught me more about my heart and soul, how to be safe, and who is in my circle – who to trust and who I can tell if something bad happens.”
“I think the Circle of Grace training is important because it gives students a knowledge and plan of what to do in potentially difficult and confusing situations,” Kari said. “It teaches students to respect themselves and others. It is important for students to know what safe and unsafe touch is, be able to identify who the trusted adults are in their lives and how to make good choices.”
Annette Haas appreciates the theme of respect in the curriculum. Haas is the Youth Ministry and Faith Formation Coordinator and Safe Environment Coordinator at St. Peter the Apostle, Park Rapids.
“I think it is important for our students to make the connections that respect for ourselves and others is part of God’s plan. If someone is infringing on our personal boundaries, the program also shares what we need to do,” Haas said.
Diane Heath has taught first grade religious education at St. Peter for nine years. Each year she covers Circle of Grace curriculum in 1.5 to two class periods.
“I think they understand – even the little ones. We explain it to them and I think by the time we are done they understand what we are talking about,” she said. “It’s a pretty good program.”
Her 15-year-old daughter, Alicia, has taken part in Circle of Grace training. She said considering the body as a temple and dwelling place of God was emphasized.
“Some kids might be scared to share if somebody entered their bubble and made them feel uncomfortable they might be scared to tell an adult,” she said.
A second area assessed by the audit is church personnel training and certification in the parishes and schools of the diocese.
The bishop, priests, deacons, employees and volunteers who interact with children are required to complete Safe Environment training each year. Background checks are part of the certification. The first time a person is certified, a background check is conducted; it is renewed every five years, unless there is cause to repeat it sooner.
“When you are safe environment certified, you are saying you will abide by the policy and the Code of Conduct for Church Leaders in the Diocese of Crookston,” Tate said. “Our safe environment program teaches adults how to recognize and report abuse.”
2,521 people completed safe environment certification during the audit period.
Another aspect of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is providing a Victim’s Assistance Coordinator.
Cindy Hulst, LSW, is the Victim’s Assistance Coordinator for the Diocese of Crookston. She is available to assist victims of sexual misconduct on the part of a priest, deacon, or individual representing the Diocese of Crookston, its parishes or its schools. She can be confidentially reached 24 hours a day by calling 218-281-7895.
For more information about Safe Environment in the Diocese of Crookston, visit www.crookston.org/offices/safeenvironment.