Best-practices approach guides archdiocese’s youth-protection efforts

| July 17, 2013 | 0 Comments


Before joining the archdiocese last February as associate chancellor for civil affairs, Sara Kronholm spent more than a decade as an assistant Hennepin County attorney handling court cases involving abused and neglected children.

She took the job with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, she said, because she wanted the opportunity to assist in its efforts to confront the societal problem of abuse and protect minors from becoming victims in the first place.

“When I was hired, it was clear from the archdiocese’s leaders that they weren’t looking to just meet requirements,” said Kronholm, who oversees the archdiocese’s Office for Protection of Children and Youth. “They wanted to make sure we were pursuing best practices in all that we do.”

News reports of alleged clergy sexual abuse that have surfaced recently may give some people the impression that such abuse is a rampant and unaddressed problem. The reality, however, is quite different. Most cases of alleged abuse in the news now date from many years — and often decades — ago.

For more than 20 years — even before the U.S. bishops issued the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” in 2002 — the archdiocese has taken a lead role in protecting minors by requiring criminal background checks for all clergy as well as parish and school employees and, for more than a decade, by providing safe environment training to both youth and adults.

The archdiocese also has had a zero-tolerance approach regarding clergy sexual abuse of minors since the 1990s, said Andy Eisenzimmer, the archdiocese’s former chancellor for civil affairs and legal counsel who retired last year and is familiar with the archdiocese’s history on safe environment issues. When the archdiocese receives an accusation of abuse, it reports it to civil authorities and removes the person immediately from ministry pending the outcome of the investigation, during which the archdiocese cooperates with police and other authorities.

No clergy member who has been credibly accused of child abuse is allowed to serve in a parish ministry position, he said.

The mission of the archdiocesan Office for the Protection of Children and Youth is “to help create and maintain safe environments for children and vulnerable adults in any Church ministry, [Catholic] school or parish setting,” Kronholm said.

The office also ensures compliance with state laws, archdiocesan policies and the provisions outlined in the national charter. And, it seeks to ensure the archdiocese’s policies and practices are consistent with national best practices.

“Every day and in every situation we look for what’s the best way to keep children safe,” said Kronholm, a member of St. Olaf in Minneapolis.

The ‘essential three’

In 1987, then archdiocesan Auxiliary Bishop Robert Carlson expressed regret that the archdiocese made mistakes in handling and responding to matters involving the sexual abuse of minors by some members of the clergy. Since then, the archdiocese has developed and implemented policies to prevent such abuse.

The policies, which were updated most recently in 2007 and which are currently undergoing another review and update, address a spectrum of issues related to sexual misconduct, including response to allegations and support for those making allegations as well as requirements aimed at prevention. The most recent revisions aim to strengthen and clarify safe environment requirements commonly referred to as the “essential three.”

They are:

• Criminal background checks: All clergy members and archdiocesan, parish and school employees are required to undergo criminal background checks done by an outside agency, Kronholm said. All parish, school and ministry volunteers with regular or unsupervised contact with minors also must undergo a background check.

• Codes of conduct: Clergy, employees and volunteers must acknowledge and abide by archdiocesan codes of conduct.

• Safe environment training: The archdiocese provides age-appropriate safe environment training to young people in Catholic schools and parish faith formation programs as well as to clergy members, parish and school employees and volunteers. The training raises awareness about the societal problem of child sexual abuse and provides information about warning signs regarding potential abusers, how to recognize signs of abuse and how to report suspected abuse.

The archdiocese provides adults attending the training sessions with a handout listing the phone numbers of child protection authorities in 20 Minnesota counties and three nearby counties in Wisconsin, Kronholm said.

“We try to make it as easy as possible and give people all the materials and tools they might need to feel empowered to take the step to report,” she said.

As part of the national Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the archdiocese and other U.S. dioceses undergo an annual independent audit of their policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the charter’s provisions. In turn, the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth collects data from parishes and schools in the archdiocese twice a year to ensure their compliance with its policies and charter requirements, Eisenzimmer said.

The archdiocese also has a longstanding policy of offering support to victims of sexual abuse, including by providing counseling through independent counselors at no cost.

As the archdiocese developed and implemented child sexual abuse protection policies and procedures over the years, it started hearing stories about how they were helping people to step forward and report suspected abuse or boundary violations, both in Church ministry and wider society, Eisenzimmer said.

“Pretty quickly, we recognized that this wasn’t just a Church problem,” he said. “When I would talk with judges and other people who were on the front lines, they would frequently talk about the abuse that occurred in public schools, in the home and other community settings. It was just so prevalent and a huge problem. So we began to recognize that what we were doing was not just having a value from the standpoint of the Church, but also having a value from the standpoint of protecting children in any setting.”

“We really saw it as becoming an integral part of the mission of the Church,” he said. “At the present, I think the Church is really at the forefront in the kinds of things we do to protect children.”

In 2012, of all the allegations against Catholic clergy nationwide, only 11 involved people who were minors in 2012. Most accusations were related to abuse alleged to have occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s. Similarly, two cases filed against the archdiocese in recent weeks are related to allegations of clergy sexual abuse that date to the 1960s. The filing follows the Minnesota Legislature’s recent passage of a law eliminating the civil statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims for a three-year period.

Local cases involving abuse alleged to have occurred since the mid-1980s are very rare, Eisenzimmer said. That is one indication that the archdiocese’s policies have been effective, he said.

Looking ahead

Eisenzimmer said that, while alleged incidents of clergy sexual abuse of minors occurring today are rare, “any one case of abuse is unacceptable and horrific and cannot be tolerated.”

“But the fact is, I think, the comprehensive and sustained approach and the care we’ve taken to deal with this problem — it’s working,” he said.

Still, he added, “We haven’t stopped learning. Everyday we try to learn something new about how to address this problem and help be a leader in society.”

Kronholm said the archdiocese is committed to further enhancing its “essential three” preventative requirements.

In that regard, the archdiocese plans to soon issue an updated policy on ministry-related sexual misconduct after working on a revision over the last year.

The latest version of this policy, titled “Restoring Trust,” was issued in 2007, she said. The new edition will be titled “Strengthening Trust.”

“We try to remind folks that we aren’t doing all these things simply to pass national audit requirements, which we have annually, or to successfully defend lawsuits,” Kronholm said.

“We’re doing it to prevent abuse,” she said. “In the context of the tragic mistakes of the past, we feel like it’s all of our responsibility as laity and members of the Church — and frankly as members of the greater society — to educate ourselves and do whatever we can to prevent child abuse in communities, in neighborhoods, in families or wherever.”

By the numbers

• More than 105,000 criminal background checks have been run on clergy, employees and volunteers in the archdiocese in the last decade alone.

• 100,000 young people in Catholic schools and parish faith formation programs have received age-appropriate safe environment training in the past decade.

• More than 68,000 clergy, parish and school employees and volunteers have received safe environment training in the last decade.


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