As Secretary for Youth Protection and Catholic Human Services, Pam Russo has overall responsibility at the diocesan level for programs and policies designed to prevent abuse and keep children safe. She provided the following overview at the “Healing Our Church” sessions.
Diocese takes swift action in event of an allegation, Russo says
When it comes to taking action on the clergy abuse issue, much has changed for the better over the past 17 years. The Grand Jury acknowledged that fact in its report last year.
Today, we use a combination of vigilance, education and prevention, coupled with swift and decisive action in the event of an accusation.
Our first priority is keeping children safe.
That starts with education. Each year, every child in our schools and parish religious education programs receives age-appropriate training in recognizing and preventing abuse. Some of you asked in your feedback sheets about altar servers.
Under this program, each of them receives this training every year, unless their parents opt them out.
We’ve also trained more than 38,000 adults in how to recognize, respond to and report child abuse.
And any adult who comes into contact with children at any time during their work in the Diocese is considered a mandated reporter under state law. This means that they are required to report child abuse immediately and directly to the authorities.
So far we have provided 5,000 adults – including employees, clergy, seminarians, Diocese and parish staff, and volunteers – with required specialized Mandated Reporter Training.
In the areas of vigilance and prevention:
We have 123 designated Safe Environment Coordinators working in our parishes, schools and ministries. Their job is to make sure everyone complies with abuse-prevention laws and policies.
We require criminal background checks for priests, deacons, seminarians, employees and volunteers. We strictly enforce a Sexual Abuse Policy and a Code of Conduct. Our Diocese has been judged to be fully compliant, through annual audits over the past 15 years, with the Charter for Protection of Children and Young People.
We also have an Independent Review Board. This is a panel of mostly lay people who are experts in their fields. They review abuse allegations and make recommendations to the Bishop. The board includes a physician who has expertise in child sexual abuse, a county children and youth services caseworker, a federal probation officer, and an official of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.
We also provide compassionate care for victims of abuse. Wendy Krisak, our Victim Assistance Coordinator, meets with victims to listen, and to assist in developing a plan for healing. Victims are offered professional counseling, paid for by the Diocese. And Bishop Schlert has met with many, many victims and offered pastoral and spiritual support.
At the Diocese of Allentown, we consider ourselves partners with law enforcement when it comes to addressing cases of abuse. This past November, Bishop Schlert met with the District Attorneys of our five counties to keep them updated on our work to prevent abuse, and to continue to nurture our partnership with law enforcement.
Our Zero-Tolerance Policy means that in the event of an accusation, the priest is removed immediately pending an investigation, we immediately notify law enforcement, and we are transparent about our actions, including issuing a public statement in cooperation with law enforcement.
So as you can see, we have a very thorough and effective group of programs, policies and procedures to prevent abuse, and to act swiftly and appropriately in the event of an allegation.