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Revised archdiocesan child protection policy also emphasizes safe environments for adults

The Archdiocese of Washington’s Child Protection Policy was instituted in 1986 as one of the first such policies in the nation and has been used as a model for dioceses nationwide. The policy – which covers healing, reporting and prevention of abuse – was updated in 1993, 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2013 to incorporate enhancements in child protection mandates and oversight.

And in July 2019, the policy was again revised, with a new title that reflects its expanded scope, as the archdiocese’s Child Protection and Safe Environment Policy, to emphasize the importance of ensuring safe environments for people of all ages, protecting children from sexual abuse and adults from sexual harassment or abuses of power.

“Adding safe environment (provisions to the policy) is a game changer for the Church. It is showing community members that there is zero tolerance for abuse, regardless if you’re (victimized as) a child or an adult,” said Courtney Chase, the executive director of the Office of Child Protection and Safe Environment for the Archdiocese of Washington. “…It (the policy) is enhanced, because it incorporates safe environment and protection of all children as well as all adults.”

The revised policy’s introduction makes that expanded scope clear, stating, “All people – children and adults – have the right to be safe and protected from harm in any and all environments – home, school, religious institutions, neighborhoods, and communities. The Archdiocese of Washington embraces this right to safety and is dedicated to promoting and ensuring the protection of all children entrusted to our care and to all adults who receive pastoral care or serve our mission.”

Chase noted that the policy has many of the same features as it had in the past, including mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse.

“Any employee, volunteer, clergy or religious who receives a disclosure of abuse or suspects any child abuse or maltreatment is mandated to report it to civil authorities, (and) the school or parish cooperates with civil authorities while the investigation is conducted,” she said, adding, “…When an allegation is made against an individual, they are immediately removed and the investigation commences. There is zero leniency when an allegation is made.”

The policy again requires that “all clergy, employees and volunteers who will come into contact with children while working or volunteering for any archdiocesan institution and/or program will undergo the relevant state and federal criminal background checks.” In a change, the Archdiocese of Washington is requiring those who work or volunteer with young people to be fingerprinted rather than undergo an electronic background check as in the past, because fingerprinting provides more comprehensive information, ensuring the archdiocese has the highest level of protection and oversight.

Chase also noted that the policy continues its emphasis on transparency and pastoral care in abuse cases. When an abuse allegation is made against someone affiliated with the archdiocese, “the community is made aware,” she said, adding, “therapeutic services are offered to victims/survivors and family members to ensure the healing process immediately begins.”

The policy again includes an educational component designed to help prevent abuse from happening. Adults who work or volunteer with youth are required to attend training sessions, where topics include appropriate boundaries for ministry, and how to recognize warning signs of abuse in children and youth. Children and youth attending Catholic schools and parish programs receive age and developmentally appropriate training on topics including basic safety skills, how to recognize dangerous or abusive situations, identifying trusted adults with whom to speak, and on the ability to safely interact with technology, including the Internet and mobile devices.

Chase emphasized that the revised policy’s expanded scope to include safe environments “is the big change.”

“If someone feels they are being sexually harassed in the office or in the parish by any clergy, including a bishop, this office is a safe place for them to land and really find an advocate to support them through the reporting process and help them navigate it… so they don’t have to walk alone,” she said.

She noted that “because we take safe environment policy very seriously, we conducted live mandatory training for all Archdiocese of Washington employees, (and) principals across the archdiocese had training for faculty and staff.”

Kim Viti Fiorentino, the Chancellor for the Archdiocese of Washington, agreed that the safe environment provisions are key enhancements to the policy. The changes follow reports last year of alleged sexual misconduct and harassment involving some bishops, including former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who served as the archbishop of Washington from 2000 until his retirement in 2006. The allegations against McCarrick involved cases when he was a priest in New York and a bishop in New Jersey, before he came to Washington.

“In response to misconduct that has been reported over the past year, the archdiocese put particular emphasis on underscoring its intolerance of improper adult conduct and abuse of power by any clergy, employee or volunteer who works for the mission of the Church,” Fiorentino said, adding, “…these requirements were underscored to ensure our community knows that we do not tolerate this kind of breach of trust and violation of the sacred work to which we are all committed in the service of Jesus Christ and the mission of the Church.”

The revised policy includes the Archdiocese of Washington’s Pastoral Code of Conduct. On the issue of harassment, that code states: “Clergy, staff and volunteers must not engage in physical, psychological, written or verbal harassment of staff, volunteers or parishioners and must not tolerate such harassment by other church staff or volunteers.”

That code goes on to say, “Clergy, staff and volunteers shall provide a professional work environment that is free from physical, psychological, written or verbal intimidation or harassment.” The code requires that allegations of harassment be taken seriously and reported immediately to the Child Protection and Safe Environment Office, the Office of Human Resources and in the case of clergy, the Office of the Vicar for Clergy.

The Archdiocese of Washington was one of the first in the nation to have a Child Protection Advisory Board, which includes professionals from clinical, law enforcement and pastoral backgrounds, and an abuse survivor. Now called the Child Protection and Safe Environment Advisory Board, their name and work has been changed to reflect the policy’s expanded focus. The members review archdiocesan child protection and safe environment policies and procedures and recommend ways they can be improved and strengthened, oversee the implementation of the policies, assess effectiveness of victim assistance efforts and advise on standards of conduct for people in positions of trust. The members also serve as the archdiocese’s Case Review Board, assessing allegations of sexual abuse of minors or improper adult conduct, helping to determine if allegations of abuse or misconduct are credible.

Fiorentino also noted how the revised policy prohibits church employees or volunteers from having “text, email and social media communications with minors without the knowledge or consent of parents and/or legal guardians.”

The archdiocese’s chancellor said the revised policies are “among the most current and comprehensive in the country” and reflect “the Archdiocese of Washington’s unwavering commitment to provide the safest environment to those entrusted to our care and demonstrate that the dignity of all life is at the forefront of our commitment in the Church.”

Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who was installed as the archbishop of Washington in May, two months before the revised Child Protection and Safe Environment Policy was issued, has been a national leader in the Church’s efforts to address the abuse crisis. As the bishop of Belleville, Illinois in 2002, he served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and led the nation’s bishops in implementing the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which included a “zero tolerance policy” on priests who abuse children.

In an interview with the Catholic Standard after his installation, Archbishop Gregory stressed the importance of pastoral outreach to those affected by abuse. 

“When you talk about the abuse of a child, it’s impossible to explain it in any other way, except that it is a crime, and it is completely unacceptable,” he said, adding, “…I learned that you can only understand this is by talking to people who have suffered from this terrible tragedy, whether they be victims or survivors who have carried that wound for many, many years, or the families of those who were hurt. This is not something that a theological textbook can explain. It’s something that can only be fully comprehended by the conversations that take place with those who have lived it.”

(The Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Child and Youth Protection and Safe Environment can be reached by calling 301-853-5328, and information can be found online at . The archdiocese’s revised Child Protection and Safe Environment Policy can be found online at .)