In his own way, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted has brought order and toughness to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix since he arrived in December 2003.
Parishioners have to feel good that the sexual misconduct mess has seemingly been cleaned up, and their church is viewed less by the outside world as the place where perverts got away for decades carrying out deviant acts with the young and vulnerable.
With a couple of known exceptions, the priests who abused children have been identified and brought to justice. The rogues’ gallery includes George Bredemann, John Giandelone, Karl LeClaire, Mark Lehman, Lan Sherwood and James Rausch — nearly 30 in all. Out there still are fugitive priests Joseph Henn and Patrick Colleary, who have supposedly influenced key people in places like Italy and Ireland to keep them free from prosecution. They have said they would be criminally abused by inmates if extradited to Arizona and held in a Sheriff Joe Arpaio lockup.
Now the diocese has introduced the fourth revision to its Policy and Procedures for the Protection of Minors since it was first drafted in 1990 and touted as a plan ahead of its time. The new policy was published in a special section of the Catholic Sun in its Aug. 17 issue in both English and Spanish. A comprehensive policy to deal with the abuse of adults will be next.
Olmsted says he means business, so that minors have safe environments in which to experience what the church affords them. Besides continued focus on training, all diocesan personnel and volunteers are told what is allowed and forbidden around children. And there are clearer procedures for vigilance, the reporting of possible violations and dealing with abusers. They build on successive revisions in 1995, 1998 and 2003.
Even a mother who wants to go to her daughter’s Catholic school classroom to help kids turn construction paper into art must go through screening and five reference checks.
“They have to do it,” said Jennifer King, coordinator of Safe Environment Training for the diocese. “What we are doing is putting a fence up, and we’re saying everybody needs to be part of the program to keep our program safe. We can’t have exceptions.”
The most significant change is the process to try to identify potential sexual predators before they can be hired or assigned to work in the diocese. The screening calls for volunteers to fill out a three-page application form with personal information “to assess their suitability to serve.” They must answer questions like whether they’ve changed their names, ever been accused of, or arrested for, physically, emotionally and abusing a child or whether they may be living with people so accused.
New volunteers who would directly serve in programs with minors must submit to interviews. Random interviews will be done on current volunteers serving minors as well as volunteers in other diocesan programs not dealing directly with minors.
Those working with minors will get training every year, and others on alternative years.
King said the changes are aimed at making “the language easier to read for the faithful.” And for the first time, guidelines for appropriate behavior around children were added. What’s permitted is simple common sense: Holding hands during prayer, holding hands to escort small children, highfives, handshakes, touching shoulders and arms and “side hugs.” Good verbal interactions can include “appropriate jokes,” encouragement and praise.
Disallowed behavior around kids is precise: No full-frontal hugs, piggyback rides, tickling, tackle football, allowing a child to cling to a staff person’s leg, massaging or kisses on the mouth. It wrong to give an e-mail or phone number to a minor, and wrong to assist kids with access to inappropriate Web sites, movies, CDs or DVDs. There is to be no cursing, name-calling, shaming, asking children to keep secrets, “discussing sexual encounters” or comments about a young person’s physical development.
All staff and volunteers must be registered at a parish, school or ministry office. Each month, the Office of Safe Environment Training compares their names to those on the Arizona Sex Offender Web site. In fact, all registered parishioners’ names will be checked each month against it, even if they have nothing to do with children.
King said it doesn’t mean a Catholic found on the list will be banished from the diocese. When something is found, the parish priest is informed and “he makes a pastoral decision on how best to help that person and secure his facility,” she said. “We try to find a pastoral way for them to receive the sacraments and be part of the community with the understanding that our goal is to keep our children safe.”
Catholics in the first training since the changes were announced have been overwhelmingly supportive. The policy is open to revisions to stay ahead of predators “trying to get into our programs,” she said. It’s not known whether the new procedures will discourage adult volunteers in the farflung diocese of half a million Catholics.
“We are focusing on a commitment to children, and when we talk about it that way, most people are ready to step up and participate,” King said.