Diocese Ups its Efforts to Assure Safe Environments
By Penny Wiegert, Editor
March 9, 2017

DIOCESE—Are you a volunteer at your parish or school? Then you have probably been asked to agree to a background check and to complete the Virtus online Protecting God’s Children training program.

Members of parish groups like the Knights of Columbus, Altar and Rosary societies and Home and School organizations have also been asked to complete the requirements for the diocesan Safe Environment Program.

All diocesan entities have been required to do this since 2003.

So why the reminder?

“It’s all part of an overall diocesan update to make sure we are continuing our efforts of responsibility and accountability to all our young people,” said Msgr. Glenn Nelson, moderator of the Curia.

Late last fall, all parishes, schools, departments, organizations and entities in the Rockford Diocese received a letter from Bishop David Malloy following an intense review of its Safe Environment Program. All entities were asked to do a complete review of their employees and volunteers and begin recording, on a uniform spreadsheet, their compliance with the required background checks and training.

“Not much is new about all this,” Msgr. Nelson said. “Even though our training programs have been in place since 2003 and before, to fully illustrate our compliance with the Charter (for the Protection of Children and Young People), our diocese needs to update and streamline reporting methods for our parishes, schools and organizations.

“We want to make our good practices great ones and fully accounted for,” he said.

Every year the Safe Environment Program in the Rockford Diocese is audited by the
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and every three years auditors conduct an on-site audit of diocesan programs. The results of that audit are shared with the diocese and ultimately included in the annual reports posted on the USCCB website.

The purpose of the audits, according to the USCCB, is to make sure the Church in the United States remains “committed to not only rectifying the terrible crime and sin of sexual abuse of children perpetrated in the past, but doing everything in their means possible to prevent such abuse from happening again.”

The audits not only provide checks and balances for best practices, but also make recommendations in some cases.

“All employees and volunteers having direct contact with minors, whether it be at a parish, school, parish-sponsored activity or festival, or participating in an activity where minors will be present, must complete safe environment training, undergo background-check screening, and adhere to the diocese’s safe environment policies to ensure our diocese remains in compliance,” said Ellen Lynch, diocesan Chancellor and Legal Counsel.

“The Catholic Church in the United States is probably the only organization that has voluntarily gone to great length to assure that people are safe in participating in our worship and all its related ministries and activities,” Lynch said.

And she explained, that the diocese must continually update this program along with its accounting for and documentation of volunteers and their training so that the Rockford Diocese remains in full compliance with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) under the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and never become complacent in its efforts.

In the 2015 annual report, chairman of the National Review Board, Francesco C. Cesareo, PhD, wrote that “The progress the Church has made through the efforts of the bishops can, however, foster a false sense of security and lead to complacency. Such complacency can lead to a minimalist approach to the Charter, which can be seen simply as a series of requirements that need to be checked-off, as opposed to an implementation that renders the Charter fully operative.”

The Rockford Diocese has been found in full compliance each year since the audits began with few recommendations. However, in order to be fully accountable in all efforts to vet and train employees and staff that minister in the diocese, all entities have been asked to complete and account for the three components of the Safe Environment Program which are

•    Screening. Screening of adult volunteers and employees includes criminal background checks by the Illinois State Police and on two online offender data bases. School employees must also be fingerprinted.

•    Training. Training of employees and adult volunteers includes participating in Protecting God’s Children training and reading and signing the required forms which include The State of Illinois’ Mandated Reporter form, Diocesan Sexual Misconduct Norms, Code of Pastoral Conduct, Code for the Pastoral Use of Technology and Social Media and Guidelines for Youth and Those Working with Youth.

Additionally all elementary, secondary and religious education students are trained in personal safety using the approved texts and programs.

•    Recording of compliance with policies. Entities are now to complete a uniform spreadsheet by recording all compliance of its programs and forms by its volunteers and employees.

According to the diocesan education office, which is responsible for overseeing the Virtus online training program, the most common question about the Safe Environment Program comes from volunteers.

“Probably the best answer to our faithful volunteers or prospective volunteers, is when in doubt, go ahead and complete the training. Parishes and schools need volunteers and this will make sure everyone can respond and fully participate to the needs of their ministries,” said administrator of the Virtus program, Sue Knuth of the diocese’s Education Office.