Special to The Dialog
A four-day summit of bishops called by Pope Francis to discuss the Catholic Church’s fight against the sexual abuse of minors ended Feb. 24 with a papal pledge “to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission.”
The historic bishops’ meeting in Rome didn’t produce new church policies worldwide but bishops in the United States have had strict guidelines to protect children and youth in the church’s care since 2002.
In the Diocese of Wilmington, those regulations are applied and monitored by the Office of Safe Environments. Among other tasks, the office ensures that all priests, deacons, diocesan, parish and school employees, as well as all volunteers, have updated background checks to confirm their fitness to work with children. This year, that amounts to about 13,500 people involved in diocesan ministries in Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The Office of Safe Environments is one of 37 diocesan ministries that are helped by the Annual Catholic Appeal. Commitment Weekend for the Appeal will be at Masses on April 6-7. In-pew solicitation will be conducted at each parish on those days when parishioners will be invited to support the campaign by pledging a reasonable financial commitment conducive to their household budget.
Michael D. Connelly has been the coordinator of the Safe Environments office since April 2017. As a former Delaware state trooper who investigated sexual abuse crimes, Connelly was a member of the first committee that helped Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli start the child protection office and formulate its policies under the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. In those early days of the anti-abuse efforts, Connelly recommended the background checks be conducted for the diocese by Hyden and Associates.
Connelly first learned about the pervasiveness of child sexual abuse when he attended a program on pedophile investigations more than 30 years ago.
“It was the most awful two weeks of my life,” he said recently.
“The one statement I recall vividly is that the cases we were getting then [the late 1980s] were just the tip of the iceberg.” Connelly said the instructor told the class that the crime existed “at all levels of society.”
The 15-year-old diocesan policy for safe environments is called “For the Sake of God’s Children.” Its main components, in addition to background checks, include enforcing ethical and behavioral standards of employees and volunteers and setting safe environment standards.
Connelly added that a multi-year curriculum on safe environments and behaviors for Catholic schools and parish religious education programs, called “Keeping Our Promises,” is also part of the diocese’s efforts to protect children.
“One new initiative we’ve started is a better way to deliver (Keeping Our Promises) to religious ed students,” Connelly said. “The schools have people with education backgrounds and 180 days” each school year to fit the Keeping Our Promises curriculum into their courses; religious education teachers have “only 30 hours” of instruction available to find the time to educate children on respectful relationships.
The Safe Environments office will be working with Colleen L. Lindsey, head of religious education; a group of four directors of parish religious education and “Prevent Child Abuse Delaware” to develop a curriculum for parish religious ed courses.
“There will be training in the new curriculum and implementation in the fall,” Connelly said.
Every three years the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection conducts a compliance audit of the diocese’s Office of Safe Environments. The audit is conducted by StoneBridge Business Partners, a CPA firm in Rochester, N.Y.
“We just went through that in 2018,” Connelly said. “They visit here. They interview a principal, a DRE and somebody from the Diocesan review board.
“The last thing I showed him,” Connelly said, “was our computer program that stores the background check reports for the diocese.”
While Connelly sat at the computer, the auditor looked at the priest’s section of the diocesan directory and called out the names of priests listed in it. All the files called up by Connelly showed up-to-date background checks on the clergymen.
At the conclusion of the two-day audit, the StoneBridge representative met with Bishop Malooly, Vicar General Msgr. Steven Hurley, Chancellor Father Joseph McQuaide and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Louis De Angelo and Connelly.
The diocese has always passed the U.S. bishops’ compliance audits. Connelly said much of the credit for the success of the diocesan efforts goes to the compliance coordinators at parishes in Delaware on and the Eastern Shore.
“They do a fabulous job at tracking everything,” he said. “The bigger the parish, the better they are because they do it all the time. They trace acceptable use of technology and the volunteer covenants. In the bigger programs they have to have people who are on top of things or it can go south in a hurry. They do a great, great job.”
That constant tracking at parishes and schools is helped when Connelly sends compliance directors lists of the people cleared for their ministries at the end of every month.
“They get a new record of their active list,” Connelly said. At the beginning of each month, parishes receive a list from the safe environments office of which employees’ or volunteers, such as sports coaches, have background checks expiring in the next 90 days.
Those lists for small parishes, Connelly said, might fit on one page. But a large parish, such as St. John the Beloved, gets a list that’s 29 pages long. “They’re up to about 1,000 people who are cleared for ministry there. St. Mary Magdalen (where Connelly is a member) has about 800 and some.”
Since background checks started, Connelly said only 0.002 percent of people have been found unfit to work for or volunteer for the diocese and parishes. “I think the word is out that we’re no nonsense,” he said.
In addition to parish coordinators, Connelly praises the work of his predecessors running the office, Sister Suzanne Donovan and Sister Carol Juliano.
“The early on work by Sister Suzanne and her committee and of Sister Carol was fabulous,” he said. “Especially the fact they had to learn to deal with the laws of two states, Delaware and Maryland.”
“When you consider their vocations and their backgrounds and that they were thrown into this — they did a marvelous job. They really did.”
One tragic safe environment issue that wasn’t on anyone’s agenda in 2002, was the “active shooter” danger in schools and churches.
“Our new program being prepared is for if we have an active shooter,” Connelly said. He cited a program by state police Detective Timothy Kerstetter, an expert in active shooter situations, as helping form diocesan policy.
“In March 2018 we began active shooter trainings,” Connelly said. “We’ve asked each parish to form a safety committee. I’ve occasionally gone to parishes to walk through things with them. They’re all in different stages. Some have a very defined committee and have made significant changes.
“I’m concerned that once we get people outside a church, they can’t go to their cars because we’d have bedlam. We’ve got to get them moving to escape routes, places to go.”
The best ways to respond to the active shooter incidents is to develop ways to identify individuals who might be becoming hostile and have the potential to do something deadly, Connelly said. “Now the focus has become prevention.”
In a job that constantly dwells on sex abuse and physical abuse of children or even active shooter possibilities, Connelly said his faith has remained strong.
In police work, he said, he learned that “the biggest thing you have to do is guard against becoming jaded and then everyone looks like a criminal to you.”
The former state policeman, who also ran his own security business, recalled the late Father Oscar Frundt, who served as a state police chaplain. “He used to tell us, ‘if you get jaded … it’s your fault, not anybody else’s. You’ve got to find a way to deal with it,’ and he always said, ‘prayer is the best way.’”
Recalling family members and other people in his life who were very devout Catholics, Connelly said, “I have a lot of respect for them. There’s a lot of craziness in this world. … Prayer and support for each other is really what it all comes down to.”