Approximately 70,000 people have completed requirements of the Safe Environment Program, the archdiocesan effort to protect children from abuse, since its inception in 2002.
"Our goal is to keep kids safe," explained Terry Edelmann, director of the archdiocesan Safe Environment Program.
The Safe Environment Program has three components: required background checks for everyone who works with or near children; required participation for everyone working with or near children in the educational/training Protecting God’s Children Program; and reading and signing the Code of Ethical Conduct.
In addition, there is Safe Touch, an educational program to help teach children what behavior is appropriate and what is not.
Completing the Safe Environment Program is required for all clergy, educators, employees and volunteers working with children through archdiocesan parishes, schools, agencies and programs, Edelmann stressed. That’s a lot of people, she added.
"At any given time there are approximately 35,000 volunteers in the archdiocese," Edelmann said. "Everyone goes through this. Every teacher, every parent volunteer, every coach, every seminarian, every priest — including the bishops."
In 2002, the U.S. bishops — following revelations of child sex abuse in the Church — implemented the national Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, all U.S. dioceses have been audited five times for compliance with the charter. Each time the St. Louis Archdiocese has successfully completed the audit.
"This is not a Catholic issue. It’s an issue for any organization that has programs with children," Edelmann said. "We (the archdiocese) have about 100,000 children in our programs on annual basis. It would be naive to think there are not people who would want to work in a youth program just so they can have access to children."
The mandatory Protecting God’s Children workshops, which run about two hours, are offered throughout the year at multiple locations around the archdiocese.
"We do hundreds of workshops a year," Edelmann said.
The workshops in the St. Louis Archdiocese originally were led by professional counselors and therapists. In 2007 Edelmann began training volunteers to be workshop facilitators.
"We’ve probably trained about 120 laypeople in parishes and agencies to present the workshops. So they can be held at parishes or agencies, and people don’t have to come into St. Louis for the workshops. And it’s nice to have a fellow parishioner present it. It makes it a real parish program," she said. "We’re trying to make it easier for people."
Each Protecting God’s Children workshop includes information on the warning signs of potential child abuse, including: always wanting to be alone with children, always wanting to wrestle or tickle children and allowing children to take part in activities not allowed by their parents.
"We know this is effective, because people call us with questions and concerns, noticing things they might not have noticed before."
These tips are important both to spot abusers and to prevent false accusations, Edelmann said.
"Some adults really like working with kids. But this helps them to avoid putting themselves in questionable circumstances," she said.
One of the biggest changes in the way child abuse is being addressed is the shift from "beware of strangers" to being aware of dangers closer to home, Edelmann said.
"We still discuss ‘stranger danger’ with kids, but in reality there is far greater danger from people you know. That’s what we really deal with. We know these people are out there. They are looking for access to kids. The important thing to remember is: It’s not who they are. It’s what they do," she said.
Anyone in a position supervising children and youths is mandated by law to report suspected abuse or accusations to authorities, who must investigate, Edelmann added.
"Fewer than 5 percent of abuse allegations by children turn out to be false," she said.
Edelmann said, "We’re not denying that sexual abuse happened or can happen. But knowing about it and dealing with it is our best chance of preventing it."
She added, . ... Some people say maybe we are going too far (with these programs). Maybe so. But if we do, we will err on the side of the safety of children."
For more information, contact Edelmann at (314) 792-7271.