Ken Joyce and Coleen Rakers are working to keep children safe from sexual predators.
The parishioners of St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Brentwood volunteer for Safe Environment Program workshop, Protecting God’s Children. The two-hour workshop is required by the Archdiocese of St. Louis for everyone who works with or near children, including priests, teachers, school volunteers and coaches.
“We want to make a difference in children’s lives,” said Rakers. She and Joyce have been child safety coordinators about two years.
The The Safe Environment Program, introduced in 2002, has educated about 70,000 in the St. Louis Archdiocese. The two-hour program includes videos of interviews and re-enactments with child predators, child abuse victims and professional counselors, law enforcement officers and clergy.
Rakers took the workshop to become a facilitator. Joyce, a father of three, took it because he was coaching children. “I remember going into it very reluctantly and very frustrated that I had to do it. And leaving afterward thinking that it should be open to everyone in the Catholic Church.”
It is a common reaction, they said.
“You see the reluctance of people coming in, but at the end you see the gratitude,” Joyce said.
About 120 trained child safety coordinators in the archdiocese lead the workshops, said Terry Edelmann, director of the Safe Environment Program. All have completed the mandatory facilitator training offered by the archdiocese.
What sets Rakers and Joyce apart, Edelmann said, is their dedication and unselfishness to the effort.
Joyce and Rakers lead their monthly programs at their parish because of its central location and the strong support they receive from their pastor, Father Bernard Wilkins.
“If enough people go through the program and heighten their awareness of the reality of child sexual abuse, we will eventually limit or eliminate any opportunities that sexual predators might have to harm children,” Joyce said. “One of the things that predators need is privacy. The more people who are aware, the less privacy.”
Joyce called child sexual abuse “ugly topic” that has to be discussed.
“I think it’s gone from something no one wanted to talk about to a subject more on the front burner,” he said.
Rakers praised the growing openness on the subject.
“We’ve had victims in our class who have shared their thoughts. That made others uncomfortable, but it is important.”
Workshop participants are advised on how to plan ahead to avoid problem situations. They also encourage people “to listen to that small voice inside of them that tells them something’s wrong,” Joyce said.
Rakers said, “One of our participants said it very well: When you first meet a person, you may get a red flag. Act on that first instinct, because as you get to know that person, you tend to feel everything is fine. That’s a perpetrator’s strategy — getting people to feel comfortable with them.”
Joyce said, “That’s called ‘grooming.’ They don’t just groom the children. They groom the parents too, get the parents to trust them.”
Rakers and Joyce said they teach awareness, not confrntation.
“We teach parents to pay attention to ‘that strange feeling’ and share it with parish leaders (or others),” Joyce said.
Rakers said, “Less than 5 percent of accusations by children are made up. That percentage opens up people’s eyes to the reality of common child sexual abuse is.”
She said, “We’re very proud of our impact.”
Keeping Kids Safe
The Safe Environment Program of the Archdiocese of St. Louis has four components.
Education: The Protecting God’s Children workshops to inform and educate people about child sexual abuse.
Background checks: To prevent people with criminal history from working or volunteering around children.
Code of conduct: A commitment agreed to by all adults who work or volunteer around children to conduct themselves in ways that will not endanger children or put them at risk.
SAFE TOUCH: Educating children on what behavior is appropriate and what is not.
For more information about the Safe Environment Program, call Terry Edelmann at (314) 792-7271.