Demand a child protection charter (such as those in other U.S. Dioceses) and hold clergy accountable if they violate it. In her article below, expert and parent Kathy Kane makes the case for “practical policy.” Her experience illustrates why we all need to speak up.
By Kathy Kane
There is no child safety hotline leading to a red phone in Cardinal Justin Rigali’s office. We were led to believe protecting children from sexual predators was an Archdiocesan priority. My experience says otherwise.
I’d been advocating for improved safety policy for the thousands of children who participate in Archdiocesan programs. I brought my concerns not only as a concerned parent, but also as a social worker specializing in policy development. I have collaborated with many agencies and organizations throughout the area. No other experience left me more stunned than my dealings with the Archdiocese.
My main issue involved a mandatory overnight requirement for a CYO program in which my daughter participated. The three-day, overnight event had no Archdiocesan affiliation and there were red flags regarding supervision and safety. My husband and I decided she couldn’t go. Because of our decision, our child was no longer allowed to fully participate in the program. How could this happen in a diocese that promised to prioritize child safety?
The Archdiocesan staff I contacted was just as confused and concerned about the situation. However, they explained time and time again how limited their roles were in relation to an individual parish. An employee from the Office of Child and Youth Protection told me Canon Law prevents them from offering unsolicited advice or guidance to clergy, even when poor decisions have been made in regard to child safety. Turns out, there is no such Canon Law. However, this is what they are either told or are somehow lead to believe.
The very few existing Archdiocesan recommendations can be interpreted as a pastor deems appropriate. Even though there are Archdiocesan child welfare specialists, they seem to have very little say in the matter. Make no mistake – clergy trumps all.
The staff agreed the issue I raised was serious enough to warrant a policy. What happened next was an education in Archdiocesan bureaucracy. There was confusion as to which office within the Archdiocese should take the lead in executing the policy. Drafting the policy took months. Several times it was put on hold while other non-urgent issues were worked on. The limited role of Archdiocesan lay employees also hindered progress.
I soon realized that without a clergy member on board, the outlook was bleak. I contacted a priest with the appropriate ranking and asked for his help. Fortunately this Monsignor turned out to be compassionate, knowlegable in child safety and, most importantly, respected me as a parent. Up until that point, the priest I had been dealing with was quite the opposite. Even with this Monsignor’s influence, it continued to be a bumpy road. I continued to send emails, place phone calls and advocate for policy.
I researched other U.S. Dioceses and found superior policies in place. The Safety Environment Program, which requires background checks and training for all that work with children, came from the United States Catholic’s Bishop’s Conference – Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People of 2002. Since that time many dioceses have adopted additional customized child protection charters. They include what can be termed “practical policy.” There are exact rules and guidelines for all of the various activities and situations in which children participate. In some cases, these charters are referred to as “diocesan law” to be followed by all, including clergy. They are detailed and comprehensive. The situation I encountered simply would not have taken place in another diocese.
We do not have the same additional child protection charters in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Instead we are subjected to an archaic system of having many child safety issues determined on a parish-to-parish basis. This gives the clergy too much authority and leaves us with a system that is haphazard at best, dangerous at worst.
Along with the “practical policy” these charters include, many also include a section entitled “parents right.” This describes how every detail of an activity is to be explained to parents and every question answered. It identifies the parent as the decision maker for their child. While it seems obvious, I had to explain this notion to my pastor.
I contacted an auxiliary Bishop who was identified as the person who could sign off on the policy for which I had advocated. I emailed this Bishop on three separate occasions. I explained my concerns, requested a meeting to have questions answered and also offered my research into other Diocese and their safety protocol charters. I wrote, “Maybe we could all learn some things to better protect the children of the Archdiocese” I have never received a response.
The policy banning mandatory overnight situations involving children was finally approved. It still leaves some areas to be the interpreted by individual pastors. One example of missing “practical policy” is the child-chaperone ratios. There are only recommended ratios. One pastor could choose a ratio of 5 chaperones to every 10 children while another could choose one to 14 children. A child’s safety comes down to how informed their pastor is about child safety. In other diocese there is no room for this varied interpretation.
It ‘s up to the leadership, Cardinal Rigali and the Bishops, to implement a child protection charter for the Philadelphia Archdiocese and clergy need to be held accountable if they violate such a charter in making decisions within their parish.
A few months ago, I received a letter from a priest who said my pursuit of this child safety matter had proven to be “destructive.” It seems I was supposed to have sat down and been quiet, and instead I stood up and yelled. If advocating for the safest environment possible for children is destructive, then I wear that label proudly.
Kathy Kane received a BSW from Cabrini College and a MSW from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice.