Archdiocese’s Safe Environment training aims to protect children, vulnerable adults

  • Written by Morningstar Stevenson
  • Published in Local
Participants in a Safe Environment training held January 26 at St. Brendan Parish in Bothell. Photo: Stephen Brashear Participants in a Safe Environment training held January 26 at St. Brendan Parish in Bothell. Photo: Stephen Brashear

KIRKLAND – After working 21 years in education — as a lunchroom supervisor, then assisting with development and other business matters — Michele Pederson makes it her mission to keep children safe.

But it’s not just about keeping them safe in case of a fire or earthquake. As Safe Environment coordinator at Holy Family Parish and School, Pederson must also make sure children are in an environment free from sexual predators.

“It’s important, not just as a church, but as a society, that we protect those who are at risk,” said Pederson. “We’re here for their safety. They are all our children.”

Pederson, an administrative support staff member at Holy Family, is one of about 300 Safe Environment coordinators in the Archdiocese of Seattle — all working to ensure that 50,000 staff and volunteers are in compliance with background checks, policies and training as required by the archdiocese and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection.

“The Catholic Church has had one of the single largest ongoing efforts to prevent child abuse,” said Denise Aubuchon, the archdiocese’s human resources director and pastoral outreach coordinator. (Read more about the church’s response.)

“Here in Seattle, we’ve been doing this work of abuse prevention training since the 1980s, since before it was required,” she said. “We have a strong national reputation.”

“The program we have is great,” said Ed Brands, who coordinates Safe Environment for Holy Redeemer Parish in Vancouver, where he is parish administrator.

It helps parishioners not only understand the problem of abuse, but also learn that they can be part of the solution.

“It’s not fun for any of us to talk about, but by learning about the patterns of perpetrators and how they operate, people realize they can make a difference in stopping these people,” Brands said.

In her 23 years working for the archdiocese, Aubuchon said, she has seen the training pay off.

“There’s a much higher level of awareness,” she said. “I get calls all the time from people who say, ‘I never would have noticed this.’”

“We’re able to intervene early,” she added.

The same standards for everyone

In late February, the archdiocese launched its Protect and Heal website as a response to the clergy abuse crisis. Through that portal, people can access information about the archdiocese’s Safe Environment Office, established in 2007.

The office assists the archbishop in coordinating child abuse prevention efforts throughout the archdiocese. It also supports parishes, schools and agencies with all Safe Environment efforts, which include background checks, training and ensuring policy compliance, according to Aubuchon.

“We have been national leaders in the policies, procedures and training implemented,” she said.

This is no small task. According to Aubuchon, in the 2017–2018 fiscal year, the office oversaw 11,393 background checks and training for:

  • 243 priests
  • 2,400 Catholic school educators
  • 1,218 new hires (for parishes, schools, the chancery and departments including CYO camps and the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center, as well as Newman Centers at the region’s universities)
  • Roughly 50,000 volunteers for a variety of programs (including 4,129 new employees and volunteers receiving in-person training)

The Safe Environment Office relies on 250 volunteer facilitators (including laypeople, priests, teachers and employees) around the archdiocese to lead in-person training sessions called “Protecting God’s Children,” developed by VIRTUS. The training must be renewed every three years by completing an online module. In addition, all new facilitators must complete a one-time, one-day training that is available every quarter, said Caitlin Gallagher McKinzie, who coordinates the program for the archdiocese.

Safe Environment

Kurt Lawrence, pastoral assistant for administration at St. Gabriel Parish in Port Orchard and Prince of Peace Mission in Belfair, has been a Safe Environment facilitator for more than 15 years. Lawrence said he tries to make the training sessions interactive, while being sensitive to those participating.

“The difficulty is you never know the personal or family experiences of people in the training,” Lawrence said. “I like to remind people that it’s not a pass/fail course. I tell them, ‘If you feel uncomfortable, please step outside.’”

He also appreciates the video introduction, featuring Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, that begins each session.

“It really shows a sense of unity, that [the archbishop] is being held to the same standards that everyone else is,” Lawrence said.

The Safe Environment Office must provide information each year showing that its programs are carried out in accordance with the USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Youth and Young People. The information includes the numbers of background checks and people trained, as well as any reported cases and how the office partnered with the local community and other organizations dedicated to the safety of minors and vulnerable people, according to McKinzie.

Every three years, an in-person audit of the office’s files is conducted by a third-party vendor contracted and paid for by the USCCB. According to McKinzie, the office “passed with flying colors” during the most recent visit in September 2018.

‘To educate and empower’

Some people may have a misunderstanding of why Safe Environment training is required, McKinzie said.

“It’s meant to educate and empower people in how to recognize risky behavior and know what to do if they do see something,” she explained.

The training focuses primarily on children and youth, Pederson said, so parishioners who take Communion to the homebound may wonder why they have to go through the training. While the initial session offers basic information about protecting vulnerable adults, more specific modules on elder abuse are available when volunteers renew their training online every three years. After going through the training, people realize the knowledge can be applied anywhere.

“People understand that this is a broad-reaching program,” Pederson said. “It’s not just for schools and parishes, but it affects our society.”

Through the Safe Environment training, more adults are coming to understand that abuse is part of the world we live in, McKinzie said. This helps break the cycle where “hurt people” hurt others, she said.

Children are learning to protect themselves, too.

In 2017–18, 26,000 children and youth in the archdiocese received training geared to them. Students in grades K–12 at Catholic schools must complete two “Teaching Safety” lessons a year on sexual abuse prevention, usually administered by a teacher; children enrolled in parish religious education programs and youth ministry groups must complete one of these lessons per year, McKinzie said. Parents may complete an “opt-out” form if they wish to decline this training for their children, she noted. Teachers and catechists receive resources to help them understand the curriculum, McKinzie added.

Brands, of Holy Redeemer Parish, said the training program not only helps keep Catholic schools and churches safer, but also helps the wider community.

“What we’re doing as the Catholic Church is providing information that will help families, grandparents, soccer coaches and scout leaders,” he explained. “Anywhere you’re at, you can observe the behavior and notice possible perpetrators.”

If there is questionable behavior in archdiocesan settings, “we can go to the person and say, ‘This behavior doesn’t follow the [archdiocese’s] code of conduct,’” Brands said. “It’s an opportunity for education.”

The training can also be an opportunity to start the conversation about what might be going on in parishes and schools, Pederson said.

“Protecting these kids is everything,” she said. “We have to do everything we can to bring abuse out in the open, not leave it in the dark shadows where no one is talking about it.”