The Church has a critical role in protecting children

By Renae Kranz

In April each year, we observe Child Abuse Prevention Month nationally. The Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops encourages every diocese to use this month to bring greater awareness and focus to the protection of children. In our own diocese, the Office of Safe Environment takes this month to collaborate with mental health practices and school systems to promote child abuse awareness and to highlight ways they currently provide safer environments for children throughout the diocese.

Alison Conemac, safe environment coordinator for the Diocese of Sioux Falls, oversees the training implemented by the diocese within all programs related to children, minors and the vulnerable. The training highlights signs and symptoms of abuse, predator behavior and ways to respond to disclosures of abuse. The training equips people with the tools they need to recognize and support victims/survivors and to report abuse.

“We’re desiring to protect children from all forms of abuse,” Alison says. “The training includes awareness about sexual abuse, but extends to all forms of abuse. Its aim is to promote a culture in our Catholic environments where people can disclose abuse, whether minors or adults. We all want our parishes, schools and ministries to be places where abuse can be talked about so that harm can stop and healing can begin.”

Former diocesan safe environment coordinator Renee Leach explains that abuse happens because we live in a broken world. Research shows the majority of abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the child and trusted by their families. She says the Church has a special role to play in identifying abuse and equipping children and adults with a language to disclose it.

“Because we’re the Church, we have a tendency to deal with kids and adults when they’re more vulnerable or when they’re wanting to grow in their faith,” Renee says. “And so a lot of times a disclosure may come about while an individual is on a journey of faith. By training our staff and volunteers to recognize those signs of abuse, we can get help for victims/survivors so they can continue their healing and continue their faith journey.”

Background checks and safe environment training have been required in our diocese since the early 90s. Besides the length of our history of this requirement, our diocese is also unique among dioceses in the U.S. in that we go through safe environment training every year instead of just doing it once or periodically. Because we do this training every year, we must be careful it doesn’t just become a box to check.

“When you have to do something every year, there’s a danger of it becoming an item to check off the list,” Renee says. “The importance of having this kind of conversation is that it refocuses back into the employees why we do this. Child abuse, and especially child sexual abuse, is a staggering statistic. To think of it another way, if there was a cancer that was affecting children to the extent that child abuse is affecting children, there would be all sorts of efforts made by everyone in society. I think having these conversations is more than a box to check off, it’s a ministry. It’s the future of our Church because it’s about healing our kids and ensuring our Church is a place of safety and healing.”

The statistics of child abuse are staggering in our country. Research estimates that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. In South Dakota alone, the Center for Prevention of Child Maltreatment estimates 4,000 children in our state from all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds experience sexual abuse each year. Alison is always aware that when she’s helping train adults who will be working with children, some of those adults themselves were likely victims.

“As adults, we love to think ‘I’m becoming equipped to help a child.’ Often this ministry can also be a place where we invite people to see where their own hearts desire healing and health. Teaching our children about abuse can trigger hard memories for us or memories of the hurts of our loved one. It’s an invitation to heal or to walk with those we love and to whom we minister. This ministry is for all of us. Deeper personal healing frees us to grow in happiness and holiness, to move more deeply into our faith because often human wounds keep us back from living fully as we deserve, as Christ desires for us,” Alison says.

Please visit sfcatholic.org/safe-environment for more information on reporting abuse, resources to provide a safe environment, and for materials that invite you to pray for all affected by abuse. You’ll find more information in the April issue of the Bishop’s Bulletin about events scheduled in the diocese.