LogoST. FRANCIS — The church has a history of devoting a week to a specific observance, e.g., Christian unity, Catholic schools, vocations. In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, that list will expand when Safe Environment Awareness Week is observed in parishes and schools April 3-8.

While the archdiocese has made it a practice to observe National Child Abuse Prevention Month every year since 1983 when April was given that designation by Congress, this year, working with the archdiocese’s Safe Environment Office, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki has designated a specific week in which to promote safe environment.

“In designating one week, we’re able to bring it all together, to make it a focus,” said Patti Loehrer, safe environment coordinator for the archdiocese. “Everybody will be on the same page that week. All the parishes, all the schools – we’re all doing something at the same time.”

The basis for the week, as it is for the day-to-day work of Loehrer’s office, is “The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002. While the charter pays particular attention to awareness of sexual abuse of children, safe environment goes beyond that, according to Loehrer.

“We also promote respect, communications, giving children and youth a voice, empowering them to be able to say no when they’re not comfortable in a situation like that,” she said. “Boundaries, relationships, too. We focus a lot of our attention on the Internet. Cyber bullying, proper use of the Internet, safety of the Internet – so safe environment does encompass a lot.” (For more about Internet safety and concerns specific to children, see Pages 6-7 in Catholic Herald Parenting).

Awareness is ongoing

While a week has been specified to focus on safe environment, at St. Leonard Parish, Muskego, that awareness is done year round.

As part of Safe Environment Awareness Week:

Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki will celebrate a Mass of Atonement Thursday, April 7, St. Matthias Parish,
9306 W. Beloit Road, Milwaukee, at 7 p.m.

Lisa Jachimiec, safe environment coordinator at the parish and a facilitator for “Safeguarding All of God’s Family,” the archdiocese’s safe environment education program, said that her parish publishes bulletin announcements and material in the parish newsletter throughout the year.

“It’s not just once a year,” she said in a telephone interview with your Catholic Herald. “We do a pretty good job, not dwelling on it, but making sure it is an important part of our everyday functioning.”

Loehrer, who visits as many as 40 parishes and schools per year to ensure that the safe environment program is being implemented, concurred.

“This is not going away. We’re always going to be building on it. People aren’t questioning (having to take the training) anymore,” she said, noting that every school and religious education program is required by the archdiocese to have a safe environment curriculum. “Just like we say, ‘This is math’ or ‘This is science,’ now we just talk about safe environment.”

The week, Jachimiec noted, puts the focus on awareness as ongoing because abuse is “prevalent in our society.”

“We’re saying pay attention to what goes on in our church walls, but pay attention to what goes on in our community as a whole,” she said. “You always want to be an advocate for child safety.

From awareness to advocacy

A staple of making adults aware of sexual abuse of children and how to prevent it is the “Safeguarding All God’s Family” program in which clergy, religious, seminarians participants in the diaconate formation program, paid personnel of the archdiocese, parishes and schools, and volunteers whose ministries bring them into regular contact with children and young people must participate.

Jachimiec said that there were some adults who wondered why they had to participate in the program.

For more information

Further information about “Safeguarding All of God’s Family” and Safe Environment Awareness Week are available by calling Loehrer at (414) 769-3449 or visiting http://www.archmil.org/offices/safeguarding.htm.

“Many times people come to the sessions with preconceived ideas of what they are going to experience,” she said. “And they come in with a bit of an attitude that they don’t need to be here, that they know how to not abuse children.”

Noting her own experience after she initially participated in the “Safeguarding” program, Jachimiec said it had given her “tools to become an advocate for child safety.”

She has seen a change in participants’ attitudes.

“People leave feeling empowered,” Jachimiec said. “They say, ‘All parents should have to attend these sessions.’”

Loehrer said that the program has gained more acceptance since its inception in 2002.

“People don’t question what we do,” she said. “With the safe environment education sessions that adults have to go through, the feedback I get through evaluations is, ‘Every parent should go through this. Every adult should go through this.’ They’re grateful for what we’re doing.”

One of the ironies with which Loehrer has had to deal, given the potential the Internet holds for children becoming victims of abuse, is participants wanting to do the safe environment program online.

“When we do safe environment sessions, I get asked often enough, ‘Why can’t we do this online?’” she said. “I’ll tell you why we can’t do this online, because it is important for all of us to come together as faith-filled people to sit down and watch this together and to discuss it together.”

Church leads way in ensuring safe environments

In a letter announcing Safe Environment Awareness Week, Archbishop Listecki addressed sexual abuse of children by some clergy, how the church handled it, and apologized for the decisions that resulted in some abusive clergy being returned to ministry. 

The archbishop wrote that he was not making excuses for the decisions that had been made, but rather acknowledging them and learning from them.

“Out of the heartache and anguish of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, the church has made strides in protecting children. I am confident in what the Catholic Church in this country is doing in the area of safe environment practices, education and training,” he wrote. “In the past, we know mistakes have been made, but now we can look at our policies, procedures and practices and say clearly we are an example of what to do to ensure safe environments.  We ‘get it’… and our dedicated clergy, staff and volunteers at parishes and schools also understand its importance.”

As part of Safe Environment Awareness Week, Archbishop Listecki is celebrating a Mass of Atonement April 7 at St. Matthias Parish, 9306 W. Beloit Road, Milwaukee, at 7 p.m. “to continue us on a path of reconciliation and resolution…”

“This Mass of Atonement is another step of putting our words into action,” he wrote. “No single statement or event can make up for the damage that has been done and the hurt that has been caused, but it is in Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection that we find the greatest hope.”