Advocate, New Rules Target Church Abuse

By Susan Evans
The Tribune-Democrat
March 10, 2003

Altoona-Johnstown (PA)

LILLY - The Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese has appointed a victims advocate and is considering new rules, like windows for confessionals, to eliminate child abuse and discourage pedophiles.

The new position and rules are two of the first steps as the diocese implements a national anti-abuse program called "Protecting God's Children" - the first diocese in Pennsylvania to do so.

Following a rash of sex abuse claims against priests in the diocese, the program will be mandatory for all church employees and volunteers who work with children.

The victims advocate is Sister Marilyn Welch, coordinator of the program.

She will offer an ear, and possibly further help, to any abuse victim to who calls her at 886-8250.

Welch is committed to the new anti-abuse initiative and has received positive feedback from those who went through the first three hours of training, she said in a telephone interview from her office in Lilly.

"As adults, we at times have not been as alert as we should be. Just like after Sept. 11, our lives have changed," she said. "This whole crisis of sexual abuse in the church and elsewhere has made us look at things differently.

"This program teaches people what they should be looking for - not just in children who have been abused, but what an offender may find convenient."

The church and church-school environment are important, she said, like identifying places where children could be lured.

"The perpetrator wants privacy," she said.

The diocese is considering new rules, such as adding windows to confessionals, keeping sacristy doors open when a priest and altar boys are preparing for Mass, and locking closets and other places where children could be molested.

Adults can no longer be alone with a child, she said.

"Protecting God's Children" was developed by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group of Lisle, Ill., an insurance company that covers 59 dioceses, including Altoona-Johnstown.

The anti-abuse program is part of the company's Virtus program, which aims at reducing wrongdoing in religious institutions. Virtus is Latin for "valor."

Bishop Joseph Adamec announced the diocese's intent to use the program in September. Twenty-one facilitators went through a three-day training session at the end of February.

Almost 500 Catholic school educators went through three hours of training Feb. 28, and sessions will be scheduled for others.

After the training, employees and volunteers register online, and every month must read a training bulletin and respond.

"The responses are recorded, so I can go back in and see that everyone is keeping up," she said.

As coordinator, Welch said she's learned a lot about the nature of abuse and how it can be spotted.

"Some things I've learned have really surprised me. For example, when people give gifts to children, it's important to ask certain questions. Is it extended in favor of one child? Is this appropriate? It doesn't mean everyone who does that is a perpetrator, but it does mean we have to be aware of certain things," she said.

"It's also important that we not have one adult alone with children," she said.

"Sometimes, especially with volunteers, someone doesn't show up, and we've done it ourselves. We can't do that anymore. We're protecting children, but we also don't want to put adults in a position where they could be falsely accused," she said.

Welch said adults also must steel themselves to speak out when the new rules aren't being followed.

"Not that we should presume an adult is doing something wrong, but sometimes we get stuck in old habits that aren't good," she said.

Welch said one of the most important themes of the anti-abuse program is to report suspected wrongdoing to public authorities.

While the response has been positive so far, Welch said a few may object to filling out applications to be a volunteer.

"Some may not like that idea, but every other organization requires background checks for those who work with children, like Big Brothers and Big Sisters," she said.

With the new sensitivities, the new rules and the intensive training, Welch is confident of success.

"We live in a society where people don't want to speak out. That's not my job, they say. This program hits that face to face. When you see something that's wrong, you have to respond. It's all of our responsibility," she said.

"I'm very committed to the program, and I believe it can make a difference. We can't undo what has happened, but we can learn from it."

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