Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

The Bishop Writes

"Creating and improving a safe environment"

by Bishop William S. Skylstad

(From the Sept. 9, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

It’s no secret that our Catholic community continues to address the sexual abuse tragedy and its very sad consequences. Perhaps our experience as a faith community will assist our society as a whole to deal with this issue, a phenomenon which cuts across all boundaries of religion, race, social ranking, and economic status. Our commitment as a diocesan family is to reach out to victims through counseling. I have continued to repeat, and I repeat now, my plea for victims to come forward, to contact the diocese so that the healing and forgiveness can begin. I’m sure you remember our commitment: We report immediately to civil authorities any incident of an abuse of a minor of which we are aware. I have a commitment to transparency, to reconciliation, to healing.

Once again, I apologize and offer my profound sorrow to victims and to their families who may have experienced the trauma of abuse by a minister in the diocese.

Part of my commitment as bishop, and our commitment as a diocesan family, is to work toward creating a safe environment in which we minister to our children and youth. Let me give you an update on our efforts.

It was almost a year ago that the diocese was audited in regard to our implementation of the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which the nation’s bishops approved overwhelmingly in 2002. Recently the bishops agreed that those audits were not a one-time effort, but should be ongoing. The audits are not a matter of “policing” dioceses. Rather, my brother bishops and I have found the audits to be valuable tools that assist us in this crucial ministry of protecting our young people. The second audit of the Spokane Diocese is now in process. Every other diocese in the country will be audited by the end of 2004 as well.

Within the last year we have reviewed and refined our policy concerning sexual abuse and the code of conduct. The new directives have had a significant impact on some of our diocese’s ministries. We have had to change the way we do things. And rightly so. Any change that contributes to the safety of our ministerial environment, no matter how “inconvenient” it might seem, is a welcome step in the right direction. We will continue to examine our ministerial practices for the foreseeable future. That is all to the good.

For years now, we have had educational and orientation programs for all employees in the diocese with regard to sexual harassment and child abuse prevention. Initially, we scheduled these workshops twice a year; for the last two years we have conducted them once a month. The diocese conducts background checks on all volunteers and employees.

We recently completed production of an educational video, in both English and Spanish, titled Entrusted to Our Care. This video, together with our new code of conduct, will continue to assist our efforts to provide training for all who minister in the diocese. Our diocesan web site has expanded its scope in regard to our Safe Environment program, which includes contact information, lists of potential resources, and other background materials.

It’s been over a year now since we welcomed the presence of Mary Butler to the diocesan offices. Mary serves part-time as Special Assistant to the Vicar General, Father Steve Dublinksi. Mary is the Assistance Coordinator who handles our approach to those who have been wounded by abuse.

Mary has worked with individuals and with groups – the human face of our outreach to victims and their families. Among her accomplishments was the creation of a brochure, “A Safe Net for Children and Youth,” which offers guidance and information about sexual abuse, what can be done to prevent it, what should be done if it occurs. That brochure, translated into Spanish by Providence Sister Myrta Iturriaga, has been distributed throughout Eastern Washington, in our parishes as well as in other public venues with high traffic and visibility.

Since the early ’90s, we have had in place a sexual abuse committee. That group was replaced in 2002 by our Diocesan Review Board. The Board meets about eight times a year, in addition to whatever emergency meetings the work may require. The Board reviews how we as a diocese should and must respond to specific instances; it helps guide our implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth. I am very grateful to them for their dedicated and generous service.

This work is not just on the diocesan level. I am grateful for the abundant work done by parishes and pastors during the last months. I know that many pastors have been preaching compassionately and passionately about the sexual abuse crisis. Their pastoring has helped all of us become more sensitive, more caring, more compassionate as we continue to face this difficult situation. During the past few months, a couple of pilot programs were initiated to help parish communities be sensitive to the need for addressing abuse in particularly and violence in general. Experts in our community participated on panels sharing their own expertise and insights. Addressing these issues in our parishes has an impact on the broader community as well – the common good. The reality of the situation throughout our society must be of common concern to us all.

Last February, the nation’s bishops, through the National Review Board, released the John results of the John Jay study of the sexual abuse crisis. That study included statistical information concerning Catholic priests and sexual abuse, reaching back some 50 years. To say the least, the statistics were disheartening.

This massive undertaking was the first such study of its type. Despite the dark news it delivered, the study helped us to identify the scope of the problem and establish a time line. The study indicates that there has been a very rapid decline of incidents of sexual abuse in recent years, due to growing awareness in the 1990s of the need to put policies in place. The Charter has already been very helpful in strengthening these policies to make sure, to the best of our ability, such abuse will never occur again. Similar to the ongoing audits, statistical examinations can help make all of us more sensitive to the needs of our communities, help us create and maintain this safe environment. Our children and youth deserve nothing less.

When the bishops of the United States met last June in Denver, we approved the process of initiating a major study to ascertain the root causes of abuse. This study will take years to complete; unlike the John Jay study, it will be much more analytical than statistical in nature. The results should be helpful not only to us within the Church but to society in general. Probable areas of impact might include how we screen candidates for priesthood, and qualifications for those who minister to children and youth.

These are difficult and challenging days for the Church. We pass through them – and we will pass through them – with the grace and love of our provident God. We bring with us greater awareness. We bring with us greater dedication to providing that safe environment for ministry. Please join me in praying for wisdom and hope as we move forward into the future. We are all of us disciples of Jesus. To the best of our ability, we must live his life – faithfully, joyfully.

Pray for me, as I pray for all of you. Blessings and peace.

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