Safe Environment: Bishops’ Tool to Protect or Destroy

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by Anita Carey  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  October 2, 2019   

Enforcement is left to the discretion of the bishop

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UPDATE, 8/13/2020: An updated report on Fr. Leatherby, who has admitted sexual misconduct, is published here.


NEW YORK (ChurchMilitant.com) - Investigators for the archdiocese of New York are recommending annual safe environment training for the laity, while the bishops are routinely ignoring lay warnings.

Another aspect to the lack of trust Catholics developed towards their leaders that was overlooked by New York's Cdl. Timothy Dolan is that safe environment protocols can be both ignored by the bishops or used to silence their opponents. 

Cardinal Dolan admitted he commissioned an independent investigation to review the archdiocese of New York's handling of sex abuse allegations to restore the laity's trust in their leadership.

Headed by Jones, she and her team found the archdiocese was in compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and recommended as a measure of safety to require lay volunteers to submit to annual safe environment re-certification.

That the archdiocese of New York was found to be in compliance with the charter by a group hired by its archbishop rings hollow to many Catholics when there are so many stories of bishops ignoring warnings from the faithful.

Missing the Mark

Safe environment protocols such as VIRTUS, one of the most common ones, were developed by insurance companies for the Catholic Church. Devoid of information on Catholic morality, a common complaint about the training is that it presents like a "how-to" manual for abusers. 

Other complaints are that it whitewashes or omits information about the prevalence of homosexual abuse. 

Perpetrators don't volunteer and aren't regular Massgoers.

Church Militant spoke with an anonymous priest who said in all his years coordinating the program, not one volunteer who completed the training failed. He explained it was because sexual predators aren't regular Massgoers and don't volunteer. 

"Perpetrators don't volunteer and aren't regular Massgoers," he explained. "Predators work on the sly."

Volunteering at the parish would bring undue attention to themselves and it would be harder to hide who they really are he explained, adding, "Judas operated in the dark."

He also explained that a large percentage of sexually abused children are victims of incest.

"Incest is on the rise," he said, explaining it is the result of the glut of pornography available on the internet coupled with the Church's silence on the evils of it.

He said child sexual abuse is a multi-faceted issue and it always destroys families. He always refers anyone that confesses to having such attractions to mental health services that they desperately need. 

Violating Their Own Standards

Done well, the training can alert people to the types of behaviors that predators display. The programs advocate for staff and volunteers to actively watch out for predatory or abusive behaviors and report them immediately to the proper authorities. 

According to the training programs, "Staff and volunteers should continuously observe interactions between adults and youth and youth and other youth in the agency and/or environment and react appropriately." 

In a truly "safe environment," Church leadership should act on the information presented and take measures to address concerns immediately, for both the good of the potential victims and the perpetrator.  

Church Militant has been contacted countless times by parishioners, volunteers and clergy who have witnessed breaches of safe environment protocols by priests and religious that were ignored by Church leadership.

They reached out to the media only after their concerns went unheeded and the predators were left to freely roam schools, seminaries and parishes.

In two cases, Catholics were so concerned for the safety of children in their dioceses that they recorded the bishops' own words exposing their inaction. 

In the diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, a group of concerned laity recorded a conversation with Bp. Douglas Deshotel, only releasing it after he issued a statement that the priest was "in good standing" despite continued reports of safe environment violations.   


The second case involved the diocese of Lansing, Michigan. A victim of abuse recorded a conversation with Bp. Earl Boyea admitting he was powerless to stop the victim's abuser who was still meeting with teen boys. 

Another instance of violating their own safe environment standards was admitted to by the diocese of Cincinnati, Ohio, in relation to Fr. Geoff Drew

A lay leader at St. Maximilian Kolbe parish accused Cincinnati Abp. Dennis Schnurr of failing to deliver on his promise of protecting children by ignoring "red flags" about Drew. 

Starting in 2013, Cincinnati auxiliary Bp. Joseph Binzer knew of numerous reports of boundary violations Drew made with teenage boys. He allegedly never alerted Abp. Schnurr to those complaints.

Bishop Binzer is also the vicar general for the archdiocese and approved Drew's request to transfer to St. Ignatius of Loyola parish in Green Township — the parish with the largest Catholic school in the archdiocese.

After a new allegation was made of Drew violating safe environment protocols — sending inappropriate texts to a teen boy, the archdiocese of Cincinnati removed Drew from ministry.

A month later, in August, Drew was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy in 1988–1991 prior to his ordination as a priest but while he worked as music minister at St. Jude the Apostle parish in Bridgetown.

The archdiocese of Cincinnati may face a Vatican investigation for cover-up over Drew's reassignments.

A Sword to Punish

Pastors and bishops can also use safe environment protocols to punish those that oppose them or disagree with the direction they are taking the Church.

The standards that most bishops use to determine if the allegation is "credible" is not what most people understand it to be. To the majority of people, a "credible" allegation is one that is likely to have happened or "worthy of belief."

Church officials do not have to provide positive evidence in support of a claim of sexual abuse.

American diocesan officials are using the terminology "unless an allegation be manifestly false or frivolous" as the definition of a "credible" allegation. This shifts the burden of proof to the accused priest. 

He must now prove any allegations made against him are "manifestly," "obviously" or "evidently" false or frivolous or it is considered "credible."

The case of Fr. Eduard Perrone of the archdiocese of Detroit exemplifies how one allegation from 40 years ago was used to remove a priest from ministry.   

Another is from the diocese of Sacramento, California, where Fr. Jeremy Leatherby was accused of boundary violations with an adult woman — not a minor — and removed from ministry in 2016 by Bp. Jaime Soto. Father Leatherby plans on fighting for his vocation but the diocese has not opened the canonical case against him and has never investigated the incident.* 

Church Militant reached out to the diocese of Sacramento to see if any progress has been made and Kevin Eckery, the communications director for the diocese, said, "I don't have anything for you right now. Feel free to check back at a later time."

The safe environment protocol can also be used against the laity. In 2016, Mark Kenney, a janitor at the cathedral in the archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, decided to remove mannequins he felt were inappropriately displayed inside the church for an upcoming festival. 

After cutting down one from the ceiling, Kenney admitted responsibility to the parish priest, saying, "Father, this is bull****! We can't have this in the church." 

He awaited the police's arrival by kneeling at the Communion rail. 

Kenney spent the night in jail and was fired from the cathedral. When he went to apply for work at another church, he learned his safe environment certificate was revoked and he was essentially barred from ever working in a church again. 

The outrage in the comments on their website and on social media in response to Jones' recommendation to subject the laity to annual safe environment re-certification shows Cdl. Dolan's independent investigation isn't doing much to restore the laity's trust in the bishops' leadership.
 

10/3/2019: This article has been updated to correct when the archdiocese of Cincinnati removed Drew from ministry.

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