Awareness key to preventing child abuse


PROVIDENCE — Children are a gift to be treasured and cared for, treated with dignity and raised morally. Unfortunately, the reality is that far too many children around the world suffer abuse every year. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and the Catholic Church recognizes this terrible threat to the children of God.
Speaking to the Rhode Island Catholic, Bishop Richard G. Henning noted that the purpose of the month is to raise awareness of how to prevent and stop child abuse, “that the challenge of child protection is not something that you do once, it’s something you do every hour of every day and every day of every year. So, we need these kinds of moments to refocus, renew and be reminded of the importance of it.”
“It’s of particular interest and importance to me, personally, as well as to me as the Bishop of Providence. So that’s why I would like to highlight the month, on that basis.”
The USCCB website described child abuse beyond “physically hitting a child.” Neglect, forced servitude and viewing child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) — are all forms of abuse. It further points out that abuse occurs across cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and is often perpetrated by a person known to the child.
Within the Diocese of Providence, measures have been taken to protect these most vulnerable in society. Kevin O’Brien, director of the diocesan Office of Compliance, explained that in 2002, the USCCB created the Charter for Protection of Children and Young People. This was in response to allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. However, the Diocese of Providence had taken steps even earlier, in 1993, to create the Office of Education and Compliance, first headed by a former investigator for the Massachusetts State Police, “to conduct investigations, train personnel in child protection, to implement policies and procedures to enhance child protection.”
Himself a former trooper for the Rhode Island State Police, O’Brien understands the importance of the relationship between the diocese and law enforcement in proactively protecting children from abuse. “Even back then, the office was routinely working with law enforcement to address child protection and assisting in investigations of child sex abuse that occurred here at the Diocese of Providence.”

Since then, the diocese has continued to plan and implement policies to protect children. In 2016, the diocese voluntarily entered into an agreement with the state attorney general to include reporting any allegations to that office as well as law enforcement. 
“Anybody that is working in a child contact position across the diocese is subject to background checks,” with Rhode Island teachers subject to a more rigorous screening to include fingerprinting, O’Brien said. 
Staff and volunteers who may have contact with children and youths, including priests, deacons and religious men and women, are also required to complete Safe Environment Training. Along with providing clear standards of conduct, this teaches how to recognize the signs of abuse and protocol for reporting any suspected abuse cases. Safe environment training must be renewed every three years. All of that comes through O’Brien’s office.
O’Brien serves as a resource for diocesan employees and regularly receives calls seeking advice as to whether an investigation or notification to civil authorities is warranted. He called this awareness “refreshing to see.” Though most cases end up not being serious, he would rather work through the situation than have others ignore potential abuses. His job, along with other authority figures like principals and priests, is to report “anything at all that even has a hint of child sex abuse” and allow the civil authorities to investigate further.
“Child protection is ongoing and we’re always looking to enhance our measures to protect the children of the diocese.”
Diocesan response to sexual abuse 
More than 20 years ago, the sexual abuse scandal rocked the Church. O’Brien stressed that in his nine years with the diocese, almost all cases of sexual abuse of minors brought forth are historical in nature. Which means, in his estimation, that the measures put in place both in the Church and state “have definitely been effective.”
As director of the Office of Outreach and Prevention, Dr. Michael Hansen works with victims of sexual abuse by clergy. He called the crisis of decades ago a “hidden” problem, but now, “everyone is much more tuned in to what to look for.”
Both the safe environment training and the Circle of Grace curriculum, which Hansen oversees, have increased awareness in parishes and schools. 
“There is no question” that these protective measures have made incredible strides toward prevention, he commented, as “there have been few cases in the last 30 years.”
Bishop Henning reiterated this, noting that while commentators sometimes dismiss such efforts for child protection, even claiming that little has changed in the Church’s practice, he is adamant in opposing these false claims.
“Such attacks on the Church’s efforts are not only unjust, but they also undermine the value of these efforts to protect the vulnerable. We need all responsible adults to remain focused and committed to policies that create safe environments for the young. Dismissing their value weakens that broad based support,” Bishop Henning said.
As the new bishop, he plans to observe the month by “speaking to the people of God.”
If abuse has occurred, Hansen stated that the diocese reaches out to aid the victims.
“It’s important to take the time to listen to the individual and provide support for them,” he said. The diocese dedicates itself to the healing process, financially aiding those who seek professional counseling.
Transparency in abuse cases reaches the highest levels, as victims are offered the opportunity to meet with the bishop. Some individuals have done so, Hansen said, calling it “a positive part of our approach.”