April is child abuse awareness month – let’s get informed

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Safe Environment

This story shows the difference between charity and justice. I recall it here to reflect on how it relates to safe environment.

A parish planned its annual church picnic by a nearby creek in the springtime. The sun was shining, the snow melting but there was still a cool nip in the air. While children played games and the cooks grilled hotdogs and hamburgers and everyone visited with each other, those by the water saw a small rabbit floating in the creek. A few adults went into the water and grabbed it. Others helped to dry it off. While they all gathered around wondering how the rabbit could have ended up in the creek, another person yelled, “There’s another one!” A group went into the water, grabbed the rabbit and again others came to help. Yet again, voices called out, “There’s another one.” While most attending the picnic helped save rabbits from the creek, one parishioner ran upstream. Someone asked, “Where are you going, we need your help?” The parishioner replied, “I’m going to find out how these rabbits ended up in the creek.”

This story describes the difference between charity (saving rabbits out of the water) and justice (finding out why they ended up in the creek in the first place.) The story is also a description of two forms of prevention — primary and secondary. Secondary prevention helps rabbits out of the water. Primary prevention finds out the cause and keeps them from falling in.

In safe environment, our primary prevention is stopping abuse before it happens by understanding risk factors, informing ourselves and empowering others. It means recognizing the dignity of all people, without exception. We do this through prayer, reflection, service and informing ourselves about how to best live out the mission of Christ. It also means recognizing that which blinds us — fears, insecurities, selfishness, doubts and prejudices.

As a church, we do this through trainings, establishing and following policies and procedures, and communicating everyone’s role in preventing abuse. Primary prevention in the church means taking seriously its procedures and recognizing abuse in our world. As Catholics, it means being alert, attentive to the Holy Spirit and noticing when something doesn’t seem right and then talking with someone who is trusted.

Similar to saving rabbits out of the water, our secondary prevention is working together to help those who are at risk of harm or who have already been harmed. In this way, we focus on the most vulnerable, children, seniors, those with disabilities, and those living with mental illness or addiction and those in poverty. We recognize their dignity and follow up with acts of charity by contributing and volunteering our time to agencies and causes.

As a church, we try to do this through listening and determining the best way to assist in healing and safety. Another way to provide secondary prevention is through consultation with law enforcement, the Archdiocesan Victim’s Assistance Coordinator, the review board and other experts.

April is Child Abuse Awareness Month and I encourage everyone to reflect on your role in prevention, both primary and secondary.

Are you informed on abuse risk factors? Do you know the policies of the archdiocese? Have you taken the archdiocesan Safe Environment online course? Is there an agency you can support that works on abuse prevention? Do you know who to talk to at the parish, school or archdiocesan level?

We might teach safe environment curriculum, learn about types of abuse, support agencies that address the causes and impacts of abuse.

Each U.S. diocese has policies in place to help meet this commitment, but it takes people who will step up when they see problems and people who will address problems before they begin.

Safe environment in our archdiocese includes primary prevention through the education program, “Circle of Grace,” which helps children and youth recognize healthy and respectful behaviors towards them. It also teaches how to ask for help if someone feels disrespected, manipulated, scared or confused. Other ways to focus on primary prevention is to give parents information about abuse and to train volunteers, employees and clergy about abuse. We also do background investigations to ensure that those who have already abused others are not placed in positions with access and opportunity to our children, youth and most vulnerable.

Our secondary forms of prevention require that any abuse allegations be reported first to law enforcement. We also have policies and procedures to respond to allegations of abuse by anyone, especially those representing the Catholic Church.

For more information about safe environment, contact your parish or school safe environment coordinator or my office at the archdiocese at 907-297-7736 or jmichaelson@caa-ak.org.

The writer is director of the Anchorage Archdiocese’s Office of Safe Environment.


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