Writing this article some 15 years after the U.S. bishops implemented the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, I think the church has grown in its understanding and awareness of abuse and its role in prevention and response. I think back on the many conversations I have had with employees, priests and ministers of the Archdiocese of Anchorage and those who work in advocacy for victims of abuse and violence.
I usually begin these conversations by explaining that safe environment is a ministry of the church with a two-part mission. First, it focuses on preventing abuse of children, youth and vulnerable adults. Secondly, it promotes healing and recovery for those who have been abused by someone representing the Catholic Church. I then talk about the disturbing past reality of abuse of minors by clergy and those representing the church and the reasons for the policies and procedures that are now in place. We also talk about how the issue of child abuse and violence still impacts communities here in Alaska.
One experience I often share is the time I went to a “Wellness Summit,” which focused on addiction issues and the societal stigma often felt by individuals and families. One of those presentations sticks with me. It was a remarkable talk by Vice Admiral Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States. He was very informative and also very compassionate and practical in his presentation.
He shared a comment made to him when he first took his position and was trying to address, through policy, one of the many health issues facing the people of the United States. He was warned, “Culture eats policy for lunch.”
That comment reveals just how difficult it is to change a culture, even if policy improves people’s lives, because a new policy can challenge an old way of thinking about something that has been part of the culture for years.
Deeply engrained cultural habits have strong meanings that are rarely challenged because they seem to serve an important purpose. A new policy, even if it improves lives, may face some hesitancy.
An example may be the safe environment requirement that all volunteers who have regular contact with minors or vulnerable adults meet safe environment compliance (have a background check and complete training). The purpose is to ensure that everyone working with our most vulnerable have not been convicted of a violent crime and understand the dynamics of abuse and the policies for the church’s response. The challenge is that asking a volunteer, who is freely giving of their time, to complete hour long training and a background check may seem burdensome, distrustful and ungrateful and make it harder to find volunteers. The value of being grateful and accommodating has to be tempered with promoting deeper trust and accountability. Our Catholic culture with the adoption of a ministry of safe environment has created new habits, a new paradigm shift. I encourage everyone to promote safe environment policies among our generous volunteers as we work together to deepen trust and accountability amongst ourselves and those we serve in the mission of Christ.
As our parishes, schools, institutions and groups begin various programs for the upcoming school year, I encourage everyone to promote safe environment, its policies and most importantly, its mission to provide an environment where the love of Christ can shine.