LAKE CHARLES – More than 11,000 people, including clergy, religious, and lay volunteers such as educators, coaches and others, were trained through the Office of Child and Youth Protection during 2009, according to Mrs. Bernell Ezell, Director of the Office.
Attendance at a Safe Environment Initial Training Session and the subsequent screening process is mandated by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People approved by the U.S. Bishops in 2002 and is the policy of the Diocese of Lake Charles. The annual update lessons that are required of “all adults who have ongoing unsupervised contact with minors in any diocesan, parish or school program” is diocesan policy.
“This system has been ongoing in the Diocese since 2003,” Mrs. Ezell said. The initial training sessions are two-hour programs, of which about 40 per year are held, either at the Diocesan Chancery or “on the road” out in the Diocese.
The screening process includes reference checks, criminal background checks, the initial training session and the annual update lessons. “These annual updates are a policy requirement of the Diocese,” she continued. “In some dioceses it is done every three or five years, but here it was considered much too important to not maintain an annual renewal.”
The annual training updates are prepared and placed on the Diocese of Lake Charles website.
ocyp_logo.jpgThe initial training sessions provide a wealth of information including defining the types of abuse one might come across and show behavioral indicators that everyone can watch for to indicate whether a child may be suffering abuse.
“We talk about not just sexual abuse but also physical and emotion abuse in addition to neglect of the child,” Mrs. Ezell said. “Making sure everyone understands the importance of reporting, whether it is the knowledge that abuse is taking place but also the suspicion of such abuse, particularly if some of the signs are evident. We also provide the procedures for reporting to both civil and diocesan authorities as well as the code of professional conduct and dealing with boundary issues.
“We also go over things to say and do, as well as things not to say or do, if a child has divulged to someone that they have been abused,” she continued. “Throughout there is always the reminder of the importance of prayer for the safety of children and also prayer for their parents as well would-be perpetrators.”
Some of topics included in the annual updates are e-safety, e-mail, and social networks as well as cyber-bullying. “In addition, we address real life bullying as well as family violence,” Mrs. Ezell said.
Following the hurricanes of the past five years, additional information was added to the training. “This adds discussion of how stress under difficult situations can effect parents in their decision making regarding children,” Mrs. Ezell said.
According to Mrs. Ezell, she is greatly aided by people in each and every church parish and school in the diocese. “There are individuals in each place who serve as safe environment coordinators,” she said. “These individuals see to it that employees and volunteers attend initial training and do the yearly updates. They also prepare and maintain files for each person in their particular parish or school.
“We have been very fortunate that all of those people who are safe environment coordinators in our Diocese have other jobs as well, but because of their commitment to the safety of our children, they have worked with great dedication,” said Ezell. “It is because of such dedication that we have had successful results in all of our audits.”
In fact, the Diocese was informed in December of its compliance with the Charter following the 2009 audit.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has contracted with a professional group to do the audits (the Gavin Group) and with an independent agency to conduct studies (John Jay College).
According to these reports and studies the number of cases of abuse in the U.S. took place during much earlier time periods. In the most recent audits, there have been relatively small numbers of reported cases.
“This makes sense, because back when those cases occurred, neither the psychological nor the medical communities had today’s information about child sexual abuse and those who perpetrate such abuse,” Mrs. Ezell said. “As we have become more informed as a society we have also determined how to better prevent such things from happening to our children.”
The Office of Child and Youth Protection also provides training for children as well as their parents.
“The program used by the Diocese to educate the children is called “Circle of Grace” with lesson plans available to all of the Catholic schools as well as religious Education programs in the parishes,” Mrs. Ezell said. “It teaches that every person has his or her own “circle of grace” to be loved and respected in the same way God loves and respect us. One thing to point out here is that the program is not sex education, which is better left to the parents.
 “With all of these processes in place, Catholic Church activities may be the safest place for children in the United States today,” she concluded.