Ensuring a safe environment for the vulnerable

ORLANDO | Each person should be respected and treated with the dignity befitting a child of God and it is everyone’s responsibility to safeguard those around us. These are the core values of the Safe Environment Policy of the Diocese of Orlando. For this reason, diocesan leaders continue to update, improve upon, and insert Catholic teaching into the training process for all clergy, religious, church personnel and lay volunteers who work with vulnerable populations.

It is essential in a community of faith that all members recognize and respect not only their own rights and responsibilities, but all the rights and responsibilities of other members of the community. This is critical to the establishment of trust and respect, the first steps of effective evangelization.

Due to the biblical teaching that each human person is made in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:26-27) and because of our baptismal call to protect and care for our brothers and sisters, the diocese will release brand-new safe environment training videos in both English and Spanish. They weave together fact and faith and will become available in early July with closed captioning. “These new diocesan videos more carefully explain all forms of acceptable communication and interaction between church leaders, minors and their parents – what is and is not appropriate and how to maintain proper boundaries,” said Jennifer Drow, senior director of communications for the diocese. “We also prayerfully decided to enhance our Safe Environment videos by adding Scripture to ground the good works we do to respect all persons and to give thanks to God.”

Active shooter protocol has also been added to prepare clergy, parishioners, church personnel, school staff and volunteers for dangerous situations. “The idea is to make the person more aware of their surroundings,” said Randy Means, victim assistance coordinator for the diocese. “You have to try to impress that the smallest thing that drives your attention to it needs to be reviewed. If you see something, say something.” Means worked in law enforcement investigation for more than 30 years. As victim assistance coordinator, he is responsible for initial pastoral response and subsequent pastoral care, in the name of the diocese, to victims of sexual abuse by Church personnel.

Means recently represented the Diocese of Orlando at the 16th annual Child and Youth Protection Catholic Leadership Conference in Philadelphia, Pa. Sponsored by seven different dioceses, the conference welcomes victim assistance coordinators and safe environment directors to share best practices for safeguarding vulnerable populations. He explained many smaller dioceses struggle due to lack of resources. This year he hopes to draft a basic plan to assist his peers. “Nationwide, the victimology has changed as most of the sexual abuse cases coming forward are from older victims,” he shared. Means is grateful that, in recent years, there have been no new victims in the Diocese of Orlando, a promising sign that the safe environment practices are working.

The Central Florida faithful can also dive deeper into the discussion on the newly developed webpage “Holding Ourselves Accountable” on the Diocese of Orlando website. Simply click under the ‘our diocese’ or ‘safe environment’ tab and you’ll find easy access to information regarding diocesan practices and efforts to thwart sexual abuse. The page provides the abuse hotline number, letters and podcasts from Bishop John Noonan on the subject of abuse within the Church, standards of conduct, instructions for the vetting visiting priests and more.

Meantime, the diocesan partnership with Life Safety Solutions, a Florida-based company that specializes in loss control, risk management, and safety, continues to bear great fruit. The security team has been on the ground in Central Florida since May 2018 and has completed vulnerability assessments for nearly 40 schools and early learning centers along with their parish communities. The physical changes are currently being mapped out based on priorities made by Life Safety Solutions and the diocesan office of finance is working with individual locations to develop funding plans for those improvements. The partnership with Life Safety Solutions will continue for the next two years so all parishes will be evaluated.

Raptor Visitor Management software has been installed at each school and some parish locations to screen visitors, volunteers, and contractors against the sexual predator/offender database. Additionally, all principals have received Mental Health First Aid Training, an evidence-based course provided by Catholic Charities of Central Florida that teaches participants how to identify and respond to signs of mental illness. This program will eventually be offered to all teachers and guidance counselors and has been offered at many parishes as well.

All of these steps are in line with the Diocese of Orlando’s commitment to uncompromising standards, but the updated Safe Environment Training provides much more. A minister serves as a mentor and guide, walking with a young person as they journey in faith. This becomes increasingly difficult in an age where authentic faith has become counter-cultural. Therefore, the audience will also be educated about risks associated with the ever-changing world of social communication. They will be taught how to maintain healthy boundaries in both professional and personal relationships. The videos will even provide guidance on the proper types of movies and music for ministry.

“It is an amazing and humbling gift to be called to serve the Lord and His people – a gift that comes with great responsibility,” said Drow. “That is why we will constantly review our policies and protocol to provide safe spaces for our young people while keeping in mind their parents and guardians are our partners. Pope Francis reminds us, ‘The pain and the shame we feel at the sins of some members of the Church, and at our own, must never make us forget how many Christians are giving their lives in love… They look for ways to communicate values in hostile environments. They are dedicated in many other ways to showing an immense love for humanity inspired by the God who became man.’” (Evangelii Gaudium, Nov. 2013)

By Glenda Meekins and Jennifer Drow of the Florida Catholic – April 8, 2019