Editor’s note: This article was published in the April 2023 issue of the North Star Catholic.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Catholic church has made significant strides in preventing child abuse by following specific policies set forth 21 years ago in response to the abuse scandal of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Jenny Michaelson, director of safe environment for the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau, is responsible for communicating the policies and procedures in place to prevent the abuse from the past and to promote healing to those disclosing harm by anyone representing the church.
As organizations throughout the country work on activities associated with Child Abuse Awareness Month, held annually in April, it may surprise and reassure parishioners who wonder what kind of policies are in place to prevent what occurred in the past. Number one on the prevention list is completing a background check for all clerics, employees and those volunteers who work directly with children.
“It’s important to recognize that parishes and the Archdiocese follow policies and procedures based on one foundational document.” Michaelson said. “That document is the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. That is our starting point.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the Charter 21 years ago, and it holds the weight of church policy throughout Dioceses across the country.
The Charter calls for the implementation of policies to prevent abuse and too can assist those who disclose that they have been abused. Every diocese has a Victim Assistance Coordinator, and every diocese has safe environment policies. The coordinators and policies are safety nets that assure both rural and urban parishes have the support needed.
Training and teaching level
“The Charter calls for the training of clerics, employees, and volunteers working with children to provide an understanding of child abuse, risk factors, and the policies of the local diocese. It also calls for the training of children and youth.” Michaelson said.
“Trainings teach our children and youth about their dignity, helping them understand when they are unsafe or uncomfortable in a situation and then how to seek help. The training we use is called ‘Circle of Grace’ which also provides information for parents to support what is taught in faith formation classes.”
All readings (catechetical materials) are age-appropriate, differing from first grade to 12th grade.
“We want to make sure people know safe environment training for children and youth is teaching them about their dignity and the dignity of others. It also teaches them to follow their gut reaction when hearing or witnessing something that makes them feel uncomfortable. If you see/hear something say something to a trusted adult” Michaelson said.
Volunteers who work with children and vulnerable populations, including all clerics and staff must undergo training to understand the dynamics of abuse.
All training is done online and provides an outline for reporting procedures as well. For example, if a report of abuse is made or there is a concern of abuse – whether it’s against someone representing the church or not, it will be reported first to law enforcement, then to a supervisor.
Every parish has a safe environment coordinator
Each parish has a safe environment coordinator, or SEC, who ensures that your parish is following the safe environment policies for the archdiocese. They must report to Michaelson who holds the role of safe environment director. The compliance of every diocese across the United States is reviewed annually and audited in person, on a national level, every three years.
“Yet, given the nature of Alaska’s vast distances, there must be a huge net of protection that we are all part of; no one person can do this alone,” she said. “Safe Environment is a ministry of the church. We invite all parishioners to understand the mission and join us in that mission,” Michaelson said.
Be grateful for all that has been accomplished over these many years, yet together as a faith In January of 2020, the Archdiocese of Anchorage -Juneau published a list of credibly accused ministers representing the Archdiocese after an independent review of Archdiocesan personnel files. The purpose was to be transparent regarding abuse from the past.
“We encourage anyone that may have been abused to report their abuse directly to law enforcement. We also hope that if someone has been hurt by someone representing the church, that they know there is someone to assist them in reporting the abuse,” Michaelson said.
“Child abuse is difficult to talk about, but understanding ways to prevent abuse is vital for the care and safety of the most vulnerable in our society,” Michaelson said. “I hope the efforts that have been made over the past 20 years continue to show their effectiveness. As a church, it is good to community, our focus needs to simply continue to do the work.”