I often describe the work of the ministry of safe environment for the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau, but this work could not be accomplished without the dedication of the parishes’ and schools’ safe environment coordinators (SEC). Each parish has an SEC who ensures that your parish is following the safe environment policies for the archdiocese.
Expressing the message of safe environment can best be described by those who work directly with and for parishioners. For this article, we will highlight Joanne Rousculp, an SEC for St. Michael Parish in Palmer, by asking her to share her experience in the role.
Q: What do you think is the most important aspect of the ministry of safe environment for the Catholic Church?
I believe that the most important aspect of the safe environment ministry is how it shines a light on the issue of abuse. Abuse occurs because it is done in the dark, i.e., in secret. In the case of our Catholic Church, this ministry shines the light of Christ brilliantly so that we can see clearly and prevent further abuse of our most vulnerable.
Q: What would you say is the main focus of your role as parish safe environment coordinator?
I would say that my main focus is prevention. I wish every adult in the parish community would take the safe environment online course, “Protecting Vulnerable Populations.” Right now, we have three clergies, seven staff, and then 55 volunteers who are up to date on their training out of about 400 families — that’s about 16% who have this training. That means that at least 16% of our parishioners are aware of the signs of abuse and have read the archdiocesan pastoral policies. Knowledge and awareness are important aspects of prevention. Requiring background checks is also important for all those serving minors and vulnerable adults. I often say that we can do background checks and require training, but we will miss the mark if our children are not also trained in an age-appropriate way to identify when they don’t feel safe and know how to set boundaries for themselves. Today’s dangers more often surface over the internet, so parents must be vigilant and aware of what their children are doing and seeing over a variety of new platforms. It is overwhelming to try to keep up.
Q: What do you appreciate most about your role?
I appreciate the willingness of staff and volunteers to comply with the safe environment requirements. Even the volunteers from the two Christian churches across the street are willing to meet our requirements so that we can work together ecumenically for Vacation Bible School. People generally get how important it is to keep our children safe.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your role?
When I began working for the church 26 years ago, my focus was on faith formation and the catechumenate. In 2002, the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” was published by our U.S. bishops as a response to the clergy sex abuse crisis. Those of us employed by the Church in Alaska as religious education coordinators and directors were tasked with key responsibilities around creating and maintaining a safe environment within our parishes. It has been what I would call a moving target over the years, changing in order to better protect the vulnerable.
While I fully grasp the tremendous importance of this role for our parish, I know that the job of parish safe environment coordinator has taken precedence over anything else that I do here at the parish. As soon as I am aware of a new volunteer or staff member who will need to fulfill the safe environment requirements, I have to drop whatever I am doing and switch gears back to safe environments.
Q: Personally, what do you find as the most difficult part of being a safe environment coordinator?
We take one Sunday each year and during a regular faith formation session, the focus is on an age-appropriate safe environment lesson instead. Every year it seems that only about half of our children and youth attend, if that. I find that discouraging because our children will only be as safe as they are empowered to set boundaries and know how to communicate any concerns they have and to whom.
Q: What more do you think could be done in the ministry of safe environment for the church and/or for our local archdiocese?
After 20 years of serving the parish as its safe environment coordinator and knowing that I will retire at some point, I believe that the archdiocese could best look to the future and begin now a process of transitioning from those who have been serving in this capacity to perhaps some young adults. I am not sure who the safe environment coordinators are for each parish, but my guess is that some of them, like me, may be ready to pass the torch to the next generation. Why not have our youth ministers or young adult ministers take on this role within their parishes?
Q: What do you want people to know about your role and/or the ministry of safe environment?
Be careful. When you take on this role in the parish, your eyes will be opened and you will have a heightened awareness about all kinds of safety issues.
Q: In your opinion, how does safe environment help your Catholic community and the general community as a whole?
I truly believe that the safe environment training from the parish is infectious. The take-home materials from our “Circle of Grace” annual curriculum give parents tips and guidelines for engaging their children and youth in conversation about abuse. Children will listen to what their parents have to say. Parents just have to take advantage of any opportunity to bring up the topic and repeat, repeat, repeat. We teach: “Stop, Drop, and Roll,” in the case of a fire. We need to teach: “Say No, Get Away, and Tell a Trusted Adult,” in case a boundary line is crossed.
As a final word, I would like to say that I couldn’t do this job without support from the Archdiocese.
I would like to thank you, Joanne, and all SECs for their dedication and persistence to ensure the safety and protection of all of our children and vulnerable populations.