Are Safe Environment Programs Safe?

Bishop Robert Vasa wants kids to be safe.

But the Baker, Ore., bishop is not ready to institute programs in his diocese that pretend to protect children against sexual abuse. He says he is not convinced that the so-called “safe-environment” programs that exist are good for children.

He’s assisting the Catholic Medical Association in an evaluation of such programs. (See story, page 2.) He discussed his concerns with Register correspondent Mary Ann Sullivan.

Why have you chosen to be a party to the Catholic Medical Association’s task force on safe environment programs?

Bishops need some concrete solid information about safe-environment programs and I hope the CMA task force will clearly enunciate the strengths and shortcomings of each of the programs.

Wasn’t it the bishops who mandated the safe environment programs in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002? Why should they need a task force to advise them of their strengths and weaknesses?

All the bishops are concerned about having good safe-environment programs in their dioceses. I just don’t know the level to which they have really reviewed the resources and auxiliary materials. I’m not sure they recognize that the concerns being raised are genuine concerns that we need to take seriously.

I don’t know who was originally a party to the drafting of the charter. That largely came to the bishops in June and there was an advanced kind of presentation. Obviously, if someone says to you, “We should have effective safety-training programs in our workplace for adults,” without necessarily giving thought to the specifics of it, a bishop would naturally agree. But, what do you mean by a safe-environment program for kids — don’t run with scissors? Don’t play with razor blades? Those are all safe-environment issues. But, how do we do that relative to predatory individuals? Don’t talk to strangers? Not only strangers abuse kids.

So, how do we begin to give information to kids that they need in order to be proactive about keeping themselves safe? It is a good idea. But on further reflection you may say it’s the wrong idea at the wrong time and we simply cannot do that which sounds like a good idea, when upon further reflection it may not be a good idea at all.

The general concept sounds wonderful. The bishops looking at a general concept said, “Sure, we need to give kids information.” But when they agreed to safe-environment education, they did not approve any program, any approach or any particular philosophy relative to that, other than that we need something that is emotionally, theologically, spiritually and morally sound.

Why have some bishops chosen programs that are so controversial, which some experts and parents believe are not morally sound?

I think they rely on the people that have been selected, the experts in the field whom they entrust with this duty. And they have in some ways an obligation to be vigilant, but also they have a responsibility to trust the people who represent themselves as experts in this field.

Have the bishops micromanaged every aspect of safe environment programs? I think not. And even I, as conscientious as I try to be, as serious as I am about this, I don’t necessarily have the personal resources as one individual to look for every possible safe-environment program and do a thorough investigation of every one. I might look at  the  information about a program, then accept it and adopt it, only to discover there are connections and materials in there that are totally inappropriate.

It’s a difficult thing because a bishop really can’t afford to micromanage every single element of the diocese, and yet he is responsible for every single element of the diocese. It’s a two- edged sword. I don’t know the answer to that. In my small diocese, I can be more hands-on. But, in those larger dioceses I don’t know how the bishop could keep track of everything that is going on, unless he trusts his staff. 

Have you selected a safe-environment program for the Diocese of Baker yet?

We have one for adults, but I don’t really have anything designed or in use for the training of children. I’m trying to find some appropriate means. What I’m determined to do is put an occasional notice in the bulletin advising parents that their children are precious and they have a responsibility to make sure they are kept safe. That was the recommendation of my own diocesan review committee, who said we don’t want to get into a major presentation here; we simply want to affirm in a positive way the goodness of kids rather than drag them through these materials. Let’s take a positive approach that says, “You’re wonderful, great and gifted. Let’s foster a respect for the elements of Christian dignity.”

We do use the Virtus program for adults, and I find in that program there are some glitches that I don’t necessarily agree with. But, it presents in a stark fashion that there are predatory people out there and adults need to be apprised of that.

But I haven’t found a safe-environment program for children to be suitable yet. It gets into the whole issue of whether we should be doing this at all. The whole approach is backwards. Which 7-, 8- or 9-year-old kid is capable of protecting himself and not having a lapse of judgment about who can and who cannot be trusted?

What we are saying to them with these programs is, “You are responsible for keeping yourself safe.” But safety is not the children’s responsibility. They are incapable of resisting the attack of an abductor. They can maybe begin to avoid dangerous situations, but they can have a lapse in judgment as kids do.

It’s the parents who are responsible. If we don’t first inform and instruct parents to take seriously their responsibility to supervise and monitor their own kids, we are setting ourselves up for kids who are vulnerable. Parents might think because their child went through safe-environment training, they know how to protect themselves.

Experts with whom I’ve spoken in the psychiatric field say kids don’t have abstract thinking mechanisms. It’s not appropriate to try to force them to think abstractly about who is a good person and who is a bad person. They don’t have the capacity to make those kinds of discernments, and to expect them to think beyond their comprehension is fruitless. It probably makes us feel good, but it’s not good for the children.

There was a line in The Chronicles of Narnia: At the end of the seven-book series, two kids were sick and were given medicine that didn’t taste good and didn’t do any good. But it made the parents feel good. It’s the same thing with these safe-environment programs. We have kids and we think they need this to keep them safe. We don’t know if it is good or bad. We know it’s kind of horrendous, but we think it’s doing good and so we keep imposing it on them. But, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that doing something is better than doing nothing.

Mary Ann Sullivan writes from

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