Two decades have passed since the U.S. bishops issued procedures and guidelines for handling allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy and church workers. The watershed document of June 2002 – the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People – called for dioceses across the country to create safe environments.
Soon after, parishes and schools throughout the Diocese of Sacramento implemented extensive, multi-layered programs designed to diligently and proactively guard and protect children from threats to their personal safety and well-being.
Father Mike Ritter, parochial administrator of St. Robert Parish in Sacramento, and Anthony Jackson, interim principal of St. Robert School, collaborate in their roles to make sure everyone is safe on the parish campus. They spoke with Catholic Herald magazine to offer insight into their program’s influence on the larger organizational culture, and the profoundly positive and far-reaching experience of building trust throughout the community.
“We honor the trust that’s invested in us,” Father Michael says, describing their deep respect for the faith placed in the parish and school. But more than words, honoring the trust of children, families and the entire community takes the form of “an uncompromising approach” to building trust through transparency. The phrase resonates as somewhat of an unofficial philosophy and a top-of-mind mantra for the work at hand – trust through transparency.
“Whether it’s about our vetting procedures, training, or ground rules for employees and volunteers,” Father Mike explains, everything is held to high standards for communicating clear expectations, conveying processes openly and honestly, and being consistent always.
A mindset for cultivating safe environments is part of everyday life on the grounds of St. Robert Parish and School. The community works together on the safe environment program rubrics while also naturally benefiting from its content and educational value. Further, the St. Robert team has created an intentional overlap with other curricula to put the health and safety of their students within the context of education in virtue and social-emotional learning.
Fundamental safety considerations
Anthony, a 2000 graduate of St. Robert School and a 17-year employee who has served as safety captain throughout his tenure, believes in a safe environment rooted in fundamental practices offers the necessary solid ground for the community to flourish.
“It’s making sure that we remain in compliance with diocesan policies,” he explains, with confidence in the practical guidelines and program structure that considers “every individual who comes in contact with our students.”
Anthony describes the process for hiring teachers and staff as a “typical interview process with background and reference checks.” He points out “the biggest component is really making sure that a person will live the mission.” He refers to a disciple’s mission, that is “they’re here first to serve,” but also the essential mission to protect and foster a haven of safety and grace. He looks for that mission focus in volunteers, too, suggesting that it exists as an internalized quality not easily feigned, but rather a discernible selflessness.
All adults who work or volunteer on the St. Robert campus must complete the “Safe Haven” video training which delves into real-life scenarios and identifies issues or concerns to watch for that might signal risk. Anthony indicates they offer additional safety training and share protocols with the community to facilitate a health and safety-minded atmosphere.
“Safety is a part of our culture,” Anthony says, recognizing how children today have grown up with safety messaging and know nothing different than the age-appropriate discussions on personal boundaries – what is and is not appropriate and how to recognize telltale signs of inappropriate actions. Engaging classroom conversations put emphasis on healthy relationships.
Throughout the diocese, parishes and schools use the “Circle of Grace” curriculum to guide teachers and students in the presentation of important material throughout the year. The content is woven into the school-wide learning expectations, which create natural openings for the subject of personal health and safety to permeate pragmatically.
“It also ties into virtue,” Anthony says, referring to the Disciples in Christ – Education in Virtue curricula long implemented throughout the diocese to give students the language of virtue and understanding of virtuous effects. He implies how safe environment education cannot be an isolated topic, but rather it must be considered in the context of all of life’s important lessons such as “how we show up and how we treat one another.”
St. Robert School also is one of a handful of Catholic schools piloting a new social-emotional learning program. Similarly, Anthony sees its content as an important supplement to the safe environment curriculum.
“It’s about relationships and the social-emotional aspect of friendships,” Anthony notes, sharing how teachers can link together content and provide a comprehensive view of the interrelatedness of health, safety, virtue and relationships.
Of course, documentation, paperwork and verification remain critical for the effectiveness and reach of safe environment measures. With 237 students enrolled from transitional kindergarten through eighth grade, dedicated staff and volunteers make it a priority to adhere to and document safe environment protocols.
Education and evangelization
“We’re creating responsible people in safe environments,” interjects Father Mike, expanding on what might be easily nuanced or even unnoticed but upon deeper reflection, he positions a powerful reality. “Where we’re working with kids, and it’s about putting forward a pro-active commitment to responsibility,” he insists.
“There’s a programmatic element that is measurable and keeps us focused,” he explains as a matter of fact, while also stressing an underlying truth “that we are educating and evangelizing, and helping people to develop awareness, skillsets and a sense of responsibility.”
“They’re going to take that with them when they go home or when they engage in other relationships and other environments,” Father Mike says, viewing the development of the entire person – both youth and adults – as nothing less than living and sharing Gospel values.
Father Mike returns to the idea of a culture of trust and transparency, elucidating his thoughts that a safe environment is “part of our role as people who protect,” but also something that goes beyond the school and parish as a “people issue” in general. It requires hard work and consistency because “if we’re not all on the same page in the way our children see us behaving,” he notes, the effectiveness of the policies and programs becomes diluted, if not futile.
Father Mike draws an analogy for witnessing actions that depict a positive and secure relational world. “We are trying to model a way to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he quips, then seriously states that honesty and transparency can be painful yet powerful because “when we have these conversations, it gives people permission to tell their stories and initiate their own health-seeking behavior. We’re giving permission culturally to go there and we’re showing that we take this very seriously.”
“People count on us to do that,” Father Mike says, referring to a Church atoning for its past but also leading the way into the future. He cites legal and ethical obligations as teachers and pastors, clear lines of reporting, the ability to act and execute a policy, or to give voice to a problem, all as important aspects of the campus’ role and duty as a haven of grace – a “known quantity.”
“Our families need people that they can go to – that they know have the responsibility to act,” Father Mike says, bringing full circle the importance of transparency and trust indicating that “trust and open communication mitigate against fear.”
Strong, healthy relationships
Both Father Mike and Anthony reinforce a commitment to “empowering ourselves to empower others.” They elevate relationships with parish and school families, extending the culture and furthering the trust through transparency philosophy.
“We also build strong relationships with our first responders,” Anthony adds, mentioning the importance of “making sure students are familiar and able to identify individuals in those roles.” Friendships with the Sacramento Police Department and the deputy district attorney for Sacramento County give children the chance to ask candid questions and hear about staying safe, which affirms what they learn in the Circle of Grace curriculum.
The St. Robert Parish and School campus culture is positive. No one pretends that bad things will not happen, and no one sugarcoats the need to protect against harm. Instead, they focus on an environment that is wholly conducive to learning intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
“A safe environment is not simply a question of protecting kids from unhealthy relationships,” or physical or abusive harm, Anthony insists. “It is about creating an environment where relationships are healthy.”
About safe environment programs in the Diocese of Sacramento at www.scd.org/safe-environment.
In photo above, Father Michael Ritter speaks to students during a recent Mass in St. Robert Church in Sacramento.