The Church’s Commitment to the Protection of Children and Minors
February 7, 2007
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
This year, as I have in past years, I am writing to you to give you an update on our ongoing efforts to be vigilant as a diocese in protecting children and young people from the threat of sexual abuse within the life of the Church. The occasion for this letter is that again this year as in the past we have received the notification from the Gavin Group, the outside auditors, who have certified that we are fulfilling all the elements of the United States bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. While I am pleased to have this and want all of you to know we have received this, we as a diocese, can never cease to be vigilant and we must always be open to finding ways that might improve our performance and make better our vigilance because the children and young people are our most valuable gifts for the life of the Church. We must always be conscious that we are called to be the instruments of God’s love and His grace. It is that love and that grace alone that can heal the hearts that have been broken, that can begin to salve the scars that have marred so many hearts and minds and to bring about a renewal of peace, which is His gift, a gift we pray He will grant us all in this diocesan Jubilee year.
Please allow me then to inform you of what has gone on this past year.
As of December 2006, there have been over 64,000 background checks made on those who have any connection either as employed members or volunteers of the Church of Rockville Centre. These background checks include bishops, priests, deacons, religious, lay men and women, candidates for ordination, educators who work for the diocese and all who volunteer in our parishes, institutions and agencies. Background checks have become a regular part of the hiring process as it became a part of the screening process for those who had already been in the employ of the diocese.
Awareness and prevention training continues to be a priority in the diocese. As of December 2006, there have been over 226,000 people in this diocese who have been provided with awareness and prevention training. This training includes the VIRTUS program, the New York State mandated Curriculum/Health Education Prevention program, the Talk 2 Us program, the Lures program, the Growing Healthly program and “How Can I Keep Fuzzie Safe?” -- a program designed for first graders.
Keeping “Fuzzie” safe is a program that teaches first graders to call 911 when a little dog named “Fuzzie” might be in danger. They learn to tell parents or others when someone seems not to be nice to “Fuzzie” and how to keep the little dog safe and sound in the family. The classrooms of our schools and religious education programs have been provided with stuffed dogs that resemble “Fuzzie” and youngsters are encouraged to talk with “Fuzzie” and to learn from taking care of him how it is that we take care of one another
Additionally, the VIRTUS program is mandatory training for all Church personnel and volunteers. As of December 2006, there are 140 individuals who have been selected by their pastors, principals and agency directors to train as facilitators so that the VIRTUS program remains an ongoing program throughout the diocese. Visit www.drvc.org for locations, dates and times of sessions.
We continue to review and to improve the admissions process for men who are applying either for the permanent diaconate program or who seek to enter our seminary with the aim of becoming ordained as priests. After reviewing our own process, which has been a good one, we have improved that by putting together teams composed of three persons – a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a social worker - who interview, test and give their independent advice on the psychological maturity of men who are applying for either the permanent diaconate or the seminary. I can assure you that while I am very grateful to God that in three years we have gone from 17 to 40 seminarians, I am even happier to tell you that they are men of sound judgment, good moral character and psychologically balanced.
Last year, I also reported to you that the diocese has developed a support group for victim survivors of sexual abuse. That is under the direction of Mrs. Eileen Puglisi, director of our diocesan office for the protection of children and young people. As you can understand, I do not have any personal knowledge of that group, save that it has been going on now for well over a year. Mrs. Puglisi indicates to me that it is very helpful for those who participate. In order to help them and to help any others, we of course, continue to offer support through therapy for any victim who may need it. That need is determined by reference to the therapist who has the responsibility for the prognosis of each person who has suffered in this way. In addition, we have a group of priests and sisters who have been offered special training for insight into the trauma of sexual abuse. They are available to give spiritual direction to any victims who may wish this help at any time within his or her life. I am happy to inform you that some victims have found this to be of help to them.
I want to reassure everyone that whenever we receive an allegation of any sort, it is reported immediately to the appropriate District Attorney of Nassau or Suffolk County. The District Attorneys of both counties have the names and whereabouts of those so accused. The Church has seen to it that they are no longer in pastoral ministry in the Church and that those who have the task of the civil protection of the security of the citizens, namely the law enforcement officers, are aware of everything the diocese knows. We continue to cooperate completely with the District Attorneys.
In 2006, we have had three new situations. One priest was accused of boundary issues from some years ago when he was serving in a parish as a young priest. He was placed on administrative leave while the situation could be investigated. The Diocesan Review Board looked into the situation. They concluded that there was no sex abuse involved, but recommended to me that some boundary issues needed to be addressed through therapy. The priest had already gone through therapy and continued to do so over an extended period of time. Upon successful completion of the therapy, he was restored to pastoral ministry because there was no evidence of sex abuse involved. Prior to making my decision public, I informed those who had accused the priest so that they would know that decision based on the recommendation of the Diocesan Review Board. I ask you to pray for all those involved in this. It has not been easy for any of them. They merit our prayers to help them experience peace and healing.
Very recently, we had the situation of a priest who had become addicted to pornography. Unknown to the diocese, the FBI had been investigating him for a period of time. When the FBI came to his parish with a warrant to search his belongings, the pastor and the parish staff cooperated completely with the FBI. Many files were taken from his computer and he was charged with and pled guilty to possession of three items of child pornography. He has been remanded to an institute that deals with priests with these kinds of conditions. He will continue as a resident in that institution until the judge makes his decision. We continue to support him with our prayers.
Finally, there was an allegation made about a pastor to the legal authorities in Suffolk County. The District Attorney’s Office investigated the allegation and provided the diocese with a credible basis of information for me as bishop to act. Once the diocese was apprised of this by the District Attorney’s office, my colleagues and I acted quickly and appropriately. After speaking with the priest, we placed him on administrative leave. He remains on administrative leave pending my receiving the recommendation from the Diocesan Review Board.
While these situations have been handled properly, the very telling of them brings home once again our obligation to constantly pray to God, asking Him to forgive all of us who had been remiss in any way in the past. As we seek forgiveness from Him and from our brothers and sisters in the Church, we must once again commit ourselves to be ever-vigilant, ever-cautious and ever-committed to the safety and good of children and young people. Again, I personally ask forgiveness for any of my failings and recommit myself to you. I ask only that I might be faithful to God and to His Church as your Bishop who wants all children and young people to find in our Church a place of safety with persons they always can trust.
Traveling around this diocese, I sense that the People of God on the whole know that we have acted responsibly and that the diocese has done a good job. Our parishes are responding well. The people have confidence in our priests, as indeed we all should. I am also profoundly aware of the fact that there remain a few groups of people who remain angry, hurt and upset. Some continue in one way or another not to believe what we are doing or that we are doing what we should. With sensitivity to their feelings, I can only ask them to please look at the situation calmly, see what we are doing and, if they have ways we can do a better job, offer whatever ideas might help us improve.
I am confident that an outsider could come here, look at the record of our diocese over the last four years, and recognize that we have addressed this tragedy in as complete a fashion as possible, that we have put into place the appropriate programs and policies to protect children and minors and that we are doing our best to make our diocese a safe haven for all children no matter what their age.
As we enter into our Jubilee Year and give thanks to God for the fifty years of this so richly blessed diocese, I would ask all of us to kneel before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament once again and to make an Act of Contrition for our own sins of any kind regarding this horrific tragedy. I promise you that I will do that. We must never cease to ask God’s forgiveness, we must never cease to try to act responsibly to one another and we must never cease to try to build one another up so that we can be the Church of Jesus Christ, a living witness of God’s love for all peoples especially those who are vulnerable, who have been exploited and who suffer.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Bishop of Rockville Centre