Diocese works continually to improve Safe Environment program

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While the Church in the United States and the Diocese of Nashville began taking steps to respond to the sexual abuse of minors by church personnel in the 1980s, it was not until 2002 that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People to provide a consistent set of national standards that applied to all dioceses in the country.  

In the 20 years since, the Church has learned much about dealing with and preventing instances of sexual abuse of minors, said Jason Liuzzi, the Diocese of Nashville Safe Environment Coordinator.

And the Church is using that knowledge to keep improving its procedures and programs, Liuzzi said.

“The Church is not satisfied,” he said, but is “always striving to make sure we’re doing the best we can, striving to be that golden example that others can look to about how to keep kids safe.”

The U.S. bishops adopted the Charter in June 2002 after the Church had been swamped by reports of sexual abuse by clergy and efforts to cover up that abuse. The reports started in the Archdiocese of Boston but quickly spread to dioceses across the country.

The Charter, which has been revised three times since it was first adopted, “is a comprehensive set of procedures … for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website. “The Charter also includes guidelines for reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of future acts of abuse.”

The Charter calls for an annual independent audit of dioceses’ efforts to comply with its provisions, including an on-site audit every three years, Liuzzi explained. The Diocese of Nashville has always been found to be in full compliance with the Charter.

Among the requirements of the Charter are:

  • Creating a safe environment for children and young people.
  • Healing and reconciliation of victims and survivors.
  • Making a prompt and effective response to allegations.
  • Cooperating with civil authorities.
  • Disciplining offenders.
  • Providing for means of accountability for the future to ensure the problem continues to be dealt with effectively.

In the Diocese of Nashville, the effort to create a safe environment for children begins with background checks for all Church personnel, including all diocesan employees, clergy, lay and religious, and volunteers who regularly work with minors. They must also complete training to help them identify and recognize signs and symptoms of predatory behavior, Liuzzi said.

Likewise, all the students in diocesan schools and parish religious education programs receive age-appropriate training to learn how to keep themselves safe and what to do if they learn about the potential abuse of someone else, he said.

Another requirement of the Charter was the creation of the diocesan Review Board, which is made up predominantly of lay people who are not employees of the diocese. 

The Review Board’s members come with expertise in a variety of fields. The Charter calls for the membershop of diocesan Review Boards to include: a mental health professional with expertise in the treatment of the sexual abuse of minors; a physician; a victim or survivor advocate; a judge or lawyer; a sexual abuse survivor or a parent of a survivor; an experienced and respected pastor in the diocese; and the Moderator of the Curia or an appointee designated by the bishop.

The Review Board reviews policies and procedures for the diocese as well as specific allegations of abuse and makes recommendations to the bishop, Liuzzi said.

The diocese also has a Diocesan Safe Environment Committee, which is not required by the Charter, Liuzzi said. The Safe Environment Committee develops policies and procedures for the diocese that are then forwarded to the Review Board, which makes a recommendation about their adoption to the bishop, Liuzzi explained.

“We hear from lots of voices , a lot of expert voices … to advise the bishop,” Liuzzi said.

The policies, which were revised in 2021 and again in May, are posted in English and Spanish on the diocesan website at dioceseofnashville.com/safe-enviorment. “As a diocese,” Liuzzi said, “we’ve always striven to make sure we’re improving and educating people at the local level.”

In September, the diocese will host a Safe Environment Conference to provide continuing education for parish and school employees. 

As the Diocesan Safe Environment Coordinator, Liuzzi works with the Site Safe Environment Coordinators at each parish, school, and other diocesan entities whose mission entails service and/or ministry involving minors. The Site Safe Environment Coordinators oversee local safe environment programs and the proper implementation of diocesan safe environment policies and procedures.

The Charter also requires each diocese to cooperate with local and state authorities in investigating allegations of sexual abuse by church personnel. Tennessee law and diocesan policies require anyone with reasonable cause to believe a child is being abused to immediately report it to the state Department of Children’s Services or local law enforcement.

After someone reports suspected abuse of a minor by church personnel to civil authorities, they should notify the Diocesan Safe Environment Administrator at 615-645-9763.

For more information about how to report suspected abuse and about the diocesan Safe Environment Program, visit dioceseofnashville.com/safe-environment.

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