The Word from Lansing: Create Safe Environments for Children

Four children linking arms and laughing in a schoolyard

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. Annually, this month highlights the importance of protecting children, but the work of creating safe environments for kids is needed each and every day. It is heartbreaking to see that sexual abuse is present throughout all sectors of society: within families, schools, civic organizations, juvenile correctional facilities, and even churches. No child should ever experience this shattering violation of dignity, but unfortunately, too many do.

Awareness is a key step in preventing abuse and helping catch those who commit this terrible crime. The U.S. Catholic Church has worked continually, through Safe Environment Coordinators in every diocese, to train clergy, educators, volunteers, parents, and children to recognize, prevent, and report the signs of abuse. As of 2016, 4.5 million children had received safe environment training in parishes and schools, along with over 2.3 million adults. Additionally, clergy, employees, and volunteers have undergone over 2.4 million background checks, adding another critical layer of protection for children.

Legislative policies may also assist in the promotion of child safety. In late February, the Michigan Legislature began discussion of a package of bills aimed at addressing sexual abuse. Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC) has actively supported measures that increase penalties for repeat abusers, prospectively expand the criminal statute of limitations, and lengthen sentences for those who deal in the heinous practice of child pornography. MCC also supported legislation to expand the list of mandatory reporters of child abuse. Previously, the Conference led a legislative effort in 2002 to add clergy to the list. Each proposed bill creates safer environments while protecting children today and in years to come.

Regrettably, one piece of legislation quickly making its way through the Legislature allows previously barred legal claims of sexual abuse to be brought forth for civil legal action. Under Senate Bill 872, these allegations could be made for a period of one year after the legislation is signed into law. This measure does not create more protections for children but instead opens up decades-old claims, valid or otherwise. Having a statute of limitations, which imposes a time limit on the filing of a legal claim, guarantees that legal questions are addressed in a timely, fair manner for all involved parties. Otherwise, it is difficult to properly investigate and nearly impossible to defend decades-old claims when there is no evidence or witnesses, memories fade, and the accused may or may not be alive.

Similar retroactive legislation passed in other states has led to several dioceses declaring bankruptcy, while trial attorneys are receiving on average forty percent of any compensation paid to survivors. It is not wrong for survivors to seek assistance in overcoming issues related to their abuse, but Senate Bill 872 goes too far. By allowing money damages for decades-old claims, this legislation will cause unprecedented financial difficulties for businesses, public school districts, local and state government, county medical and juvenile facilities, hospital and medical centers, places of worship, non-public schools, summer camps, and any public, private or nonprofit organization where adults and children are present.

No Catholic diocese in Michigan has a time restriction for bringing forth an allegation of abuse. Regardless of when a survivor’s claim is reported and found to be credible, the Church will listen to survivor stories with compassion, offer support, and encourage reporting of the allegation to the civil authorities. Every Catholic diocese employs a Victim Assistance Coordinator, who helps victims obtain the counseling, pastoral care, and other assistance needed for healing.

While the subject of abuse is extremely painful and difficult to talk about, the costs of not speaking up are too great. During this month, Catholics may consider:

  1. Signing-up for Safe Environment Training through their local Catholic diocese.
  2. Talking to their children and family about boundaries, safe touches, and recognizing abuse.
  3. Praying for abuse survivors and their continued healing.