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Liaisons link the chancery and parishes in effort to keep children safe

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Janet Smith doesn’t want any child to go through what she went through — 10 years of sexual abuse by her father and a sexual assault by a priest. 

“It is a difficult road to walk, full of depression, anxiety and shame,” she said. “I wouldn’t want anyone to experience this.”

Smith, the liaison for All Saints Church and School in Manassas since 2005, is passionate about her work to protect children.  

“For me, my work is God's way of redeeming the damage that I experienced as a child,” said Smith. “I thank God for the church’s commitment to protecting children and youths from abuse.”

Her passion is part of a broader diocesan effort to keep children safe.

An applicant to work or volunteer with the Diocese of Arlington must fill out several pages of paperwork — criminal background checks, employment history and questions about interaction with children or other vulnerable people.

Because of the scope of implementation of the background check processes required by the diocesan Policy on the Protection of Children/Young People and the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct and/or Child Abuse amended in 2003, Bishop Paul S. Loverde began the liaison program in 2004.

“In this diocese, background checks and the compliancy, as well as the education, is centralized at the chancery. It’s not true for all other dioceses,” said Deacon Marques Silva, director of the Office of Child Protection and Safety. “The priests and bishops said it should be centralized so there is an extra check to ensure (protection).”

Employees and volunteers go through a multi-part application process that includes a search of the central sex-offender registry, a national criminal background check, acknowledgement of the policy and the code of conduct, and a questionnaire. Clergy go through the same process with a modified code of conduct, with additional considerations for the role of the cleric. Attendance at a VIRTUS seminar is required for all employees and volunteers. Fingerprinting is required for employees and clergy.

Liaisons are selected by the pastor or school principal. “They are chosen because they have high attention to detail and a willingness to do hard work,” said Andrew Riley, manager of the Office of Child Protection and Safety.

The liaison’s job is to ensure that all the paperwork is correct before it is sent to the chancery. Silva said liaisons have access to what is called compliance reports so they can see whether a person is compliant or not. “Liaisons update these compliance reports quarterly, and a pastor or principal has to sign the reports and we update here at the chancery,” said Silva.

Liaisons assume this role only after thorough training. Initially, a daylong training class covers policy, best practices and how to implement a successful safe environment program. It provides liaisons with current compliance requirements; policy; how to streamline and complete the paperwork processes; and how to read the compliance report. Liaisons receive instruction on utilizing the VIRTUS safe environment training website and the most efficient means of communicating discrepancies or issues. It also covers how to report child abuse and/or neglect in accordance with Virginia law and diocesan policy.

Lori Jeffers, secretary in admissions at Holy Cross Academy in Fredericksburg, said she takes her job seriously. “The challenges are making sure I stay on top of everyone’s paperwork and follow up,” she said. “Sometimes things are sent directly to the volunteer so I have to track them down and remind them to get the missing paperwork back to the diocese.”

Volunteers often don’t understand the need for so many forms. That was a challenge when Smith began. “I'm happy to say that there is now awareness of why the steps to compliance are so important. We recognize that it is an arduous process but our first priority is the safety and protection of children,” she said.

Joan Biehler, liaison for St. Agnes Church and School in Arlington, is challenged by getting people to complete the paperwork early enough to allow for processing time and attending the seminar. “The backlog of processing in the fall delays people who are anxious to volunteer for school or other events with the children,” she said.

Her interaction with the parish and school volunteers is different, though the policy requirements are the same. “In the school, most parent volunteers would work closely with children so they are easily identified as potential new volunteers,” said Biehler. “For parish activities, I depend on the ministry leaders to advise me of new volunteers.”

She is reassured that the training creates extra eyes and ears to pay attention to what is happening to children.

Smith knows the potential for abuse goes beyond the church. “We all need to pay attention, be vigilant and identify behaviors that can lead to abuse” she said.

Find out more

To learn more about how the Diocese of Arlington provides opportunities to report abuse, heal from abuse, and find support through the Office of Child Protection and Victim Assistance, go to ArlingtonDiocese.org/ChildProtection. 

The Diocese of Arlington encourages anyone who knows of misconduct or abuse on the part of any cleric or employee of the diocese, to notify civil authorities and reach out to Frank Moncher, victim assistance coordinator, at 703/841-2530.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018