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CURRENT ISSUE:  May 22, 2006VOL. 44, NO. 10Oakland, CA

Bishops accept ‘opt-out’ decision
in 'safe environment' programs

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- New regulations issued May 15 by the U.S. bishops allow parents to remove their children from diocesan-sponsored training programs in child sex abuse prevention.

The programs are part of the bishops’ policies to prevent child sex abuse. But parents in some dioceses have objected to such programs, saying the training constitutes sex education, which they feel is the primary responsibility of the parents.

Dioceses and Eastern-rite eparchies are required to provide the training -- known as safe environment programs -- to children attending church-run schools and those who participate in church programs. Such training is also required for clergy, religious, lay employees, parents and volunteers who come in contact with children.

Under the new regulations adopted by the U.S. bishops’ Administrative Committee, dioceses and eparchies are still required to provide the safe environment programs. Parents, however, can choose not to have their children participate. In such cases, the parents are to be offered training materials and asked to sign a form attesting to their decision not to have their children participate. If parents do not sign the form, a church administrator is to file a form noting the opt-out decision.

In the Oakland Diocese, “the option has always been available to parents who request it,” said Nancy Libby, diocesan coordinator of the safe environment for children project.

The bishops’ Administrative Committee, at its March 16 meeting, accepted the opt-out recommendation, which was supported by the National Review Board, the bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People and the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection.

The decision was announced May 15 and posted on the USCCB Web site as part of new regulations for future annual compliance audits. The audits are a way of checking to see if dioceses and eparchies are implementing the sex abuse prevention policies contained in the bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”

The 49-member Administrative Committee -- composed of the executive officers, committee chairmen and regional representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- is the highest decision-making body of the bishops apart from the entire body when it meets twice a year in general assembly.

The Web site contained a statement by the bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People noting the “reluctance from some parents who object to the church providing such training. The committee understands this concern.”

The committee added that “while achieving complete training of 100 percent of children in our programs at any moment in time is the goal we all share and strive for, that benchmark is unattainable due to many factors beyond our control in our dioceses/eparchies.”

If children are receiving safe environment training in their public schools they also may be excused from attending church-run programs, under the new regulations.

The new regulations state that future compliance audits will not judge a diocese or eparchy as compliant only if every eligible child and adult has participated in the safe environment program.

Future audits only need to verify that an ongoing program is in place and that there is proof that a reason exists for nonparticipation.

“The major focus here is on verifying that a program exists, and that the diocese/eparchy is doing what is humanly possible to educate children and adults in safe environments,” said the new regulations.

Another change is that the compliance audits starting in 2007 will be standardized to cover the 12-month period from July 1 to June 30 to conform with the school year and the fiscal year. Past audits were based on the 12-month period from the prior audit, which varied from diocese to diocese.

The 2006 audits will be limited to partial audits for those dioceses found noncompliant on aspects of the policy in 2005.
Full audits will only be done in dioceses making a request.

The bishops, the National Review Board and the Office of Child and Youth Protection are also working to develop mechanisms to judge the effectiveness of programs during the audit process.
Currently, audits are limited to determining if a program exists.
Future audits “must also determine the accuracy of the data provided to the auditors,” under the new guidelines. Currently, much of the verification is based on self-reporting.

The National Review Board also announced May 15 that it is accepting bids from organizations interested in conducting audits for the three-year period beginning July 1, 2007. Deadline for final proposals is this July 1 and the final selection of the auditor will be made Sept. 15, said the announcement.
Since the audits started in 2003, they have been done by the Gavin Group of Boston.


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