Schools, religious ed programs teach students to spot abuse

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2018

As students head back to school and religious education classes all across the archdiocese, they will be learning lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic — and how to help keep themselves safe from abuse.

Since the adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young people in 2002, the archdiocese has mandated that all schools and religious education programs include safe environment training for children. The state of Illinois has required similar training under Erin’s Law since 2010.

The idea is not that children are responsible for their own safety, said Mary Jane Doerr, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for the Protection of Children and Youth. The goal is to empower them to speak up when a situation or being around a certain person makes them uncomfortable.

“We have all these layers of protection,” Doerr said, indicating archdiocesan policies and procedures to prevent abuse of children, background checks of people who come in contact with children, the code of conduct adults must sign and training programs to help adults recognize the potential for abusive situations and prevent abuse from occurring. “The point is the student training is the last step, and it is there if someone who is a potential abuser gets through all those other layers.”

Such training also helps children in all areas of their lives, said Doerr and Mayra Flores, coordinator for safe environment programs. 

The training programs are explicitly required to help students — especially those in the upper grades — protect themselves from sexual abuse from known adults, including parents, relatives, friends’ parents, coaches and others.

“This isn’t here to protect our kids from the clergy — or not just the clergy,” Doerr said. “This is here to protect our kids in a society where sexual abuse is rampant.”

“Too often, we tell children you need to respect adults,” Flores said. “But children need to know if something’s not right, if they are uncomfortable, they can tell a trusted adult.”

That has become even more clear in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the conviction of Larry Nasser, the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. The Aug. 14 release of the grand jury investigation into clerical sex abuse of children in six Pennsylvania dioceses also reinforces the need for vigilance.

“Jesus told us to protect children,” Doerr said. “We can’t be complacent. We have to be consistent about how we do it and that we do it.”

Doerr and Flores said they prefer that regular classroom teachers or catechists present the material from one of five approved curriculums.

ringing in a new person makes it seem like an extra thing, she said, and maybe not something that can be talked about in normal circumstances.

Parents should be given materials as well, so they can reinforce what children are learning at school.

Flores said she encourages schools to present materials in the autumn, before the holidays, and then reinforce the lessons periodically throughout the year.

Flores and Doerr said that the vast majority of schools and parishes comply with the requirements. Between 85 and 90 percent return an audit form explaining their procedures each year, Doerr said, and often, those that don’t return the audit are found to be complying with the requirement when they are contacted.

“Sometimes they just run out of staff and time to do the paperwork,” she said. 

The Office of Protection for Children and Youth is available to help parishes comply, whether they need help figuring out how to use one of the five curricula that have been approved or making sure they fill out the report properly.

For more about the archdiocesan programs or to report abuse, visit or call 800-994-6200.


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