Keeping children, youth safe in the time of COVID-19

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Mary Jane Doerr, director of the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, records a reading during a taping of the annual Prevent Child Abuse Prayer Service and Pinwheel Planting on May 26, 2020, at the Healing Garden, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Soon after parishes and schools shut down in March, staff and administrators started reaching out to the archdiocese’s Office for Protection of Children and Youth about how to best keep children safe in this new environment, said Mary Jane Doerr, the office’s director.

“People want to do the right thing. They want to help. They want to protect children,” she said. “They were asking the questions, ‘What do we do?’ ‘How do we do this?’”

The office received so many inquiries that it developed a one-page flier titled “Safe Environment principles: Being safe in the time of COVID-19,” reiterating key points in the archdiocese’s plan of how to best protect children.

“That plan doesn’t really change with the circumstances,” Doerr said. “The principles remain the same and they are the principles we learned way back when everybody took the Protecting God’s Children training program. Caring adults can prevent child sexual abuse if they know what to look for and they respond.”

Those five principles are: know the warning signs; control access to children; monitor activity; be aware of the behavior of children/youth; and communicate.

Doerr offered some tips for those working virtually with children and youth during this time.

“The warning signs may present themselves a little differently” during the pandemic, Doerr explained.

For example, an adult emotionally manipulating children is one warning sign that the teacher or volunteer should speak up.

“I think the hardest thing we do is to reassure people is that when you question something, you’re right. You know what is the standard and what is not being done. Don’t question yourself, question them,” Doerr said.

One way the archdiocese is controlling access to children is by requiring teachers and staff to only interact with parents and children using their official archdiocesan email addresses. It’s a way for parents and children to know who those people are and that they are legitimately with the archdiocese.

Teachers and ministers should also be aware of signs of domestic abuse while they are working with children and youth remotely, Doerr said.

All staff and volunteers in the Archdiocese of Chicago have taken the Protecting God’s Children training and know that when someone raises a concern, it is something that should be looked into, she said.

“This is the hardest thing for people to do. Always, always, always communicate your concern,” Doerr said. “It’s not tattling.”

If a person is unsure of what to do, Doerr said to put the child at the center and make the decision that is best for the child.

“If I say that to somebody, they immediately know the right answer,” she said. “We need to assure our people that we want to know their concerns.”

When schools and parishes shut down, the Protecting God’s Children training program went online so all new employees and volunteers continue to be trained. Schools also have continued their safe environment lessons for students.

The archdiocese’s work with victim-survivors has also continued during the pandemic. Shortly after the shutdown, Thomas Tharayil, director of the Office of Assistance Ministry, reached out to adult victim-survivors to see how they were doing.

“What I started to hear from folks was they were lonely. They were just isolated,” he said.

The idea of creating an online gathering space for survivors who wanted to engage with other survivors formed in his mind. Tharayil had created similar in-person groups or interactions in the past.

This time, he set up a virtual group with survivors not just in the archdiocese but in neighboring communities and states.

“I just followed a very simple structure that I followed in the past, which tells you how long the meeting will go, lays out some ground rules to keep the meeting safe and allows for a chance for everyone to speak,” he said. “The meeting seemed to go over well and enough said they wanted to do it again.”

Tharayil committed to facilitating the meetings for 12 weeks, with the goal of having survivors take them over. After just a few weeks, he partnered with Jim Richter, a Chicago native and victim-survivor who lives in Minneapolis, who before the pandemic led monthly, in-person groups at Holy Family Church on Roosevelt Road. Now the groups are solely run by survivors.

The virtual groups are reaching more people who wouldn’t come to Chicago for the monthly group or for the annual healing Mass the archdiocese holds at Holy Family, he said.

This is just one part of the work Tharayil’s office does to help victim survivors.

“It’s important because they’ve come forward and said this happened and ask, ‘Is there a place for us in the church?’” he said, adding that part of the price they paid for being abused was a loss of their faith or not knowing where they belonged because it is difficult for them to be in a church at all, for example.

“For a lot of the victims that we work with, they want a space where they can say, ‘Look, I’m a victim-survivor of clergy sexual abuse. That is part of my story but I’m also a Catholic and my faith is important to me,’” Tharayil said.

They want to be able to participate in the church and not hide what happened to them. Many of them also want to use what happened to them to raise awareness of the issue and help protect children from going through what they did.

“That’s one of the things our office can do, and why we connect victim-survivors,” Tharayil said. “It’s so they are not alone in that process of trying to integrate their story.”


  • sexual abuse

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