For more than three decades the Diocese of Pittsburgh has sought to protect children from sexual abuse, well in advance of national directives issued in 2002.
In 1986, the diocese was among the first in the nation to develop a policy for responding to allegations of abuse by priests and deacons. The groundbreaking guidelines were updated in 1993 and have since been revised five more times as church officials learn more about how to protect everyone — including children, vulnerable adults and church personnel — from situations that can lead to harm.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops mandated a series of measures in the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” issued 16 years ago. The charter seeks to safeguard children, heal victims and provide accountability. The Diocese of Pittsburgh has always been found to be fully compliant.
“Jesus spoke of himself as the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for his flock,” Bishop David Zubik wrote in the diocese’s Code of Pastoral Conduct, revised in 2017. “As we follow him, we are all called to be good shepherds.”
The diocese adheres to four guiding principles: the safety of children is the first priority in any pastoral assignment; concern and support is to be shown for the victims/survivors and their families; all allegations of sexual abuse of minors must be turned over to civil authorities; and no priest or deacon who has sexually abused a child may serve in any ministry.
The diocesan Safe Environment Policy requires central administration, parish and school employees, and volunteers to complete six compliance requirements:
• Diocesan-wide database application for tracking compliance requirements;
• Review and signing of the Code of Pastoral Conduct;
• State Police Criminal Record Check;
• Department of Public Welfare Child Abuse History;
• Protecting God’s Children, an adult training program on how to recognize and prevent abuse;
• Review and signing of the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law and the requirements for mandated reporting of suspected child abuse.
Since 2007, the background checks have resulted in 51 potential volunteers being rejected because they had criminal records, according to Phyllis Haney, director of the diocesan Office for the Protection of Children and Young People. Some were registered sex offenders. Other crimes included indecent assault, internet solicitation of children, statutory rape, endangering the welfare of children and child pornography.
“We continually monitor all staff and volunteers in the diocese to ensure they are compliant with our policies,” Haney said.
The diocese trains those who have substantial contact with children to recognize the signs of abuse and to understand their responsibility to take action if abuse is suspected. Each parish designates a safe environment coordinator who is responsible for making sure the policies are enforced.
“In the training you learn about the minds of people who abuse,” said Karen Stack, safe environment coordinator at Holy Trinity Parish in Robinson Township. “Perpetrators describe how they groom children to trust them. It’s eye-opening.”
“Child protection is a very high priority,” said Renee Pollice, office manager at St. Louise de Marillac Parish in Upper St. Clair, who also handles safe environment duties. “We make sure every step is followed.”
An independent team of auditors visits the diocese every three years to examine documents, visit randomly selected parishes and schools, and interview the bishop and key staff members in diocesan administration.
Each year between the outside audits, members of the diocesan staff visit about 50 parishes and schools to conduct internal audits of child protection measures, and to coach the clergy and staff on ways to protect young people from abuse and respond if abuse is reported.
The independent auditors last October praised the diocese for going beyond the requirements of the charter and Pennsylvania law, as did the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, which provides education, support and training programs to protect children from abuse and neglect.
“The earlier that abuse is recognized and reported, the sooner it can be stopped,” said Haven Evans, director of training for the alliance. “Everyone has a role to play in protecting children from abuse, and the Diocese of Pittsburgh takes that role seriously.”
“The church is doing a good job of protecting our children,” said Fran Morrow, safe environment coordinator of St. Joseph Parish in Verona.
Suspected abuse can be reported to ChildLine 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-392-0313.