COLUMBIA — Children are a precious gift from God and if adults control access to children, properly monitor youth activities, stay aware, and maintain good communication, they are well on their way to providing a safe environment for children.
That was the message Deacon Alfred Payne gave to participants at a recent educational session on child abuse prevention. Deacon Payne is the director of the Diocese of Charleston’s Office of Child Protection Services and he spoke at a diocesan seminar on “Child Abuse Awareness and Creating a Safe Environment” at St. Joseph Church July 31.
Nearly 100 people attended what was one of many seminars that have been offered throughout the diocese. As mandated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” it is part of an awareness process to help safeguard children.
According to the results of an audit commissioned by the USCCB and released in January, the South Carolina diocese is in full compliance with the charter and even received praise for its educational/awareness program.
The diocese requires all of its employees to undergo the educational training within their first year of employment. All church employees and volunteers who have access to children or vulnerable adults are required to receive the training. In addition, all personnel must undergo a mandatory screening process that involves a background check.
The educational session began with a presentation by Father Ray Chase, clinical director of Illuminations for the Children’s Continuum of Catholic Charities in Baltimore, Md. Through the artwork and journals of two young victims whom he personally counseled, Father Chase helped others see the deep wounds of sexual abuse.
“If you leave here with a greater sensitivity and gain a deeper perspective, you leave with a resource,” Father Chase said. He added that pedophiles leave a potentially lethal virus in their victims and for some victims that virus results in suicide.
“Learn the reality of child abuse so you can be a conduit for healing,” Father Chase said.
Louisa Storen, the diocese’s victim assistance minister and a licensed social worker, discussed some of the misconceptions about child sexual abuse. She explained what steps should be taken to assist victims.
“When a child discloses abuse, please stay calm,” Storen advised. “Any look of displeasure or anger will cause the child to shut down.”
Storen gave participants her phone number, (800) 204-7955, and emphasized how essential counseling is for a victim’s healing process.
All presenters encouraged people to report abuse and if possible to notify the supervisor or pastor if they are not involved in the abuse. According to Deacon Payne, there are many helpful resources on the diocesan Web site that explain the reporting process. Participants were given an easy-to-follow flow chart that can also be found on the Web site.
Deacon Payne, who worked in law enforcement for 12 years, has been able to use the skills he learned as a detective sergeant and investigator to help diocesan and church workers be aware of dangerous situations and people.
He gave some indicators or “red flags” that would be cause for concern, such as over-interest in a child’s sexuality, buying expensive gifts, displaying unwanted affection and wanting to be alone with the child.
Deacon Payne told participants that if they are not sure if abuse is occurring, they should seek out a professional and stay attentive.
“But do not ignore your gut instinct,” he said.
During the seminar participants practiced awareness skills by reviewing two practical scenarios of abuse, naming the flags and offering suggestions.
“We really need your help to keep a watchful eye,” Maria Aselage, diocesan director of communications, said. “We need you to help the diocese keep every child safe.”
When an incident occurs at a parish, the Office of Communications and Information should be the central media contact. Aselage said that a parish should refer all reporters to her.
Anyone who has been the victim of child sexual abuse or misconduct by church personnel is urged to report such abuse to his or her local law enforcement agency, the diocesan Office of Child Protection Services or Louisa Storen.
Deacon Payne can give presentations at large parishes if they have at least 100 people committed to attend.
Upcoming seminars are Aug. 27-28 at Prince of Peace in Taylors, Oct. 21 at St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken, and Oct. 22-23 at Christ Our King in Mount Pleasant.